Back in 2004 a group of researchers and analysts at Princeton led by Robert Socolow published the “wedge analysis” that captured the problem of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in a pithy way that presented solutions in a manner that a lot of folks found very appealing – they presented their own scenarios but did it in a way that was flexible and allowed readers to dial technologies up and down to reflect their own beliefs and preferences.
Socolow has revisited that work and done some meditating on why in the intervening seven years we have not only failed to start to solve the problem but in fact have been making the hole we are in deeper.
Andrew Revkin (in his continuing capacity as a New York Times blogger, even though he has left the reporting business as a day job at the Times in favor of generally nurturing and studying environmental journalism at Pace University) summarizes and presents that work and reactions to it in a way that really makes for truly required reading.
Employing one of the best things about the blog form Revkin collects in a new post email exchanges he had with Socolow and various academics and experts about the essay and conversations springing from it.
In the course of that conversation Socolow presents a bit of a searing critique of himself and all others who have been trying to provoke action on global warming:
Worldwide, policymakers are scuttling away from commitments to regulations and market mechanisms that are tough enough to produce the necessary streams of investments. Given that delay brings the potential for much additional damage, what is standing in the way of action?
Familiar answers include the recent recession, the political influence of the fossil fuel industries, and economic development imperatives in countries undergoing industrialization. But, I submit, advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have.
And one of the responding voices, (David Victor, author of “Global Warming Gridlock” and a professor at the University of California, San Diego) agrees with Socolow on substance but disagrees with Socolow on specific strategy and tactics arguing that the policy advocacy community has actually been doing a pretty good job of broadcasting the messages that Socolow is saying need to be heard but that the problem is much deeper and broader:
Outside of a few hyper green countries—like the EU15—climate change is just one of many issues. Like most environmental issues it comes and goes. You can’t sustain action in these countries without either finding ways to make action costless (or at least invisible) or linking action to other things people care about. The costless/invisibility strategy is a big part of the reason why the world (notably the US) did so well in cutting ozone depleting substances.
But it won’t work on climate—or at least not yet—which means plan B. Talk about how climate links to energy security and such. That’s now happening and it is having an effect (across the board the polling data are much more favorable to regulation on greenhouse gases when the questions focus on other benefits). Obviously we can’t over-sell this approach because it won’t stop warming and it easily leads to mischievous policies that hide true intentions and lard the economy with lots of extra costs. But all else equal, the more “reluctant” a country is to do something on climate itself the more important it is to talk about other goals as well. The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.
Revkin also provides us with a quote from Prof. Victor on the literary and historical metaphor that should be expunged from the climate advocacy vocabulary:
A last word—a plea really. Let’s all stop evoking Galileo. Whenever someone feels under siege they look to Galileo because he was right and persistent and his critics were both wrong and egregious. But the metaphor is hard to use effectively because what really matters is ex ante. For every Galileo there were thousands of others who were hacks. Maybe the one thing that we have learned from Galileo is that it is unwise to punish dissenters, and that’s a good message. But it is interesting to read the Tea Party stuff on climate and see that they use Galileo as well. Everyone is dueling over the same metaphor—they just can’t agree on who is Galileo and who’s the Pope.