Bunk on the Potomac

August 20th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Washington Post has published one of the worst op-eds I have ever seen. Arguments such as this one might make one think that the environmental community is hell bent on its own self-destruction (compare). Here is an excerpt:

Barring a rapid change in our nation’s relationship to fossil fuels, every American within shouting distance of an ocean — including all of us in the nation’s capital — will become de facto New Orleanians. Imagine a giant floodgate spanning the Potomac River just north of Mount Vernon, there to hold back the tsunami-like surge tide of the next great storm. Imagine the Mall, Reagan National Airport and much of Alexandria well below sea level, at the mercy of “trust-us-they’ll-hold” levees maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Imagine the rest of Washington vulnerable to the winds of major hurricanes that churn across a hot and swollen Chesapeake Bay, its surface free of the once vast and buffering wetland grasses and “speed bump” islands that slow down storms.

Because of global warming, this is our future. Oceans worldwide are projected to rise as much as three feet this century, and much higher if the Greenland ice sheet melts away. And intense storms are already becoming much more common. These two factors together will in essence export the plight of New Orleans, bringing the Big Easy “bowl” effect here to the Washington area, as well as to Charleston, S.C., Miami, New York and other coastal cities. Assuming we want to keep living in these cities, we’ll have to build dikes and learn to exist beneath the surface of surrounding tidal bays, rivers and open seas — just like New Orleans.

Weekly World News? Nope. The Washington Post. Here is more:

In the face of this sobering data suggesting we’re bringing New Orleans to the Potomac, what should we do? Realistically, there are three major options: 1) abandon our coastal cities and retreat inland, a response too staggering to imagine, 2) stay put and try to adapt to the menacing new conditions, or 3) switch to clean energy as fast as possible.

Adapting, of course, means committing fully to the New Orleans model. It means potentially thousands of miles of levees and floodwalls across much of the region. And that’s just to handle the rising sea. For hurricane surge tides, Stevenson thinks the only solution might be to build a floodgate across the Potomac near Mount Vernon. It could be closed during periods of maximum danger, then reopened as the surge ebbs. He envisions another on the Patapsco River to protect Baltimore. The New York Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, has examined the idea of three such floodgates for New York City.

But are we truly ready to become New Orleanians, casting our lot behind ever-higher, unsustainable walls? Once we commit to fortified levees and massive floodgates, there’s no turning back. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, as New Orleans has graphically demonstrated.

Alternatively, we can go with the third option. It’s less expensive, less risky and overall much better for us: clean energy. It’s the option that treats the disease of global warming, not just the symptoms. Only by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas pollution — by switching to hybrid cars and wind- and solar-powered electricity and high-efficiency appliances — can we slow the sea-level rise and potentially calm the growth in hurricane intensity.

We must join the rest of the world in this effort because, while the effects are local, the solution can only be global. Some adaptation to global warming will still be necessary, given the momentum built into the warming process. And a national clean-energy overhaul will represent a huge challenge to our society, especially given how little time scientists say we have left — maybe just 10 years — before runaway climate effects become a reality.

But switching to clean, efficient energy is a challenge compared to what? Compared to life below sea level with a constant eye on the Weather Channel, waiting for the next Category 5 storm to replicate the horrifying events of last Aug. 29?

There are numerous scientific errors and misstatements in the piece (e.g., confusion of wind speed and power dissipation), but these factual problems pale in the face of its absurd policy arguments. I fully support switching to clean, efficient energy. But to suggest that such a switch can play a perceptible role in modulating the impacts of future hurricanes is simply bunk. It is absolute, utter nonsense.

Leading scientists would do well to recognize that their coy flirting with environmental activists bent on emissions reductions, while at the same time trying to hide their actions behind a fig leaf of policy agnisticism, only serves to feed such absurdities. Anyone wanting to help the environmental community achieve the goal of decarbonizing the global energy system should instead try to stop such poor policy arguments in their tracks.

9 Responses to “Bunk on the Potomac”

  1. Judith Curry Says:

    Roger, re policy agnosticism from climate scientists. As a climate scientist i do not advocate for specific policies. As a climate science researcher, i do not have the appropriate background to understand and assess the myriad of technological, political and economic issues involved. I also feel that it would be inappropriate to use whatever stature I have as a scientist, and whatever media connections or connections with policy makers i might have because of this, to push for specific policies. Further, if climate scientists were to get very involved in policy, they would have little time left for their scientific research (which is highly relevant and important, whether you agree or not). Even among policy researchers on the climate/energy issue, there is substantial disagreement. The competitive clash of ideas will work its way out through the variety of decision making bodies that need to deal with this issue in all its complexity. The washington post op-ed is one salvo in the dialogue that needs to take place on this issue. Rather than merely dismissing it, it would be useful for the blogosphere to point out any errors in the science, and generate a discussion on the pros and cons of the various issues raised.

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  3. Dan Hughes Says:

    All scientists and engineers could also present straightforward discussions of (1) the reality of the necessity of continued consumption of fossil fuels, (2) the enormous job of any attempts to displace them on ever a country-wide basis, (3) the time scales that would be required to implement actually workable replacement infrastructures, and (4) the reality of the time lags in the physical systems that have already set the course of the response of the climate for decades to come. A good first step in this direction would be to state the real-world true facts behind the present status of basing enormous economies on alternative fuels.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks much for your continued engagement. I do have a few repsonses to your comments.

    1. You write, “As a climate scientist I do not advocate for specific policies.”

    I have two responses to this.

    A. Sure you do: “We call upon leaders of government and industry to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of building practices, and insurance, land use, and disaster relief policies that currently serve to promote an ever-increasing vulnerability to hurricanes.”

    B. Endorsing or lending your name and credibility to advocacy organizations is indeed a form of advocacy — “stealth” issue advocacy. if you appear at an event organized to promote “climate stabilization” then you are providing support for that agenda, whether you “stick to science” or not.

    2. Saying that scientists are “too busy” to help explore the policy implications of their work is a cop out. You write of the hurricane-climate debate that “The end result of this debate is likely to be that this public fragmentation of the meteorological community has generally lessened the possibility for this community to influence policy . . .” And what influence is it that you think should occur? Surely not just _any_ policy? Perhaps you have something in mind?

    3. Climate scientists, you included, are deeply involved in policy and politics. That is reality. The question therefore is how scientists should engage. Of all the options, participating in the policy process while pretending to be without policy preferences is the worst strategy in my view. If your research really matters for policy, then tell us why you think that. We’ll listen.


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  7. Judith Curry Says:


    You miss the “nuance” of my statements. Scientists pointing out a risk, and then calling for a re-evaluation of policiies in light of that risk, is very different from advocating for a specific policy. This is an appropriate use of science to inform policy makers.

    Slinging around of hot air on the subject of policies related by climate change by us academics is entertaining but not a terribly good use of our time. Kerry Emanuel stated in his Nature interview pointed out that about 9 months after publication of his paper, his research program was 6 months behind owing to all of the interactions with the media and decision makers. Personally, I typically put in an 80 hour work week (worse the past year), and this doesn’t count activities such as blogging. I have a responsibility to my employer to do the job that I am paid for (administering an academic department). This is not a cop out. We are simply not qualified to assess the complexities of public policy in the public arena. And those that do seem to many to have a personal political agenda.

    And then when I applaud people like Bill Chameides for switching from hard science to policy, he is criticized by you and then we are criticized for interacting with him. A list from you of what you think climate researchers should be doing with their 60-80 hour work weeks would be most interesting.


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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks. A few replies to your question.

    Participating in an advocacy event, whether sponsored by Environmental Defense, National Environmental Trust, or the Climate Institute, is advocacy, pure and simple. It works both ways of course, and many of the so-called climate skeptics have been criticized appropriately for cozying up to fossil fuel interests or the political Right. To use a silly analogy — if you decide to accept a speaking role at the RNC or DNC next year (it could happen;-) that will be interpreted as an edorsement of their platform — unless you say otherwise! That is the political reality.

    2 You ask, What should scientists do? We for one thing let’s consider what you wrote in BAMS:

    “The debate has clearly shown that some of the
    most challenging issues in our field that are also of the highest policy relevance are at the interface of climate change and weather extremes.”

    But you do not explicitly say what the policy relevance is. What is it? If you are so busy and unqualified to discuss policy, as you suggest, then how do you know that your work is in fact policy relevant? To which policies? In what ways is it relevant? Can you tell me what policies might be made differently if you and your colleagues are proven correct in your scientific debate over global warming and hurricanes? Can you be specific? What policies were you referring to in the BAMS quote above?

    What should scientists do? Well if you have time in your busy schedule to appear at advocacy events that are created specifically to promote certain policies, then it seems that you also have a responsibility to explain how it is that you think your science supports that advocacy agenda to which you are lending your name and credibility.

    Dr. Chamiedes did this, good for him. I fully support scientists getting invovled in advocacy. (I do object to scientists getting involved in advocacy but claiming not to be.) He is just making bad arguments. That is, he is advocacting policies that cannot work as he suggests they can. When people make bad arguments they will be criticized – just like in science so it is in policy.

    What should scientists do? The minute that they decide that their work is relevant to the public or policy makers, and seek to engage those audiences on the significance of their work, they take on an obligation to understand how it is relevant and describe that relevance to the public and policy makers.

    [Just so you don't feel uniquely picked on here, we asked the same questions of the opposing camps in the so-called "hockey stick" debate and determined long before the NRC that the debate wasn't particularly relevant to climate policies.]


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  11. John McCormick Says:

    Dr. Pielke, on this topic and your opinion, we agree.

    Reading the op-ed made me wonder if it was a climate skeptic’s plant intended to discredit those who believe and publicize the coming impacts of global warming and the need to decarbonize the global energy system.

    I have been an environmental activist for nearly four decades. The quality of discourse, serious examination and national-level political advocacy environmental groups and spokespersons apply to the global warming concern sadden and anger me.

    Tidwell’s piece was a high volume rap rendition of what has been phrased in the more sensible, believable tone of the US Climate Assessment Report — similar conclusions minus the rhetoric and sensationalizing.

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  13. Judith Curry Says:

    Roger, I would appreciate a simple statement from you regarding why you think that carbon emissions trading, which is what Bill Chameides and the Environmental Defense Fund are advocating, is bad policy. Judy

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Judy- Thanks. Based on peer-reviewed research, using the prospect of hurricane impacts, and Katrina specifically, as justifications for US legislation on emissions reductions is misleading. Why? Because (a) there is no reason believe that such emissions reductions will have a perceptible effect on hurricane behavior, and (b) far more importantly, there are much (much!) more effective policies worth advocating if addressing hurricane impacts is the policy goal.

    Using hurricane impacts to justify emissions reductions is simply a misguided argument. As we wrote in BAMS in 2005:

    “But a great irony here is that invoking the modulation of future hurricanes to justify energy policies to mitigate climate change may prove counterproductive. Not only does this provide a great opening for criticism of the underlying scientific reasoning, it leads to advocacy of policies that simply will not be effective with respect to addressing future hurricane impacts. There are much, much better ways to deal with the threat of hurricanes than with energy policies (e.g., Pielke and Pielke 1997). There are also much, much better ways to justify climate mitigation policies than with hurricanes (e.g., Rayner 2004).”

    I specifically discussed the ED statement here:


    And if you’d like a slightly less concise statement of the fallacy of using disasters to justify emissions reductions, see this short article that Dan Sarewitz and I wrote last year:

    Sarewitz, D., and R.A. Pielke, Jr., 2005. Rising Tide, The New Republic, January 6.

    In turn, I’d be interested if you think that justifying greenhouse gases based on hurricane impacts is a sound policy argument.


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  17. Wacki Says:

    Judy Curry, you’ve been to my website so you know i’m worried about climate change. However, I think pressing carbon trading by itself is an extremely bad policy. It’s not only a difficult sell, but there really aren’t that many alternatives and it will be difficult to enforce. I have a massive paper in the works on this but this does an *ok* job of summing up my thoughts:


    I have to be honest, I’m amazed I don’t see more climate scientists talking about an Apollo program.