Roger Pielke, Jr. interviewed at Breakthrough Institute

Roger has joined The Breakthrough Institute as a 2008 Senior Fellow, and will be contributing to the Breakthrough Blog. Don’t miss The Cloth of Science interview, which begins…

You call for greater emphasis on adaptation to protect the world’s poor from the effects of global warming. How do you create a politics on that?

Everyone experiences the impacts of climate no matter where they are, rich or poor. There’s an enormous gap between how well places are prepared and how well they might be prepared. Take a look around the world, and a lot of the things people are striving for — wealth, freedom, opportunities — are associated with being better prepared for the effects of climate.

Is it really true that rich and poor experience climate change equally? I thought the poor, living in substandard housing, living in countries without effective emergency systems and health infrastructure, would be far more vulnerable.

No, certainly not equally. It is true that most of the economic damage is in the rich world and most of the deaths are in the poor world. But not exclusively — Hurricane Mitch in Central America had relatively small economic damages in total dollars, but a huge impact in proportion to the size of national economies, in some cases as large as annual GDP. Similarly, large losses of life happen in rich countries, more than 1,000 in the US in Katrina, 30,000 in France in the 2003 heat wave, etc.

It’s hard to imagine the American people spending billions of dollars to help the people of Bangladesh prepare for rising sea levels or stronger hurricanes. Foreign aid is already fairly unpopular, isn’t it?

It can be unpopular, but I wouldn’t characterize adaptation as “aid.” Much as Ted and Michael have called for a positive message for environmental policies, we need a similar positive message for adaptation. One part of that message is that we help ourselves by helping others. In a globalized, connected world today’s poor are tomorrow’s rich, and therefore also our trading partners, suppliers, and customers. There are other parts of such a positive message, involving improving America’s relationship with poor countries that serve as havens for terrorism, making good on promises to help sustainable development in Africa, and so on. Adaptation is not charity; it is part of building the modern world.

How about creating a politics specifically here in the U.S.?

Look at Hurricane Katrina — even a very wealthy country can be impacted. We’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had many extreme disasters, but when we do have them, it reveals that we’re not as prepared as we thought we were. Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the story of a hurricane — it was the story of a community with poverty, with aging infrastructure, with inequity and a massive governmental failure. One of the disappointments of the tragedy is that Katrina became a story about climate change and not about all these other things. And there are other places in the U.S. with vulnerabilities that we should be playing attention to.

…What is the appropriate role for scientists in political matters?

My sense is that in a lot of areas, not just environmental science, experts have taken on the role of being advocates. Advocacy groups love to wrap themselves in the cloth of science. Right, left, and everything in between likes to wave around a scientific study as the basis for why their moral claims are the right ones. They use science as an argument for reducing the scope of options available to decision makers. This turns science into politics. So instead of battles over morals or politics, we battle over science. In my book The Honest Broker, I argue that scientists have a range of choices in relating to decision makers. And one of the most important roles in helping to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of options available.

…How is the discussion around climate change changing?

It has undergone what might be called a Christmas tree effect; people come to climate change and hang their ornaments on it, using it as a vehicle for whatever topic they happen to be interested in. If you’re interested in growing corn, all of a sudden biofuels become an interest to you. And so on. Climate change is becoming a political vehicle for all sorts of issues. It makes politics very complicated, and it makes it more difficult for new ideas and approaches to be considered. We’re fully into the 100 percent politicized world of climate change now and there’s no going back, making it more important for people to have the ability to introduce new and innovative options.