Climate Sense: An Interviewwith Roger Pielke, Jr.

Jan. 18, 2012
Author takes a balanced look at the science and politics of global warming.

Finally. A topic that generates some letters from disgruntled readers. Global warming (or rather, discrediting it) can really generate some mail. Last month, we published my interview with Steven Hayward of the (GASP!) American Enterprise Institute (HORRORS!). Hayward’s blunt comments on the validity of global warming science really got some of you hoppin’ mad, because he’s “just a non-scientist, right-wing, global warming denier.”

Wow. This month, I offer some commentary that will please more supporters of global warming science. It's by Roger Pielke, Jr., a political scientist and professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, and the author of The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming, (2010, Basic Books). Pielke, Jr. is a leader in climate thought —as is his father, Roger Pielke, Sr. — and a leading proponent of rational discourse when the topic is carbon and the climate.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

Q: How would you describe the general nature of your research?
A: I study science and innovation in the context of decision-making.

Q: Are we indeed seeing unnatural warming trends, caused by human activity? And is it serious?
A: There is a large set of peer-reviewed studies that shows that human activities influence the climate system in detectable ways. A general warming of the lower atmosphere is among those consequences, but for reasons I describe in my book, may not be the most useful or meaningful metric. See Table 1.1 on p. 17 for a long list of influences on the climate system from human activity. That humans can influence the climate is accepted by just about everyone in the debate, even most who would place themselves on the skeptical side.
The second question, "is it serious?" involves far more than science can answer. In my book I argue that the science of climate brings knowledge of a potential problem, which people will evaluate differently (and legitimately so). Science alone cannot resolve whether action is warranted much less, what actions to take.
Q: Have refrigerants indeed been proven to deplete the ozone layer?
A: Yes. The mechanisms are well understood, based on the seminal work of Rowland and Molina, in 1974. (ed. note: Rats! I was hoping for an emphatic "no" on that one!)
Q: If 10 scientists say there is a danger from global warming, and 10 say there is no danger, the anti-warming crowd is never taken as seriously as the pro-warming crowd. Would you agree?
A: "Danger" is a value judgment. The climate issue is fully politicized, and with most governments and people around the world expressing concern about human-caused climate change (especially carbon dioxide), of course those pressing for action generally get the most attention and carbon dioxide dominates discussion of other influences. This situation is an accurate reflection of the state of the political debate. That said, such attention has not led to much policy action. For that to occur will require technological innovation that provides alternatives to current energy supply options at a reasonable cost. Head counts of scientists to make a political point is rarely a useful tactic.
Q: Is there credible anti-warming/anti-ozone data by scientists that has been largely ignored, and would help balance the discussion? A: I have studied aspects of the media attention to climate change (sea level) and found the media attention to be quite good with respect to accurately reflecting the scientific literature. At the same time, I have at times been frustrated by coverage of disasters and climate change. Public opinion on the science and policy of climate change has varied a bit, but not really changed over 20 years or so (see Chapter 2 in my book) so I don't think that there is much political traction one way or the other in public debates over the science.
Q: Do you think we have been too quick to eliminate refrigerants, with too many good refrigerants are being taken off the market too quickly?
A: My understanding is that many refrigerants have been substituted for where substitutes exists, and in cases where there are no effective substitutes (e.g., methyl bromide) such substitution has not occurred. People will evaluate the costs and benefits of such actions differently of course, and such debates are settled via the political process. Most people (and I'm one of them) will not care much about how their refrigerators actually work, only that they do work at a reasonable cost. I do not see too many people complaining about the cost or functionality of refrigeration these days, so I doubt that it is a politically salient issue.

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About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.