NY Times Nocera vs. James Hansen on Keystone

Joe Nocera is having an important debate with James Hansen.   Nocera celebrates Hansen as a pioneer climate scientist and as a good economist.  Hansen demands a carbon tax now.   All economists agree with adopting this efficient policy.  As I write in Climatopolis, I’m a supporter of $10 gasoline now.    Where Nocera and Hansen part company is on Hansen’s doomsday rhetoric about the consequences of the President giving the green light to the Keystone Pipeline.   Below the fold, I discuss some nuanced issues.

For people who bothered to read my Climatopolis, they know that I moved to California in part because of my excitement of playing a policy role in the phase in of AB32.   My optimism for how our cities will continue to thrive is that green guinea pig efforts such as AB32 will identify new cost effective solutions  for reducing our GHG emissions. Once we discover such ideas they can diffuse around the world. Ideas are public good!   Over the 21st century, we will simultaneously reduce our world’s carbon intensity and we will adapt to the climate changes we have already induced.   Pessimists downplay the power of human ingenuity for generating new solutions for both carbon mitigation and adaptation. This will be a gradual process involving learning and experimentation.

I agree with Nocera that Hansen’s tendency to draw a line in the sand is counter-productive and makes him look like a Chicken Little.  He should join the economists who are thinking hard about the political economy of how you build a carbon mitigation coalition and how you achieve “buy in” from those who might be on the fence on this important issue.   Scientists have credibility in the policy arena but they can lose this elusive commodity if they are seen as overplaying their hand.

UPDATE:  Severin Borenstein’s February 2013 post is worth reading.

Here is  a good quote:

“And that’s where it seems there is an opportunity for a grand bargain of sorts. The Keystone XL and other new oil sources create billions of dollars in economic value. Blocking them will have at best a very small impact on emissions.  But allowing them could be tied to much greater funding for alternative energy research and development.  Such work may have a shot at creating low-carbon alternatives that can compete against the bargain basement fossil fuels that will very likely result if alternative fuels start to contribute substantial supply.”





Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

24 thoughts on “NY Times Nocera vs. James Hansen on Keystone”

  1. Nocera and Kahn engage in a bit of misdirection here. Here’s Nocera:

    But the blast e-mail didn’t come from James Hansen, private citizen. It specifically identified Hansen as the head of the Goddard Institute, and went on to describe him as someone who “has drawn attention to the danger of passing climate tipping points, producing irreversible climate impacts that would yield a different planet from the one on which civilization developed.” All of which made me wonder whether such apocalyptic pronouncements were the sort of statements a government scientist should be making — and whether they were really helping the cause of reversing climate change.

    Unless you read that carefully, you think Nocera is accusing Hansen of distributing inaccurate information, but on review, you can see that Nocera is actually saying that certain types of information are not appropriate for a government scientist to distribute, whether true or not. Nocera doesn’t care about the science, he just wants scientists to shut up if their answers aren’t politically correct.

    Later, Nocera does argue directly that Hansen makes statements that other scientists disagree with. He doesn’t offer any evidence that Hansen is in error and these hypothetical other scientists are right, but he does provide a link:

    In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million — a point it had already exceeded — unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment — who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement, 350.org, has been built around Hansen’s line in the sand.

    The only problem is, those “who disagree” actually support Hansen on the scientific issue, saying he makes “a compelling case” for his 350 ppm assertions. In fact, where Nocera counsels downplaying the dangers, his link here points to someone who thinks that Hansen has been insufficiently blunt about the policy changes that need to be made to head off climate change.

    I’m not sophisticated enough about climate science to evaluate Hansen’s claims, but the idea that Nocera and Kahn are promoting – that we should assess policy or politics without looking hard at the relevant science – is typical of the thinking that has caused so many public policy debacles in recent decades.

    1. Nocera definitely uses a strawman argument. Hansen does not use the term “runaway climate change” in his paper. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

      And there are not many scientists who think that the >390ppm CO2 already in the atmosphere is not already too high. Hansen has a definite point in warning that a degree or so difference in the long-term climate sensitivity on the wrong side could make (literally) a hell of a lot of difference.

      Nocera does not name his dissenting “scientists” but I suspect them to be the “lukewarmer” handful Roger Pielke Jnr & Co who believes the fossil fuels companies should dictate the pace of change to a carbon free economy. And they have made the message clear: We want to sell and burn all our reserves and made maximum profits. The rest of you adapt as best you can.

  2. I’m trying to think of a movement where being nice to avoid p***ing off one’s opponents actually worked. Sometimes the nice people have been embraced because the perceived alternative was the distinctly not-nice people, but niceness by itself has seldom carried the day.

    1. Anyone who does anything can be accused of doing too much. Nocera’s argument is structured to allow him to call Hansen a radical regardless of the underlying facts.

      I mean, what is Hansen actually doing? Hansen credibly says global warming is a potential catastrophe. So he proposes appropriate legislative solutions, and engages in (gasp) civil disobedience. Nocera needs to save the fainting couch for when Hansen blows up a power plant.

      To properly describe any political actor, you have to address the underlying issue. For Hansen, the underlying issue is the impact of climate change, and he acts on that basis. For Nocera, the issue is whether Hansen is rocking the boat, and he writes accordingly.

    2. It’s more about recognizing who one’s opponents ARE. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a confrontation with Bull Connor and his ilk, they didn’t go out of their way to antagonize northern whites who were on the fence about the issue.

      With the benefit of hindsight success, we can see that the northern whites were moral culpable in Jim Crow (and were often racist themselves). That doesn’t make it a good tactic to pick a fight with them at that time.

      1. Martin Luther King Jr. is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. He was opposed by people who valued decorum over civil rights, and he didn’t have any problem saying so:

        I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

        Letter from a Birmingham Jail

  3. “For people who bothered to read my Climatopolis…” Bothered? Well, that decides the matter for me. If the author himself puts it that way, I’ll just remove it from my wish list.

  4. Hansen’s latest research suggests Doomsday is apropos:

    Most climate scientists think the freezer door will remain firmly shut this century, but not Hansen. He has long warned that there could be a huge rise in sea level this century and, with colleagues Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy, he recently simulated the possible effects. Hansen included a brief summary of some of the results in an analysis of Greenland ice loss released in December. He told New Scientist that a full paper is being prepared for publication, but would not discuss the details.

    Climate modellers have long done experiments looking at the complex effects of melting ice sheets, says Sigman. These experiments typically show regional cooling, but in Hansen’s simulation the effect is much greater. The likely reason is that his simulation assumes a more rapid acceleration of ice loss, doubling every 10 years.

    Most other climate scientists think the ice sheets will melt slowly – this is what happened at the end of past ice ages. Hansen thinks this logic is flawed. The reason that sea level rose slowly in the past, he writes, is because the planet warmed slowly. After the last ice age, for example, it took 10,000 years for the average global temperature to rise about 4 °C. Now the world is on course to warm this much in fewer than 200 years.

    I’m with Hansen. It is insane to use 10,000 years of warming as any sort of base line thinking for warming that will happen in a rush of 200 years. On top of its carbon intensity, Keystone is an insane boreal forest disaster. Instead there should be a government-business partnership to build windmills where the pipeline was to thread. Our central plains are sick with wind. Good lord: Capture. It. Stupid. Create jobs the green way.

    This is Mr. Obama’s chance to prove he is serious about climate change and not just a mouth full of enviro-pretties.
    He needs to crush Keystone completely, or… never open his piehole again about global warming.
    Put up or shut up Mr. President.

    Quote source:

    1. What scientists are disagreeing? Nocera did not cite any either. Seek out these dissenting “scientists” and you will find a sorry bunch of Heartland Institute shills.

  5. Borenstein: “But allowing them could be tied to much greater funding for alternative energy research and development.” Where is the evidence that any such deal is on the table?

    I’m with Joe Romm. You fight the battles you are given, not the ones you’d like to have. Grant not McClellan. With Kerry at State and a couple of solid nominations for DOE and EPA, there’s a fighting chance Obama can be pressured – by methods including the threat or reality of mass civil disobedience – into vetoing Keystone. Hoping for any help to stop climate disruption from Congressional Republicans is fantasy.

    1. I want to make a limited defense of Borenstein. He’s actually doing the thing that Kahn and Nocera claim to be doing: He’s evaluating the politics, the economics and the science, and trying to come up with an answer that satisfies all three. Sure, he comes up with an answer that’s not currently plausible, but it’s a tough problem, and at least he’s making a serious-minded effort.

      One thing I like about Borenstein’s piece is it acknowledges the destructive role of markets. High oil prices would, with the right types of government intervention, help solve the problem, but absent that intervention, high market prices make the problem worse.

      And he proposes a potential way forward: Stopping Keystone itself isn’t enough, but projects like Keystone could be bargaining chips … someday … maybe. At least it’s a thought.

      1. Conan the Barbarian’s comment seems apt.
        This is a fight to the death with the fossil fuel industries. It’s about inflicting defeat and humiliation on the Kochs and their shills and political hirelings. Oderint dum metuant.

      2. High oil prices would, with the right types of government intervention, help solve the problem, but absent that intervention, high market prices make the problem worse.

        Sorry, I don’t understand Borenstein’s economics at all. Yes, high prices create an incentive to find more oil, but that’s oil that isn’t being extracted today because it costs too much to get it. If oil prices drop, that oil will disappear from the market.

        Borenstein’s logic seems to be that whether oil prices are high or low, oil consumption will increase. If they are high huge supply will cause increased consumption; if they are low huge demand will do the trick. That makes no sense whatsoever.

        1. I think you’re missing a couple of things in your analysis.

          First thing is that many of the costs of implausible oil sources are sunk costs — digging wells, building refinery infrastructure, buying legislatures — so that once a source is online it will still make sense to try and sell from it if prices go down. And prices will only go down, in the no-sensible-intervention case, if there’s some drop in economic activity that reduces demand. So all you get is swings up and down around a rising number, until things go splat.

          In the sensible-intervention case, the high current price of oil provides a price umbrella for the development of alternative tech, so that demand for oil can go down because we’re using less oil per unit of GDP, rather than because there’s less GDP.

          1. Upfront costs are an issue, I agree. But still, a passage like this:

            And greatly reducing our consumption of crude oil, not just by a few percent, is going to put severe downward pressure on the world price of crude. That means that alternatives to oil that can disrupt our current path to climate change will have to beat not the $100/bbl price we see today, but something closer to the $20/bbl price we would see if world oil consumption declined by 20%, 30%, or more.

            seems awfully garbled. It seems to assume that just as much oil will be produced at $20/bbl as at $100/bbl. That’s wrong.

            And consider:

            Blocking any one fossil fuel technology or supply source — whether it is tar sands oil, hydraulic fracturing, or deep water drilling — will reduce supply and raise fossil fuel prices. That will make alternative energy sources at least marginally more cost competitive. But it will also increase the incentive to find new fossil fuel sources and new ways to access the energy in the fossil fuel sources that we already know about.

            But those new sources and methods must be more costly than the ones blocked. Again, even allowing for some upfront costs, it seems as if they would drive prices even higher.

          2. The two opposing forces generate considerable risk for oil investors. Shortages drive up prices (profit!), but attract investment in renewables, which lowers prices again (losses!). There’s hysteresis on the renewables side as well: large-scale investment (as in recent years in Germany in installation, in China in production) lowers costs permanently for everybody. Coal is already toast for electricity production in the USA and Europe, the only question is about the speed of its demise. The same thing will, I predict, happen on electric cars, driven by improvements in car batteries, though it might take a decade.

  6. I really worry about the frontal lobotomy being administered to/by Nocera, Borenstein, et alia. Can their powers of reason be so stunted as they appear to be in these essays?

    Borenstein stumbles onto the basic problem: actually reducing fossil fuel consumption on a schedule that would save the planet will reduce the price, putting pressure on us to self-destructively burn more of the poisonous stuff. The tar sands represents billions of dollars of economic value only at a high price for oil, which does not take into account the environmental devastation. If we were to actually take measures to reduce oil consumption — like imposing a substantial carbon tax reflecting the externalities — the tar sands will become uneconomic. There are no “billions” in economic value to be had.

    The economic principle is an old one known to every child on her birthday: you can have cake, or you can eat your cake; not both, simultaneously.

    The “apocalyptic” talk, to which objection is offered, is scientifically realistic. What’s not realistic is pundit simony and a policy of selling indulgences. We cannot convert the economy to a different energy basis, without actually converting the economy to a different energy basis.

    And, pretty much any substitute for petroleum is going to less technically efficient in many applications and at the margin, so costs will increase. Conservation of energy use, like it or not, is going to have to be the largest part of reducing GHG emissions. We cannot wait around for technological magic to solve the problem that fossil fuels are a great source of energy, because, frankly, such technological magic is not likely to arrive. It would be nice, if there was a “clean” “renewable” energy source, which would dominate petroleum in every way, and allow us to expand energy use. Not at all likely to happen, though, and, consequently, we have to face the hard dilemmas. Like an overweight diabetic, we have to give up sugar. In that context, lines drawn in the sand are the only sensible policy. Just say no to Keystone XL.

    1. Bruce,

      I agree with much of what you say, but I’m still mystified by an economic analysis that says if we reduce fossil fuel use we will increase fossil fuel use.

      Maybe you could clarify your second paragraph.

    2. Is the point that voluntary conservation efforts won’t work, because as some people cut back the price will drop, causing others to increase their usage?

      1. I am saying that reducing GHG on the scale necessary to stabilize the climate, short of the thresholds, beyond which climate change might spiral out of all hope of control, will require reducing total use of energy, substantially. Pooh-poohing as apocalyptic Hansen’s warnings about the more dire consequences of crossing thresholds, as Nocera does, is reprehensible.

        I am also contradicting Borenstein, who seems to think that there will be some magic technology, which will dominate petroleum, and drive it out the energy foundation of the economy by being both cleaner and cheaper. Ain’t gonna happen. Petroleum will continue to be one of the densest, most convenient and practical sources of energy for a wide variety of applications. We are going to have to find ways and means to deny ourselves this wonderful stuff, while accepting much lower rates of energy consumption over all, and considerable inconvenience. That’s tough — a very hard sell, but it is what has to be done. Borenstein comes very close to acknowledging this reality, but shy’s away from the political implications. The political implications include severe repression of what is, today, the most powerful industry, rivaling Finance, in the world economy. (Repressing Finance would be a good idea, too.)

        Letting the Keystone XL pipeline go forward will not change the game. And, that’s the problem. The game has to be changed. This will require a large-scale effort at political organization, equivalent to revolution, since it entails dis-empowering the most powerful economic interests in the world. Effective compromise will only be possible, after the power to use force is demonstrated. We are a long way from doing that, and the struggle against Nocera and Borenstein is simply to get them to acknowledge the necessity. Nocera’s concern for civility and decorum is his way of arguing for the energy establishment against the revolution necessary to save the planet. Borenstein’s faith in magic is just denying the necessity.

  7. Incidentally, the idea that there’s some sort of equality of status, in an argument on science policy, between a semi-educated opinionator like Joe Nocera and a great scientist like James Hansen, in his area of expertise, is absurd. One man is trying to teach, the other is refusing to learn.

  8. Nocera is a hack journalist engaged in an underhanded ad hominem attack against Hansen. His article is as skewed as it is inaccurate and lacking in facts. And, as for the nonsense posted in this blog, Keystone will result in increased gas prices at the expense of our climate. Lose – lose. The project is an insane monstrosity that only provides a short term benefit to the Chinese. America, as a whole, suffers for it. And the global climate system takes yet another severe shock. Hansen is right to protest. And the real American and climate patriots are there protesting with him.

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