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Climate Change John Kerry argues for climate change action at Ross Sea reception

Published on March 21st, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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John Kerry: The Science Is Screaming At Us

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March 21st, 2013 by
 
Secretary of State John Kerry gave a barn-burner of a speech about climate change at National Geographic’s Ross Sea Conservation reception earlier this week, in which he renewed his calls to “respond to what the science and the facts are telling us.” Oddly enough, though, he hung the meat of his speech on the same hook that former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney deployed last year. It’s an old argument that dates back to the 17th century and we kind of made fun of Romney over that, so it’s only fair that we take a closer look at what Secretary Kerry said, too.

John Kerry argues for climate change action at Ross Sea reception

Ross Sea
by cortto via flickr

Pascal’s Wager for Climate Change

Both Romney and Kerry adopt a variation of Pascal’s Wager, an argument devised by 17th century scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal. In the context of a newly enlightened society that was practically giddy over the potentials of scientific discovery, Pascal came up with an ingenious rationalization for the existence of God. Or, at least, for living a life that assumes the existence of God.

The basic idea is that it makes common sense to bet on the existence of God, even if there is nothing in science that could count as proof. The benefits of living a “good” life are many and the costs are nil, so you come out ahead even if it turns out that there is no God.

On the flip side, living a not-so-good life could cost you plenty, not only while you’re here on Earth but also after you die, if it turns out that you were wrong and God really does exist after all.

Apply that to climate change and you get the basic argument that, whether or not you accept the science in support of an urgent global warming management strategy, the benefits of adopting a low-carbon approach are many in terms of improved environmental and public health, which more than makes up for the cost of developing a new clean energy infrastructure, especially if you factor in the creation of new green jobs.

Mitt Romney and Climate Change

During last year’s campaign, We noticed that Mitt Romney had reformulated Pascal’s Wager into his “No Regrets” policy.

Romney articulated No Regrets in an online discussion hosted by sciencedebate.org. It works like this: You accept that a warming trend is occurring but the causes have not been identified, and the long term impacts might not be that bad. However, regardless of all that, reducing emissions is still a good thing, so it’s still worthwhile to invest federal dollars in researching new energy technologies.

That’s all well and good, but when you poke around in No Regrets, there’s really not much there in terms of actual public policy leading to reduced emissions. Sure, you can research all you want, but without financial incentives and a vigorous technology transfer program, all that research is going to languish in the laboratory.

John Kerry and Climate Change

Though he uses the flip side of Pascal’s Wager, which he restates as “What’s the worst that can happen?” Kerry adopts the same basic argument in his Ross Sea speech, in which he makes the case against climate change skeptics:

“What if the other people are wrong and we are right; what’s the worst that can happen? The destruction of the ecosystem as we live with it today.”

Given that choice, as a matter of public responsibility it makes common sense to configure public policy around the available science and adopt a vigorous plan to reduce carbon emissions. And if it turns out that all that scientific evidence was wrong, here’s the worst that could happen:

“Well, the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.”

Do You “Believe” In Climate Change?

That brings us to the whole idea that climate change is something that you either “believe in” or not, as if there was anything soulful, spiritual, emotional or otherwise non-sciency argument going on here.


Climate change is science, and the useful thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it takes belief out of the equation and replaces it with a bet. That focuses public policy attention where it belongs, on the available evidence here and now, not on some other, hidden state of reality.

So yes, we were a little unfair to Romney when we got on his case for using Pascal’s Wager to argue for a federal role in climate change policy, but in light of Kerry’s speech (and Kerry’s climate change position overall), our only regret is that Mr. Romney didn’t carry the argument far enough.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

    To Jimmy: we have an article about your concerns prominently linked in our sidebar: http://cleantechnica.com/2012/03/02/clean-energy-is-needed-now-climate-scientists-climate-economists-say/

    And a post up today with a new video more simply explaining the story: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/03/22/price-of-carbon-must-see-video/

    We are not here to spend our day explaining common sense to people. For basics on climate science, or even an in-depth perspective, check out: http://www.skepticalscience.com/

  • Jimmy Doogie

    The assumption that the benefits of Global Warmist policy are infinite and the costs immaterial is simply rubbish. In fact, Global Warmists are proposing an enormous gamble with other peoples’ money to avert an uncertain unquantifiable harm using solutions of dubious merit.

    Global Warmists in essence want to gamble TRILLIONS and TRILLIONS of dollars societal wealth over decades and maybe centuries on bets that (1) global warming exists, (2) the policies they advocate will actually stop this global warming in any material way and (3) the benefits of averting global warming will more than make up for the TRILLIONS AND TRILLIONS of dollars of spending and opportunities lost by not dedicating those funds to other more beneficial ends.

    Even if we accept global warming is real, (1) it is not clear at all that the costs of global warming outweigh the benefits (and there are benefits to a warmer world, people), and (2) the solutions they propose offer no hope of stopping the trend. They amount mainly as futile economic self-flagellation, in which wealthy civilizations are made to do penance (by burning their wealth) for their sins (global warming). The penance does not undo the sin, it just cleanses the conscience.

    Consider it this way, who really believes that spending trillions and trillions of dollars and eroding economic growth materially across the globe (thereby causing many more people to live in poverty) over decades and centuries is a price we should pay to keep us from losing, in most places, 10 ft of coastline?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Please go away and take your ignorant crap with you.

      • Jimmy Doogie

        A very rational and logical response. What is ignorant about my post, pray tell?

        Let us focus on a discrete policy question to help focus the mind. The Keystone XL Pipeline. Global Warmists oppose this because they think development of oil sands is bad bad bad. Ok, but if we don’t build it, the oil gets collected anyway and is shipped off to China where it will be burned. So not building the pipeline offers no benefit at all as far as stopping global warming, but it will cause economic harm to the country. In fact, having it shipped to China is worse because it will mean more shipping of oil (from Canada to China and from the rest of the world to the US to make up for US voluntary refusal to burn Canadian oil) and increased CO2 emissions. Ok, so if blocking it will not yield any global warming benefit (and in fact produces environmental harm) and will economically harm the country, why does anybody block it?

        Answer, because Global Warmists are not rational, but emotional creatures. They want to engage in futile acts to satisfy their conscience and heap harm on people they blame for global warming — oil companies and the American consumer. They want the country to self-flagellate.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Here’s the short and sweet.

          This site is about ways to switch over to clean energy and put fossil fuels behind us.

          It is not about arguing whether climate change is happening, whether the Earth is round or flat or whether the Sun orbits the Earth or the other way round,. Those issues are settled science.

          If you want to participate in a discussion about ways to minimize climate change you are welcome. But if you want act like some right wing whacko dittohead you are not.

          Your choice. Drop the crap or get blacklisted.

          • Jimmy Doogie

            Bob, I have not actually questioned “global warming” or “climate change” or whatever the label of the month is. I question the rationality of the policies pushed to solve the purported Global Warming, assuming it is a given and the rather ham-fisted cost-benefit analyses done to justify them. Furthermore, banning discussion of the truth of a particular view and threatening banning or blacklisting for daring to question that accepted dogma is not scientific at all, but rather dogmatic and more appropriate to a religious mode of thinking.

            It is actually quite ironic that you invoke centuries old controversies over the heliocentric and earth-centered universes to criticize me, when in fact it is you threatening to ban (excommunicate?) me for failing to respect an accepted dogma. If the internet existed long ago, one could almost imagine the Pope typing out a response very similar to yours to an upstart Copernicus for challenging the Ptolemy model of the universe. Just promise me that if you blacklist me, you’ll leave my posts so that people can see who the mideival Pope here is :).

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sorry Jimmy. I’m not going to play your game.

          • Jimmy Doogie

            Which game? You mean the one where I challenge your view with facts and you retort with contrary facts until a common consensus is reached? I think that’s called science and logical debate.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Bye-bye Jimmy.

          • DK

            Bob_Wallace, why not explain to Jimmy exactly why you think he is wrong instead of just banning him? Do you have a coherent argument?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Perhaps you failed to read this?

            “Here’s the short and sweet.

            This site is about ways to switch over to clean energy and put fossil fuels behind us.

            It is not about arguing whether climate change is happening, whether the Earth is round or flat or whether the Sun orbits the Earth or the other way round,. Those issues are settled science.

            If you want to participate in a discussion about ways to minimize climate change you are welcome. But if you want act like some right wing whacko dittohead you are not.

            Your choice. Drop the crap or get blacklisted.”

        • Thor Russell

          There are unjustified assumptions about economics there. I’m not from the USA so I’m not discussing that, but am interested in the worldwide consumption of oil, and its impact. According to simple economics, there is a worldwide demand for oil and supply of oil at a particular price. The price is set where those two curves meet. Given we are not yet supply constrained by peak oil, there is roughly where things are atm.

          Now Canadian oil sands are some of the more expensive and dirty to produce, so worldwide if they had to ship to China, there is a pretty good chance they would not be able to compete and China would buy oil with a lower footprint (and probably a country you like less than Canada, but thats beside the point). However investing in Canadian oil by making it easier to sell (i.e. a pipeline give lower shipping costs) makes it more competitive than it otherwise would be, and more likely to be produced instead of some less dirty oil somewhere around the world.

          Finally investing in developing something such as oil or renewable energy makes it cheaper. e.g. If you build oil infrastructure, then it gets used because it has already been paid for, hence the supply curve changes slightly, it meets the demand curve at a slightly different point, and more oil in total IS used. It is not true that it would get used anyway.

          If you build the pipeline then more Canadian oil will be produced (as it will cost less to produce and ship), at the expense of less dirty oil and alternatives such as renewables and spending money on more efficient cars.

          I am not sure if you actually understand this and deny it, or havn’t thought about it, either way think about the economics and don’t jump to unjustified assumptions.

          • Tina Casey

            Thank you all for a stimulating discussion (yes including you Jimmy, if only because people who spend a lot of time trolling clean energy sites are too busy to do any real damage elsewhere — hopefully). The bottom line is that in the context of population growth and rising standards of living, the global ecosystem cannot indefinitely support the practice of digging up sequestered carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I really doubt we can stop the production of Canadian tar sand oil. It’s going to either flow through a pipeline to the southern US, be refined, and shipped to other countries or it will somehow make its way to the international market via some other route.

            The same will hold for Arctic Ocean oil. The world will demand fuel even if its use is wrecking the planet.

            We’ve burned up the easy to get to, easy to extract stuff. We’re forced, by our lack of alternatives for transportation to burn more expensive fuel. Unless the cost of fuel rose significantly I don’t see that changing.

            The hope is that EVs and PHEVs continue to improve in range and drop in price. We are getting closer to the point where initial purchase price won’t scare off customers and sales volumes will grow at a higher rate. As sales/manufacturing volume increases prices will fall.

            Carlos Ghosen has repeatedly stated that once manufacturing volumes reach approximately 500,000 units per year the cost of an EV should be the same as an equally equipped ICEV. At that point most people will opt for the car with a significantly lower operating cost.

            And when that happens we’ll see oil extraction from places like the Canadian oil sands cease.

            Film went away because digital camera manufacturing volume drove the price of a digital camera low enough to not scare buyers. Coupled with the extremely low ‘per shot’ cost and convenience digital kicked film to the curb and did so very quickly.

            I expect the same to happen with liquid fuel vehicles. Sales are growing at an accelerating rate. Prices are dropping, significantly this year. We need some range improvements and we’ll be well on our way to phasing out oil for personal transportation.

          • Doogie Jimmy

            Need to post under a different name as Pope Bob excommunicated me for heresy.

            What I think you’re saying, Thor, is that the point of obstructing projects like the Keystone XL pipeline is to drive up the cost of using oil at the margins and thereby reduce oil consumption worldwide. I think there is some rationality in your argument, but I expect any resulting reduction in worldwide oil consumption (and related CO2 reduction “benefits” (which are dubious to begin with since they will likely do nothing to halt “global warming”)) will be small as compared to the economic carnage that will be wreaked on the people affected, particularly given that the cost of alternatives is so much higher. Because the cost of alternative energy sources is so much higher, demand for oil is quite inelastic (at least over short time frames) and so people will be compelled to sacrifice other things to continue burning oil. In the longer term, demand may be somewhat more elastic, but is more likely to be reduced not through alternatives but by changes in living patterns so that people travel less and accept being colder in the winter and hotter in the summer (i.e., reducing peoples’ standard of living by forcing them to live otherwise than they would given the choice). Either way you’re increasing peoples’ cost of loving and decreasing their standard of living. Meanwhile the world gets warmer anyway because the billions of Chinese and Indians aren’t going to stop improving their living standards to serve environmental gods.

            I would respectfully submit that you consider how this mode of thinking is very like a terrorist’s insofar as the intent seems to be to compel society at large to modify their behavior against their will not through rational debate and persuasion (i.e., convincing the public that they would be better off by voluntarily changing their behavior), but by artificially driving up costs of living through thousands of small acts of obstruction and destruction (i.e., by artificially making life worse for people if they don’t change). From an economic standpoint, blocking good investments likely to raise living standards for many people is really no different from blowing up existing valuable infrastructure or driving up the costs of transacting in the normal way by engaging in random acts of intimidation and violence. The fanaticism which drives such coercive conduct (and the core conviction that the bad actor is actually the good guy) is very similar too in both cases as well.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Jimmy, you can sneak in another door but if you fail to behave yourself you can be quickly kicked again.

            Now to your points. First, oil has nothing to do with people keeping cool in the summer. We use almost no oil for electricity except in Hawaii where it is being replaced with renewables.

            There is considerable elasticity in the use of oil as was demonstrated in the oil embargo we underwent a few decades back. If you have any doubt about that, simply position yourself where you are able to see the number of single occupant vehicles commuting daily. Just doubling vehicle occupancy cuts oil usage in half.

            The cost of moving to an EV or a PHEV is, in fact, not higher. Both pay for themselves well with fuel savings well before the useful lifetime of the vehicle is reached. Yes, there is an initial higher purchase price but that “hurt” is balanced by greatly lower operating costs.

            Now I’ll ask you kindly to drop your “terrorist”, “fanaticism” type lingo and play nice. Discuss like a grownup.

    • http://www.energyquicksand.com/ Edward Kerr

      Jimmy,

      It appears that you have been “excommunicated” but just in case you read this I wanted to add a half pence here. Gambling: Whether you accept AGW or not it’s real. It’s not a matter of ‘belief’ and facts don’t change simply because you ignore or deny them. Unfortunately it turns out that the consequences are more dire than you can imagine. The real gamblers here are the oil companies who have already extracted trillions of dollars and now wish to gamble with our lives. Now, even a person with limited mental capacity understands that the fossil fuels that power our, so called, civilization are a ‘finite’ resource. They will run out soon. Consequently, in order to prevent the calamity that a steep decline in energy production will mean we MUST spend whatever it takes to transition to a carbon neutral energy paradigm. Crying about being forced to “self flagellate” because you were born into the country that has used the lions share of energy and now must “do penance” shows how self centered and ill informed you are. It’s only if we hold on to fossil fuels like a monkey in a coconut trap will there be any adjustments or penance involved. If we spend the resources necessary to make the change now we will have at least a small chance of avoiding extinction. If we fail to act and act seriously today we won’t have any resources left to make the needed investments. We don’t have decades or centuries. We are going to lose more than a little sand.

      I will give you one thing. It may already be too late (absent a global effort to mitigate the warming that will be caused by the feedback of venting methane from arctic stores) so you can continue to support global suicide with a clean conscience.

      About now you’re probably asking yourself what is this guy drinking or smoking? Here is the rabbit hole: { http://arctic-news.blogspot.co.uk/p/global-extinction-within-one-human.html } Go down there and then do some research (there are lots of references) then come back and ask Bob to forgive your ignorance.

      Best regards,
      Edward Kerr

      • Bob_Wallace

        The oil companies are not gambling. Like the tobacco companies they are making profits while fully aware of the results of their activities All the major oil companies have admitted that global climate change is happening and that it is due largely to CO2 emissions.

        Over time oil will become more and more expensive as we use up the easiest to acquire and EVs will gain range and become more affordable. At that point oil profits will start to diminish but it will take several years to drastically reduce the use of oil.

        As oil profits shrink watch for oil companies to become more active in other businesses. They are totally aware of what is happening and that they are playing a time limited game.

        Chevron, for example, is heavily involved in geothermal. That’s a natural pursuit for a company that has expertise in drilling holes in the ground. They have advanced knowledge as to where and how to drill.

        • http://www.energyquicksand.com/ Edward Kerr

          Bob,

          I know that oil companies are aware of the problem and some are quietly trying to position themselves to switch when the remaining reserves become unprofitable to extract. Where they are gambling is with time. As I’ve averred it’s our (and their) lives that are ‘in the pot” so to speak.
          Regards,
          Ed

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