Dave Roberts Responds on The Climate Debate

May 30th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at the GristMill blog, Dave Roberts continues our exchange on the notion of a “third way” perspective on climate change. Dave is typically thoughtful in his comments in which he is having none of the third way business, arguing:

It’s possible, and frequently true, that one side’s right and the other is wrong, even if many of the correct people argue poorly or are otherwise annoying. (emphasis in original)

However, I’m not at all sure what he is referring to in terms of “right” and “wrong” because he does not say. He writes,

It is conventional wisdom now that every issue is defined by two shrill, partisan camps, and that it is a mark of intellectual integrity to choose a path between them.

As a heuristic, this may have once had some value, but today it’s become a fetish. A tic.

Let’s be clear: There is no empirical significance in falling between, or even just outside, two opposing positions. A position’s truth value has nothing to do with its number of adherents, or its adherents’ rhetorical acumen. The desire not to be a “joiner,” not to belong to a “tribe,” is a matter of temperament, not empiricism. (emphasis in original)

Let me offer several other criteria – other than “truth value” (which I honestly do not understand what Dave means by – what does it mean to ask “Is a policy option “true”?”) — through which we might evaluate competing policy arguments: realism (is it possible?), practicality (is it doable?), and worth (is it desirable?). From an empirical perspective I am confident that the current approaches to climate policy advocated by both the climate skeptics and alarmists fail according to all three criteria. (To be glib, for “current approaches” simply assume (a) “do nothing” for the skeptics and (b) the approach favored by the FCCC for the alarmists.) I don’t know if the proposals that are frequently advocated here at Prometheus are “in between” or “outside” the current debate and I’m not sure that I care or that such partisan-relative-geography even matters. What matters is that there are basically two approaches to climate policy that take up all the air in the debate under a shared assumption that arguing about science is the appropriate battle ground for the debate. In my view significant progress on climate mitigation or adaptation won’t be made until new options are considered beyond those at the focus of the skeptic-alarmist debate. If that view makes me a temperamental third wayer, then I am guilty as charged.

Given that policy debates almost always boil down to two options – a dynamic recognized long ago by Walter Lippmann – the importance of “third way” thinking should be a function of whether the two options at the center of debate are up to the task of dealing with the problem motivating the policy in the first place. Dave Roberts may deplore third way thinking in general, but there are situations when both of the dominant poles of policy debates are similarly misguided.

Thus far, for all of its bluster the climate debate has been characterized by a paucity of realistic, practical, and worthwhile policy options. I’m all for empiricism, so if Dave wants to engage in an exchange focused on a substantive evaluation of actual climate policy options, I’d be happy to participate.

5 Responses to “Dave Roberts Responds on The Climate Debate”

  1. Benny Peiser Says:


    It was just a question of time that climate apocalyptics would turn their flak on non-sceptics who question the alarmists’ party line. As far as prophets of doom are concerned, you are either with them, or you are against them. Any third way policy is only acceptable to liberal minds, not fanatics.

    As I have been warning for some time, this is no longer about the science of climate change. This has turned into a radical salvationist campaign to saving the planet, no less. And anyone who refuses to take sides in this manichaen battle between good and evil is regarded as a potential enemy or a traitor.

    If you think that I am exaggerating, please consider the implications of tomorrow’s demonstration by the U.S. Climate Emergency Council. Quote:

    Hundreds of concerned citizens and leaders from across the nation will join Hurricane Katrina survivors Wednesday to call for the resignation of the heads of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at NOAA Headquarters just outside of Washington, D.C. During an 11 a.m. demonstration, advocates will demand that NOAA stop covering up the growing scientific link between severe hurricanes and global warming while insisting on real solutions to the problem of global warming.

    Who will be the next of this witch-hunt? Ah well, at least the hunters are only calling for heads to roll, and not for a return to burning at the stake….

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  3. Marlowe Johnson Says:


    If the two policy options are a) do something vs. b) do nothing, what is the third option? Maybe I’m not framing the issue correctly? Perhaps you mean to say that a “third way” is simply a sub-option of a)? If that’s the case then what do you suggest? I’ve been following this blog for quite a while and I haven’t really seen much offered in the way of alternative options.

    Personally, I think that one alternative is a global carbon tax (collected at the national level with a portion going to an international fund). This approach has the advantage of being much more transparent and administratively simpler than the current KP setup. The fund could be used to finance adaptation initiatives in developing countries and/or offset projects, for example. While I haven’t read the Nordhaus analysis on this, I suspect it boils down to the $ savings from the equimarginal approach of Kyoto being lost in all the bureaucracries needed to setup and monitor the system…

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your comments. We teach in our policy classes that “do nothing” is an option like all the rest. The question is “what to do?”

    We often raise policy options for discussion here, and off the top of my head here is a quick set of links to some specific recommendations we have made on this site over the past few years:

    1. Consider disaster mitigation as a climate policy.

    Sarewitz, D. and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2000. Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock. The Atlantic Monthly, 286(1), 55-64.

    2. Focus attention on “no-regrets” energy policies:

    Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2005. Misdefining ‘‘climate change’’: consequences for science and action, Environmental Science & Policy, Vol. 8, pp. 548-561.





    3. Re-open Article 2 of the FCCC for reconsidering its narrow definition of “climate change”:

    Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2005. Misdefining ‘‘climate change’’: consequences for science and action, Environmental Science & Policy, Vol. 8, pp. 548-561.

    4. Consider population growth in any international emissions protocol as a factor in national incentives to participate:


    5. Don’t waste time on convincing the public that climate change is a problem


    6. Focus debate on policy options not scientific disputes


    7. Consider far out technological options, like air capture



    8. Open debate to alternative voices and views




    9. Don’t make bad arguments for good causes


    10. Put adaptation on a more even footing with mitigation

    Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2004. What is Climate Change?, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer, 1-4.

    That is a start!

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  7. David Roberts Says:

    Roger, I’m slammed today and don’t have time to say much. Just two quick things.

    1. The post immediately following the one you spend all your time on has much more to do with questions of policy and mitigation vs. adaptation. And I discuss policy options a bit in my recent op-ed here:


    2. I, like 99% of the other people reading this, am not going to take the time to click on and read all 20 of the links you just pasted in. It’s clear from a quick scan that many of them have to do with framing and arguing, not policy. What I would prefer, and I doubt I’m the only one, is a reasonably short, concise summary of the policy options you would favor to address climate change — or not, as the case may be.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks. So at the same time you feel comfortabl;e saying you are not going to read my work, you also feel confident dismissing it as “not policy.” Its hard to argue with that logic! ;-)

    I’m not sure what pithy statment you might be looking for – perhaps short phrases with words like “carbon trading” or “McCain/Lieberman” or “2 degrees C” or “dangerous interference” or “CAFE”? The problem is that none of these familiar policy options on the table are up to the task of either reducing emissions or reducing vulnerability to climate. Hence the details matter. Peer reviewed policy research matters.

    Your post on adaptation focuses on a strategy of a political campaign — “The public needs to accept the fact the global warming is happening, that it’s bad, and that we need to stop accelerating it.”

    This is not a policy recommendation, but a political call to arms. As we’ve documented here many times the public is already there. The problem is that we’ve got nothing to offer them as far as policy options. Such a circumstance risks that the issue-attenion cycle will inevitably work its course and while symbolic action may or may not be taken, meanigful action clearly won’t unless options are there first.

    Calling for emisisons reductions without a way to achieve them is simply empty exhortation. Devising policy options requires more than just rallying around shared values — it requires delving into the nitty-gritty details of policy.

    You seem to think that a consensus on values and science preceeds the invention of effective policy options. I believe that it is through effective policy options that we reach consensus on values and science. And perhaps that is where we most disagree.