Roger Pielke Jr on climate action advocates who forget about energy poverty

Of course not all mitigation advocates forget about the poor, but there truly is a strong tendency for the FOE and Greenpeace crowd to focus on the “feel good” activities rich countries can afford. Sadly that activism typically ignores the “elephant in the room” of emissions growth by China, India, Brazil, etc. 

Further, the “feel good” activism relegates the energy-poor to stay just where they are – miserable. Roger covers this issue in some depth in his post Against “Modern Energy Access”. I just want to highlight one elegant graphic that Roger produced from IEA data:

When ‘energy access’ is used by organizations like the IEA, they mean something very different than what you, I or my students might take the term to mean in common parlance. (And note, this is no critique of the IEA, they have done excellent work on energy access issues.) The graph above provides a comparison of the 500 kWh per year household threshold for ‘energy access’ used by the IEA to a comparable number for the United States (both numbers are expressed in per capita terms, so 100 kWh per person from IEA and data on US household electricity consumption here and people per household here).

A goal to secure 1.3 billion people access to 2.2% of the electricity that the average American uses might be characterized as a initial start to more ambitious goals, but it is not a stopping point (and again, IEA recognizes that energy access is a process, but this gets lost in broader discussions).

We do not label those who live on $1 per day as having ‘economic access’ — rather they are desperately poor, living just above the poverty line. Everyone understands that $1 a day is not much. Very few people get that 100 kWh per year is a pitifully small amount of energy. Therefore, I suggest that we start talking in terms of  ‘energy poverty’ measured as a percentage of the average American (or European or Japanese or Australian or whatever energy rich context youd prefer as a baseline, the results will be qualitatively the same). To use the IEA numbers, one would be in ‘energy poverty’ with access to less than 2% of the energy access enjoyed by those in the rich world.

It is bad enough that the energy poor are largely ignored in our rich world debates over issues like climate change. It is perhaps even worse that our ‘success stories’ often mean creating scenarios where the energy poor attain just 2% of the access to energy that we enjoy on a daily basis. The frustrating irony of course is that the issues that rich world environmentalists most seem to care about might be best addressed by putting energy poverty first, but that is a subject for another time.

Do read the whole essay. And if you’ve not already read the Climate Fix I can’t recommend it highly enough. Unless you just want to feel good. As I wrote last April in A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy, “Kyoto is not one of these policies”.

Pielke: The Folly of “Magical Solutions” for Targeting Carbon Emissions

Climate policy is in the midst of a dynamic very similar to that in budget policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol, the U.K. Climate Change Act, and the U.S. cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey) bill are each “magical solutions” with considerable symbolic heft but precious little effect (actual or potential) on emissions…

Do not miss this short essay for Yale’s “Environment 360” by Roger Pielke, Jr. For those who are not willing to subject the planet to potentially dangerous climate experiments, the need for practical rather than magical solutions is very clear. By practical I do not mean economy-wrecking Stern Review policies. Nor do I mean the political theater recently passed by the American lower house. I have in mind the “after Kyoto” recommendations of Yale’s William Nordhaus.

Now here’s an excerpt from the highly recommended essay by Dr. Pielke:

Setting unattainable emissions targets is not a policy — it’s an act of wishful thinking, argues one political scientist. Instead, governments and society should focus money and attention on workable solutions for improving energy efficiency and de-carbonizing our economies.

Fifty years ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell explained that some policies are all about symbolism, with little or no impact on real-world outcomes. He called such actions “magical solutions,” explaining that “political symbolization has its catharsis functions.” Climate policy is going through exactly such a phase, in which a focus on magical solutions leaves little room for the practical.

Evidence for this claim can be found in the global reaction to the commitment made by the Japanese government last month to reduce emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The announcement was met with derision. For instance, Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, expressed shock at Japan’s lack of ambition, stating, “I think for the first time in two-and-a-half years in this job, I don’t know what to say.” Sir David King, Britain’s former chief scientist and now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, singled out Japan as a country that was blocking progress toward an international deal on climate change.

Explaining what would constitute an acceptable target, de Boer explained that “the minus 25 to 40 range has become a sort of beacon” — referring to emissions reduction figures presented in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which were highlighted in subsequent international negotiations at Bali. Perhaps this is also the magnitude of target that King had in mind when disparaging the Japanese proposal. After all, the British government has enacted a law consistent with this range, requiring emissions reductions of 34 percent below 1990 levels by 2022, which would be upped to 42 percent if the world reaches a global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

What is missing from the debate over targets and timetables is any conception of the realism of such proposals. If a proposal is not realistic, it is not really a policy proposal but an exercise in symbolism, a “magical solution.” Symbolism is of course an essential part of politics, but when it becomes detached from reality — or even worse, used to exclude consideration of realistic proposals — the inevitable outcome is that policies will likely fail to achieve the promised ends. This outcome is highly problematic for those who actually care about the substance of climate policy proposals.

The U.K. targets are a perfect example of what happens when symbols become disconnected from reality. To achieve a 34 percent reduction from 1990 emissions by 2022 while maintaining modest economic growth would require that the U.K. decarbonize its economy to the level of France by about 2016. In more concrete terms, Britain would have to achieve the equivalent of deploying about 30 new nuclear power plants in the next six years, just to get part way to its target.

Please do read the whole thing. Then go meet with the publicons who work for you ( the exalted Senators, MPs, etc who are your employees) and politely explain to them what they must do to earn your re-election vote.

Copenhagen Consensus Exercise for Climate Change: Pielke and Tol are on the job

Here is some Very Good News: Roger Pielke, Jr. and Richard Tol are both working with the Copenhagen Consensus Exercise for Climate Change. Roger has moved his primary blogging perch from Prometheus, the site he founded at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. From July 2009 you will find Roger blogging here.

Roger has a new post up on Richard Tol’s analysis. I recommend that you get straight over there to read Richard’s analysis of mitigation options, plus two responses from Onno Kuik and Roberto Roson.

In sum, this is very encouraging – perhaps now we will get some intelligent, informed debate on policy covering the whole range options from mitigation to adaptation to geoengineering.

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.