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National Academy of Sciences on Climate Risk Management

Posted on 17 May 2011 by dana1981

The USA's National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) was ordered by Congress several years ago to offer “action-oriented advice” on how the nation should be reacting to the potential consequences of climate change. America's Climate Choices, the final in a series of five reports, was recently published.  The committee that authored the report included not only renowned scientists and engineers but also economists, business leaders, an ex-governor, a former congressman, and other policy experts.  The press release summarizes the report's basic scientific conclusions:

"The new report reaffirms that the preponderance of scientific evidence points to human activities -- especially the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred over the last several decades.  This trend cannot be explained by natural factors such as internal climate variability or changes in incoming energy from the sun."

Kind of a no-brainer there, as Skeptical Science readers know.  The real value of the report is in its recommendations to policymakers regarding how to adddress the risks posed by that global warming and associated climate change.  The NRC provides a Report in Brief which summarizes why immediate action would be wise:

• The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.


• Some climate change impacts, once manifested, will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years, and will be difficult or impossible to undo. In contrast, many actions taken to respond to climate change could be reversed or scaled back, if they some how prove to be more stringent than actually needed.


• Every day around the world, major investments are being made in equipment and infrastructure that can “lock in” commitments to more greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. Getting the relevant incentives and policies in place now will provide crucial guidance for these investment decisions.


• Many of the actions that could be taken to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts are common sense investments that will offer protection against natural climate variations and extreme events.

Although it doesn't propose any specific policies for achieving the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the report does highlight the key mechanism: a carbon pricing system.

"The most effective way to amplify and accelerate current state, local, and private sector efforts, and to minimize overall costs of meeting a national emissions reduction target, is with a comprehensive, nationally-uniform price on CO2 emissions, with a price trajectory sufficient to drive major investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies. In addition, strategically-targeted complementary policies are needed to ensure progress in key areas of opportunity where market failures and institutional barriers can limit the effectiveness of a carbon pricing system."

The Full Report, which is well worth reading, addresses the issue of uncertainty and how we should address it from a risk management standpoint:

"Given the inherent complexities of the climate system, and the many social, economic, technological, and other factors that affect the climate system, we can expect always to be learning more and to be facing uncertainties regarding future risks. This is not, however, a reason for inaction. Rather, the challenge for society is to acknowledge these uncertainties and respond accordingly, just as is done in many areas of life. For example, people buy home insurance to protect against potential losses, and businesses plan contingently for a range of possible future economic conditions."

Indeed, while "skeptics" often tout uncertainty as a reason to delay action, uncertainty is a double-edged sword; it is possible that future climate-related risks will be less serious than current projections indicate, but it is also possible they will be even more serious. Uncertainty is not our friend, or a reason for inaction.

Unfortunately, but predictably, U.S. politicians are behaving like, well, politicians.  Those who oppose carbon pricing for ideological or political reasons (primarily Republicans) immediately sought excuses to ignore the report's findings.  For example, Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX):

“I see nothing substantive in this report that adds to the knowledge base necessary to make an informed decision about what steps — if any — should be taken to address climate change”

Of course you don't, Mr. Barton.  And of course Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) followed suit:

"What is clear and irrefutable is that the [academy's] proposals to address climate change would impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."

This is a rather odd statement, considering that the NRC report did not propose any specific policies to address climate change.  It appears that Mr. Inhofe believes that any policy involving a carbon pricing mechanism would "impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."  But of course we know this is untrue.  The benefits of carbon pricing outweigh the costs, which are relatively small, several times over.  Indeed this myth is very popular amongst "skeptics", as we have had to debunk it when previously propagated by David Montgomery, John Christy, Richard Lindzen, Christopher Monckton, and many Congressional Republicans.  In fact there is a consensus amongst economists with climate expertise that the "skeptics" are wrong on this issue.

And so we see the usual pattern of scientific experts advising that urgent action is both necessary and beneficial, but a minority political party having enough power to obstruct any progress, placing their ideology above the welfare of the nation and planet.  Nevertheless, the NRC report contains a great deal of good information and is well worth reading for those of us who prefer a reality-based view of the world to an ignorant, ideological view.

Follow the links below for related titles from the America's Climate Change reports.

Watch the America's Climate Choices videos.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 17:

  1. A brief discussion of how “Many factors complicate and impede public understanding of climate change” on page 35 of the NRC report includes:

    "Most people rely on secondary sources for information, especially the mass media; and some of these sources are affected by concerted campaigns against policies to limit CO2 emissions, which promote beliefs about climate change that are not well-supported by scientific evidence. U.S. media coverage sometimes presents aspects of climate change that are uncontroversial among the research community as being matters of serious scientific debate. Such factors likely play a role in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change, along lines of political ideology, that has been observed in the United States."

    Although this statement is specific to the USA, I suspect that the same situation exists in many other countries of the world.
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  2. I like the point in the second bullet about how easy it would be to reverse course if we later found that the 'uncertainties' surrounding climate science caused us to overshoot on avoidance efforts.

    It nicely counters the nonsense about 'massive costs'. If we were to start implementing significant clean energy policies now it'd still be decades before they were up to a large scale and imposing those 'massive costs'... which means that if Inhofe and the like were correct we'd have plenty of time to observe the growing problem and switch back to fossil fuels... since in their reality we'd also be seeing no further warming over those decades.

    Might be a way to call them on their BS. Build into global warming legislation that clean energy funding gets pulled if it is costing XX% more than fossil fuel energy or if global temperature anomalies decline from one decade to the next. That would 'protect' us from the problems they claim to foresee so there should then be no reason to oppose the legislation. Of course they would anyway because all their concerns are a smokescreen for propping up the fossil fuel industry, but it'd be easier to make everyone see that.
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  3. consensus amongst economists with climate expertise
    --------------------
    Waouh! a consensus among economists, all climate experts in addition; that must be a great family
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  4. CBD - yes, this is a very good point. If the "skeptics" were right and a carbon price did begin to cripple the economy, it could simply be scaled back if the public so demanded.

    I find it very frustrating that there is no intelligent reason not to implement a carbon price, some exceptionally compelling reasons to implement one, and yet we're still not doing it.
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  5. 3. the fritz - Must be said, "consensus among economists" doesn't really seem plausible, what ever the target.

    Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, "On the one hand on the other"

    Harry S Truman
    http://www.economist.com/node/2208841?story_id=2208841
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  6. I'm glad that one of the most reputable scientific organization tackled the problem of managing the risk. This is at the very heart of the problem we are facing. And, like it or not, the National Academy of Sciences is "Where the Nation turns for Independent, Expert Advice".
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  7. "impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."

    Australian readers might be more familiar with this in phrased in slightly different language:

    "It's a great big new tax on everything!"

    Which is particularly ironic, given that "it" (being a carbon price) only taxes carbon emissions, and that the promulgator of the above soundbite was instrumental in imposing the only "great big new tax on everything" (i.e. the GST) that Australia has seen for the last few decades...
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  8. @ Bern. Yes, thank you again for exposing the Rank Hypocrisy of Tony Abbott. Unless I lived as a total hermit, there is no way that I can avoid the full impact of a GST in virtually *every* facet of my life. By contrast, my use of public transport & green electricity means that my exposure to a carbon tax will be incredibly minimal-& can be reduced further still via some very sensible actions on my part.
    Its also interesting how Abbott is demanding that Gillard seek a mandate for the Carbon Tax, because she failed to announce it before the last election-yet again he was instrumental in putting together Work Choices, a policy which was brought in *without* a mandate from the electorate! His hypocrisy knows no bounds!
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  9. Marcus: yes, hypocrisy and politicians seem to often go hand-in-hand. However, I think that we should be careful not to tar all politicians with the same brush, when many are acting without a full appreciation of the situation. Hopefully, though, John's book, and publications like this NAS report, will open the eyes of the more honest amongst the political ranks, who still endeavour to do what they think is best for their electorate.

    All it takes are a few prominent 'conversions' to the science, and some media coverage, for the average joe sixpack to think "hey, there might be something in this global warming thing after all...".

    As an example - I was talking to my mother recently, and she was surprised to hear that there was some substance to global warming - she thought it was just another non-issue the politicians were getting upset about. So there is a lot of ignorance (in the 'lack of knowledge & understanding' sense of the word) amongst the electorate. That's what we need to work to correct. I gave a presentation at my work a few weeks ago on global warming, and the response was along the lines of "Wow, I didn't know that!"...
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  10. Bern, you're right. I think the biggest use of the book among politicians will be quite specific. Those who are interested _will_ read it.

    They know better than any of us which particular politician has which particular misconception(s). They'll be able to say "Hey, you don't need to read the whole thing. Just have a look at page/ chapter/ paragraph ... and tell me what you think." Very useful.

    And when the yesbuts come in reply, the references to the real science will be easily accessible. (I wouldn't mind betting a few of them get the phone apps to help out.)
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  11. I hope someone will soon be reviewing another paper (Fall et al), which not only confirms the temperature trend (in the US), despite the belief of certain individuals; but also shows that peer-review works (as long as the paper is eventually accepted and published, of course) and that so-called skeptics are not prevented from publishing such work by an imaginary conspiracy. One paper, three proofs - what more could anyone want ?
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    Response:

    [DB] A review is planned.

  12. @1. Badgersouth

    "I suspect that the same situation exists in many other countries of the world. "

    If I'm not mistaken, it is mostly limited to the U.S., Canada, Australia, England and I guess New Zealand (all English speaking).
    It has been, at least in part, intentionally spread to these countries by organizations like CEI.


    "The roots of Australia’s climate denial: how the IPA almost single handedly kicked it off"

    "Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in 1996, which began strategising to develop the Australian arm of their campaign to stop the Kyoto Protocol, which negotiators were just one year away from concluding"

    http://watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/the-roots-of-australias-climate-denial-how-the-ipa-almost-singly-handedly-kicked-it-off/


    And, Pat Michaels, Robert Balling and Fred Singer helped found the skeptic organization European Science and Envionment Forum, (ESEF) in 1996.


    @10. adelady

    Reporters, journalists, talk show hosts and such need the phone apps too.
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  13. "What is clear and irrefutable is that the [academy's] proposals to address climate change would impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."

    What I love about this claim is the number of ways we can mitigate CO2 emissions *without* imposing massive costs-& with a number of side-benefits aside from addressing climate change.
    For example, I worked out that the average peak-time commuter burns about 100L of petrol just in idling. This amounts to almost 250kg of CO2 per commuter per year. Even if we're talking only 1 million commuters, that's still 250,000t of CO2 per year-just from people wasting their time in traffic jams. Yet Sen. Inhofe would have us believe that eliminating these traffic jams would be too costly & of no benefit. Well, it certainly would be costly to the oil industry, who'll be selling 100L less petrol per car, per year.
    Anyway, sorry if this is off-topic, but I really felt the need to point out, again, how out of touch the likes of Abbott & Inhofe actually are.
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  14. Sailrick @ 12

    "If I'm not mistaken, it is mostly limited to the... England... "

    I'm not sure I agree with England as in the UK being in that category. The UK is not in general terms in denial about climate change.

    With 83% of the UK public apparently viewing climate change as a current or imminent threat http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/31/public-belief-climate-change

    Add to that the fact that yesterday 17/05/2011 "Britain pledged to cut carbon pollution in half by 2025 (from 1990 levels)" OK so the devil is in the detail, but that is as the NY Times put it "...A striking example of a government committing to big environmental initiatives while also pursuing austerity measures.”

    http://climateprogress.org/2011/05/17/britain-pledges-to-cut-carbon-pollution-in-half-by-2025/

    As for Scotland the first minister Alex Salmond does not give a hoot about what people say is possible or not and simply ignores the nay sayers and is now now comitting the Scottish to "generating the equivalent of 100 per cent of Scotland’s own electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020" http://www.newenergyworldnetwork.com/renewable-energy-news/by-technology/water/scotland-reinforces-100-renewables-by-2020.html

    The UK is not in any way either in or on the US GOP / Tea party style "road to doom" denial train, despite what the disinformers would have you believe.
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    Response:

    [DB] Hot-linked URLs.

  15. Well ...

    ... write the same words of other people - and otherwise. Let me quote the words Kevin Trenberth ( More knowledge, less certainty, 2010.):

    „So here is my prediction: the uncertainty in AR5′s climate predictions and projections will be much greater than in previous IPCC reports ...”
    “Is it not a reasonable expectation that as knowledge and understanding increase over time, uncertainty should decrease? But while our knowledge of certain factors does increase, so does our understanding of factors we previously did not account for or even recognize.

    Trenberth repeats the arguments Earth System Models: The Next Generation, Meehl & Hibbard, 2006.:
    “However, these components will introduce new feedbacks that will need to be understood through the analysis of sparse observations related to our limited understanding of how these components function in the climate system. These could include, for example, aerosol/cloud/climate feedbacks, vegetation/ocean/biogeochemistry/climate feedbacks.”

    Of course I know that the interpretation (and explaining) the uncertainty must be based on the following recommendations ( The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks, Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011.):
    “Atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth of the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, has explicitly warned that unless such seemingly paradoxical results are communicated carefully, the more complex modelling being used in climate simulations for the upcoming fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may confuse both the public and decision-makers, thereby reducing their willingness to act.
    The discourse of scientists can be a further source of confusion. For example, scientists do not normally repeat facts that are widely accepted among them, focusing instead on the uncertainties that pose the most challenging problems. As a result, lay observers can get an exaggerated sense of scientific uncertainty and controversy, unless a special effort is made to remind them of the broad areas of scientific agreement. Even that may fail unless it is made clear how 'scientific consensus' (as represented in the IPCC process for assimilating and deliberating evidence) differs from that in everyday life.”
    “But understanding risk requires more than just knowing risk estimates People also need cognitive representations (or 'mental models') of the processes creating and controlling the risks, and thus causing uncertainty about them. For example, they may need to know how warmer oceans affect tropical storms, marine phytoplankton and winter precipitation, or how rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels lead to increased ocean acidification. Knowledge of such processes allows people to follow public debates and grasp the rationale for alternative policies. It protects (or 'inoculates') them from being 'blind-sided' by unfamiliar facts or perspectives. It affords them the warranted feelings of self-efficacy needed before acting.”

    In this work also presents an interesting "uncertainty. " It shows, however - by the way - how these uncertainties are large (including economic), and that does not relieve the researchers explain: „... 'blind-sided' by unfamiliar facts or perspectives.”, because only this will help policy makers make decisions.
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  16. So, Arkadiusz, it seems that you really do understand the function of the "Copy" & "Paste" keys on your computer. However, you clearly still fail to understand basic scientific principles.
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  17. Turns out that "America's Climate Choices" is actually the fifth (not the fourth) in a series of NRC reports on climate change. The lead sentence of this article should be edited accordingly.
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