Pielke and Sarewitz Redux

Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz have a new paper reiterating an argument they’ve made before: that societal vulnerability is a much greater factor in the negative impacts of climate change than is the climate change itself.

The New Mexico version of the argument (they don’t make this one in the paper – this is me talking) is that drought, a feature of natural climate variability on decadal to centennial scales, is the thing that most affects human societies. One can reasonably argue from the science that drought cycles might become worse as a result of anthropogenic climate change. But it’s the growing population and its management of water supplies that dominates the system. All the success in the world in halting greenhouse climate change will at base make the variability slightly less, but it won’t eliminate it. As Pielke and Sarewitz argue more articulately than I, there may be perfectly good reasons for changing energy policy, and climate change may be one of them (especially abrupt climate change). But any reasonable discussion of societal climate policy must also look at how and why societies are vulnerable to climate change in the first place, even in the absence of climate change.

I’ll go out on a limb here and argue that a big part of the problem is testosterone. If you look at the climate wars, there are a bunch of guys (and almost without exception, it is guys, and I confess that sometimes I end up being one of them) hell bent on winning an argument. Yes it’s warming! No it’s not! But if it is warming, it’s not anthropogenic! But look at that satellite data! No, the satellite data supports my side of the argument! Lather, rinse, repeat.

To even talk about adaption in response, rather than arguing about the science and focusing the policy response entirely on greenhouse gas reductions (and to be clear, both sides do this), is seen as ceding defeat in the shouting match.

There’s a funny thing that happens in a number of fora, including the comment wars over on David Appell’s blog and at my work, where when I try to explain and defend the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, people automatically assume my political position and demand that I defend Kyoto.

From Pielke and Sarewitz:

Policy related to societal impacts of climate has important and underappreciate dimensions that are independent of energy policy. It would be a misinterpretation of the meaning of our work to suggest that it supports
business-as-usual energy policies, or obviates climate mitigation. But if a policy goal is to reduce the future impacts of climate on society, then energy policies are insufficient, and perhaps largely irrelevant, to achieving that goal. Of course, this does not preclude other sensible reasons for energy policy action related to climate (e.g., abrupt climate change) and energy policy action independent of climate change (such as national security, air pollution reduction and energy efficiency). It does suggest that reduction of human impacts related to weather and climate are not primary among those reasons, and arguments and advocacy to the contrary are not in concert with research in this area.

I agree with them.