Elements of Any Successful Approach to Climate Change

May 6th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This post summarizes, in capsule form, what I believe to be the necessary elements of any successful suite of policies focused on climate mitigation and adaptation. This post is short, and necessarily incomplete with insufficient detail, nonetheless, its purpose is to set the stage for future, in depth discussions of each element discussed below. The elements discussed below are meant to occur in parallel. All are necessary, none by itself sufficient. I welcome comments, critique, and questions.

1. Adaptation

Whatever the world does on mitigation, adaptation will be necessary. And by adaptation I don’t simply mean adaptation to the marginal impacts of human-caused climate change, as presented under the Framework Convention on Climate Change. I mean adaptation to climate, and as such, a concept much more closely related to the original notion of sustainable development. Adaptation is therefore core to any approach to climate change that seeks to ameliorate the effects of climate on people and the environment. Much of my research over the past 15 years has focused on this subject, and long-time readers of this blog will know my position well.

2. Make Carbon Emissions Pricier

Unrestrained emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will no doubt have effects on the global earth system, including the oceans, atmosphere, and land surface. There is a chance that these effects could be relatively benign, but there is also a chance that the effects could be quite severe. I personally lean toward the latter view, but I recognize that there is ample scientific knowledge available for people to selectively construct any position they’d like along this spectrum. I have little expectation that climate scientists, despite their notable work alerting the world to the risks associated with unmitigated emissions, have much prospect for accurately predicting the evolution of the global climate system (and especially its regional manifestations) on the time scale on which decisions related to mitigation and adaptation need to be made. In fact, I think there is a very good chance that some enthusiastic climate modelers will overstretch their claims and hurt their own cause. Even so, I have concluded that it is only prudent to establish some cost to emitting carbon (a global carbon tax is the theoretical ideal).

At the same time, because the global energy system is driven almost entirely by carbon-emitting fuels, putting a price on carbon will necessarily result in higher costs for energy and everything that results from using energy. This is of course the entire point of putting a price on carbon. Anyone suggesting anything different is being misleading. Now some will argue that over the longer term putting a price on carbon will result in benefits, especially when non-market outcomes are considered. Perhaps this is the case, and for purposes of discussion I’d simply grant the point. But in the short term, it is equally true that the costs of energy will increase. For this reason I am not optimistic about the prospects of putting a meaningful price on carbon anywhere, much less via a global treaty. People will react strongly to increasing costs, whether they are associated with energy, food, transportation, or whatever. Strong reactions will be felt in the form of electoral outcomes and thus in policy positions (exhibit A = McCain/Clinton pandering with a gas tax holiday; exhibit B = Last week’s UK elections, etc.). I am certainly not opposed to efforts to put a price on carbon, but at the same time we also need to be fully aware of the realities of politics which suggest that putting a price on carbon may not actually occur or, if it does occur, may be implemented at a meaningless level in small parts of the global economy. Therefore, we’d better be ready with another strategy when these sorts of approaches inevitably fail.

3. Make Carbon Free Energy Cheaper

The flip side to making carbon pricier is to make carbon-free energy sources relatively cheaper. The first step in this part of the strategy is to shift the massive subsidies that government provides to fossil fuel to non-carbon fuel energy sources. This by itself won’t make carbon-free energy systems cheaper, but it will facilitate the deployment and adoption of some currently pre-commercial technologies that may be on the wrong side of being competitive. I can see no justification for continued subsidies of dirty energy, but here as well we need to recognize the political challenges of displacing entrenched interests, keeping in mind for instance the example of the challenges of removing agricultural subsidies around the rich world. Energy subsidies will be equally difficult to displace.

Therefore, perhaps more important are measures that focus government investments on accelerating the development and deployment of carbon-free energy technologies. These measures include robust public funding for research from exploratory to applied; pilot programs to test and demonstrate promising new technologies; public-private partnerships to encourage private sector participation in high risk ventures; training programs to expand the number of scientists and engineers working on a wide variety of energy R&D projects; government procurement programs to provide a predictable market for promising new technologies; prizes for the achievement of important technological thresholds; multilateral funds and international research centers to help build a global innovation capacity; as well as policy incentives to encourage adoption of existing and new energy-efficient technologies, which in turn fosters incremental learning and innovation that often leads to rapidly improving performance and declining costs.

If there are to be targets and timetables associated with international negotiations, then they should focus on the development and deployment of carbon-free energy systems in the context of ever-increasing global demand for energy. Such a focus will be far more meaningful than the easily gamed, mostly symbolic, and reality-detached focus on concentration targets or, even worse, degrees Celsius.

4. Energy Modernization

The world needs more energy, vastly more so. So a central element of any national or international energy policy will necessarily include creating access to reliable, cheap energy. Consider that something like 2 billion people have no access to electricity around the world. It is a, in my view, simply a moral obligation of those around the world with high standards of living to help those who do not. This means focusing on energy modernization, but doing so in full recognition that carbon-based energy technologies, which are so readily available in much of the developing world are poised for ever more intensive development. I recommend a focus on energy modernization not simply for altruistic reasons, but in full recognition that it is in the narrow self-interests of the rich world to help foster new markets, new trading partners, and a growing global economy. In the future the greatest potential for this growth is in the developing world.

5. Air Capture Backstop

All of the hand wringing, name calling, and finger pointing in the world won’t change the fact that steps 2, 3, and 4 may not limit the growth of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at levels now deemed to be acceptable in policy discussions (pick your number – 560, 500, 450, 350, 280, whatever). Sorry, but it is true. Thus, so long as policy makers want to limit the growth in concentrations (which I think makes good sense), then they will want to focus on developing the capability to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – a technology called “air capture”.

Even if approaches under 2, 3, and 4 above prove wildly successful I really doubt that such social policies can hit any target concentration within a few hundred ppm anyway. So the development of air capture technologies represents not only a backstop, but also a way down the road to fine tune carbon policies focused on concentrations, should that be desired. I have absolutely no doubts that with air capture as the focus of R&D over a few decades it can be achieved at pretty reasonable costs (but they will still be costs) using approaches today not yet commonly discussed. In fact I view the technical challenges of air capture much (!) more optimistically than suggestions that we can change the lifestyles and energy using habits of more than 6 billion people. In addition, the costs of air capture provide a hard estimate of the true costs of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and thus provide a valuable baseline for evaluating other approaches based on social engineering. In my view air capture is the only form of geoengineering that makes any sense whatsoever.

6. Recognize that Climate Change is Not Only Carbon Dioxide

Stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide makes good sense, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that carbon dioxide emissions are the sole meaningful human forcing of the global earth system at local, regional, or global scales. Thus, we might with some effort successfully modernize the global energy system, and in the process decarbonizes it, but then find ourselves looking squarely at other human activities that affect the climate, and thus have human and environmental impacts.

These activities include other greenhouse gases, but also aerosol emissions, land use change, irrigation, chemical deposition, albedo effects, and others. We have entered an era where humans have a large and profound impact on the world, and to think that it is just carbon dioxide (or that carbon dioxide is all that matters) is myopic and misleading.

These are the elements that I believe together to be necessary in any approach to climate adaptation and mitigation that has any prospects to succeed. I will focus future posts on further discussing the specifics of each element, providing references and justifications, and connecting them each to actual policies that are the subject of current discussion.

6 Responses to “Elements of Any Successful Approach to Climate Change”

  1. terry Says:

    I don’t see how anyone can attack something so reasonably constructed.

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  3. Benny Peiser Says:


    These are some impressive suggestions for large-scale, top-down government interventions – but will any of them really work?

    1. Adaptation – a wonderful idea! But who’s going to pay the $150+ billion the IPCC estimates adaptation will cost per year?

    2. ‘Make carbon emissions pricier.’ Most governments have been trying hard in recent years to follow your advice; there is just one small problem: when you make energy and food pricier, expect a backlash! Many governments are now facing angry voters and green tax revolts.

    3. ‘Make carbon free energy cheaper. Shift massive subsidies that government provides to fossil fuel to non-carbon fuel energy sources.’
    Another great idea – shame about the unintended consequences:


    4. Energy modernization. Sounds great, but what exactly do you mean – and who is going to foot the bill?

    5. Air capture. Why limit geoengineering research to just one scheme? After all, your particular hobby horse may turn out to be the least cost-effective of the numerous proposed technologies.

    Just a few questions for your to ponder.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for these questions. I’ll certainly answer them, and others that come in, as I focus in on the details.

    But for now I’ll give you two short answers.

    1. Who said anything about top-down?

    2. Gov’ts do implement policies, and last I checked pretty much every major gov’t in the world is already deeply invested in everything I propose in some manner or another (OK, except maybe air capture). So unless you are proposing to get rid of gov’t alteogether (are you?), then the question is what gov’ts will be doing, not whether gov’t are to be involved.

    3. Who will pay, for what programs, with what goals, are of course excellent and central questions!

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  7. Mark Bahner Says:

    Hi Roger,

    Don’t know if I’ll be able to comment from this computer (at work). And I probably shouldn’t comment at lunch. But…

    …this crazy scheme of yours has absolutely no hope of working, regardless of how good you are (and you are good) at getting heard in high circles.

    This is all simply too reasonable. And too oriented towards actually accomplishing something. I have minor quibbles, but they pale in comparison to the monumental criticism that you’re being far to logical, methodical, and reasonable.

    Best wishes (on your non-windmill slaying),

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  9. Benny Peiser Says:


    My questions weren’t about ‘getting rid of gov’t altogether’ – but rather whether command-and-control policies (such as ‘green’ subsidies) can actually deliver as intended. After all, many such schemes have a rather poor track record.

    Anyway, Iain Murray has a fine comment on your points and general outlook which includes some good ideas that mirror my own thinking. More to ponder about.


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  11. SeekerBlog.com Says:


    Of your many significant papers, posts and book, this post may prove to be the most significant. I hope it evolves into a conversation around solutions both effective and politically feasible.

    1. Adaptation

    You have completely convinced me of the adaption priority. Now we just need to recruit some charismatic politicians.

    2. Make Carbon Emissions Pricier

    I appreciate your realism about sane policy, but have trouble seeing investment and innovation deriving mainly from top-down, government-financed R&D (which I take as the thrust of your #3). Price is the signal for investment. The anticipation of carbon pricing has already motivated a ramping up of venture capital investment in some low-carbon energy options.

    And yes, the political process may result in a “dog’s breakfast” cap-and-trade scheme that mainly waters the growth of rent-seeking beneficiaries and political favors. But without price we are losing the most powerful multiplier of technological innovation. We don’t know where the winning innovations are coming from, whether in air capture or engineered microbes that convert deep coal reserves into hydrogen.

    For an optimistic examination of the economic feasibility of the carbon price option I recommend William Nordhaus “The Challenge of Global Warming: Economic Models and Environmental Policy”, all 253 pages:


    3. Make Carbon Free Energy Cheaper

    Question: can you suggest a reference that demonstrates how government-funded R&D can be effective at the scale required?

    The innovation of technology prizes can clearly contribute to R&D up to the tens of millions level. It’s not clear that prizes can motivate private investment at the scale required to prove out such as carbon sequestration — at least as fast as I think we need it. I think we need it for the simplistic reason that I believe the developing economies thirst for energy will result in committments to terrawatts of dirty coal over the next decades because of the uncertain costs of CCS alternatives.

    So I’m arguing against “picking winnners” government funding, while holding the belief that we need to find out very soon if CCS is economically feasible — and costing CCS adequately that investors will choose “clean coal” instead of dirty coal.

    Any thoughts on that?

    Proving out the costs of third and fourth generation nuclear face similar R&D investment hurdles. I’m not suggesting picking winners, just concerned that we haven’t found a way to get serious candidates on the agenda at all.

    OTOH, I will speculate that a believable future projection of carbon prices will motivate utilities and suppliers to invest in the nuclear possibility. A recent poll of utility execs is encouraging on that point.

    Price is powerful — on both sides of the street, supply and demand.