Roger Pielke, Jr. has been on the faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder since 2001, where he teaches and writes on a diverse range of policy and governance issues related to science, technology, environment, innovation and sports. Roger is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program. Roger is currently focusing his research on a NSF-sponsored, 16-country evaluation of science advice in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roger holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science, all from the University of Colorado. In 2012 Roger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Linköping University in Sweden and was also awarded the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America. In 2006, Roger received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich, Germany in 2006 for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research.
Roger has been a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan since 2016. From 2019 he has served as a science and economics adviser to Environmental Progress. Roger was a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences from 2001 to 2016. He served as a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute from 2008 to 2018. In 2007 Roger served as a James Martin Fellow at Oxford University’s Said Business School. Before joining the faculty of the University of Colorado, from 1993 to 2001 Roger was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
At the University of Colorado, Roger founded and directed both the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and the Sports Governance Center. He also created and led the university’s Graduate Certificate Program in Science and Technology Policy, which has seen its graduates move on to faculty positions, Congressional staff, presidential political appointees and in positions in business and civil society.
Edited Highlights: CLICK HERE
Key papers mentioned in the conversation [check transcript for all the references]
IPCC baseline scenarios have over-projected CO2 emissions and economic growth (2021)
Distorting the view of our climate future: The misuse and abuse of climate pathways and scenarios (2021)
Why do climate change scenarios return to coal? (2017)
Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading (2020)
Climate Scenarios and Reality (2021)
Hurricanes and Global Warming (2005)
Historical Global Tropical Cyclone Landfalls (2012)
The Climate Fix (2010)
ML Before we start, if you're enjoying these conversations, please make sure that you like or subscribe to Cleaning Up. It really helps other people to find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation, and the Gilardini Foundation. Hello, I'm Michael Liebreich, and this is Cleaning Up. My guest today is Roger Pielke Jr. He's a Professor of Science and Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. Now this is going to be a longer than usual episode. So we're going to be creating a natural break halfway through. It's going to be a fascinating and controversial conversation. So let's get started. So, Roger, welcome. Thank you for coming on Cleaning Up.
RP Thanks, Michael. Great to be here.
ML Now you are on a sabbatical. So where are you calling in from?
RP Yeah, sabbatical's just started, thankfully, I'm in Boulder, Colorado that just finished our semester. And it'll be headed to Europe come August for a while.
ML Okay, very good. That must be you must have been looking forward to it. Because you do so many things. You're working in so many different fronts. At the university. Do you want to just take us through the subjects you've been diving into and you've been covering?
RP Yeah. I mean, when people ask what I do, I do one thing, I study policy questions at the intersection of science and politics, usually sticky ones, difficult ones, politicized ones. I've had a great opportunity in my career to work on topics as varied as space policy, sports governance, energy policy, climate policy, natural disasters, the pandemic response, it's a growth area for conflict where science and politics meet. So I'm lucky to be in that space.
ML Well, so today, we're mainly going to be talking about climate and climate policy. So that's not one of the politicized ones. So this should be, you know, a relatively smooth sailing.
RP We can knock this out in a short, little short bit.
ML Now, I want to take as the starting point as the kicking off point, the presentation by Stuart Kirk HSBC's, head of responsible investing. Now he's been suspended because of remarks that he made at the FT Moral Money conference a couple of weeks ago. And and you wrote a blog post about some of the things that he said, and I think we'll probably get into some of the things that he didn't say, so why don't we start by just for those who have not watched it, maybe they've read an article, but that's not good enough round here. What did he actually say? So this was a presentation that was entitled, "Why Investors Need Not Worry About Climate Risk". And he started by saying, I take a very, very financial and investment view of the topic, which of course, those of us who are in finance and investment found a little difficult to stomach, because some of the finance that he was talking about, some of the way he was regarding credit risk, and so on were actually deeply nonfinancial. But, you know, do you want to talk us through some of the things that he said that maybe resonated, because there was a there was a lot to it, there was a whole bunch of slides, and he had data. What was? What was the overarching thesis in your view?
RP Yeah, the overarching thesis was was that investors really don't need to worry about climate risk. It's not something that should be a high priority. And he had a number of, I think, interesting and valid points there that were mish-matched with some others, and maybe some flippancy that subtracted from his ability to communicate his message. And overall, it was perceived, you know, he said, something kind of <inaudible>, who cares if Miami is under six meters of water, you know, Amsterdam's a nice place, and it's below sea level, which I think obscured some of his more technical, you know, more important points that I think any ESG investors should be aware of and should talk about.
ML Right. And so he was talking about, you know, the Miami point is, you know, shorthand, flippant and offensive. And in fact, his tone was fairly offensive throughout. But it's, it's shorthand for, we're going to adapt, humans are adaptable, and we're going to adapt. And then he said some other things about how the term of a loan, the average HSBC debt portfolio loan is six years. And so he said, at one point, what happens to the planet in year seven is actually irrelevant to our loan book. And that's where I would take issue with his finance, because that's not actually the way it works. And he also talked about how much wealthier the world would be, right?
RP Yeah, it's I mean, it's interesting. I've done a lot of work with reinsurance companies, and in reinsurance contracts are priced annually. And so you know, when you're when you're pricing a reinsurance contract, you want to know what your risk is for the next year. And so I get it from a mathematical, from a spreadsheet perspective, that if you're ensuring your risk for the next year, then what happens in year 30, probably doesn't factor into that. I get that point. But at the same time, as you know, corporations are citizens of the planet, and saying that there's no concern beyond the bottom line into long term future, I get it just subtracted from his his long term perspective that he was raising. When he talked about GDP, he raised a really important point that I don't think is widely appreciated in the broader community. And that is that under the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change IPCC, its scenarios have some contradictions in the long term. On the one hand, all of the scenarios show that every one of us worldwide in differing amounts, but we will all be much richer by 2100. At the same time, it says that in some regions, people won't be able to live there, it'll be uninhabitable. If temperatures rise at the extreme levels that they talk about. So I call this the climate GDP paradox. And Kirk, you know, picked up on it, but I don't think he fully appreciated that this is an inconsistency. This isn't a reality, it's not a prediction. And it would be appropriate for ESG investors and their advisors to ask us experts to get our story straight, you know, what is it going to be? Are we all gonna be rich, or we're not gonna be able to live in certain places. So there is a paradox inherent in the scenarios that we can unpack quite a bit. But again, that was missed in the tone and the delivery of the presentation.
ML And I've come at that paradox in the past, from an energy systems perspective, which is, you know, if you look at some of these scenarios, they involve very extreme outcomes, very extreme sea level rise. And yet, the coal fired power stations keep powering away and chucking out more and more CO2, even though technically, technically, many of them are actually underwater. And I raised this with Nikko Bauer on podcast, actually an Energy Transition podcast. And he got quite irritated with me and said that I was sort of, that this was irrelevant. And it was and why was, why was I bringing up things. And that's not what the models are intended to do. But for me, there is a plausibility requirement around these scenarios. And there is the GDP paradox. And there's also kind of a physical infrastructure energy systems paradox, too.
RP Yeah, yeah. I mean, you're exactly right. And this, this gets to one of the tensions, and I know, you've talked a lot about it on the show, but scenarios at one level are just scenarios, they're just they're just things that we make up to explore different plausible futures. But in the in the game of telephone between the scenario inventers, the IPCC, the media, and then policymakers, they become more like forecasts, or predictions, or anticipations, of what the future will be. And separating those things out one as a tool to help us explore possibilities versus thinking of scenarios as crystal balls, somehow, it gets really, really complicated, I think, for people to understand the difference there.
ML Right, I just want to come back to this point about credit risk, because I think that's also for me, that's at the heart of why this is not a financially robust position that he's taken. And I do have sympathy with some of these points that he's made, and that we're going to talk about more, but on the credit risk, if you lend to somebody for six years, and then the idea is that that person will repay and refinance that loan, if they know and you know, and everybody knows that in year seven, or in year, whatever, something bad is going to happen to that person or to the asset in question, so that it becomes unrefinancable, you may not see your principal back. So it absolutely... What can happen outside the term of your loan can impact the credit worthiness and the value of your debt book, which is, you know, if you're in the investment game, you're taking a very, very financial and investor view, you should kind of be aware of that. But what was really fascinating, was also the response of the kind of, you know, the climate great and good to this, you know, rather flippant and offensive, but actually, in some ways, very interesting presentation. So what were the ones that stood up of the responses? What stood out for you?
RP Yeah,I mean, I think Christiana Figueres one of the former heads of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, you know, put out a tweet, and you know, basically just dismissing the entire presentation, his own boss at HSBC came out and said, I distance myself from his views. And, you know, in the media, of course, there was everything from calling him a climate denier to a troll to, you know, the usual sort of reaction that we get when people raise issues about climate change. And this is where I think Kirk did himself a disservice. If he was trying to make nuanced points, which are perfectly valid, he did it in such a non-nuanced way that it lent itself to being interpreted in a non-nuanced way. And in climate change, as we all know, there's there's good guys and bad guys. And he allowed himself to be painted as as one of the bad guys.
ML Right. And, you know, just to go back to the Christiana Figueres, she's a very good friend, and she was actually on this show. She was on episode six. But in her tweet, she didn't just say, this is unacceptable. This is really, you know, or this is a pile of garbage, what she actually said was fire Stuart Kirk and come out with a responsible position on climate change. It's the fire Stuart Kirk bit that I mean, that's kind of why I've used this, perhaps as starting off point for the conversation with you, because you've been on the receiving end of this kind of demonization calls to be to be excluded from conversations. And so that's why I think it's, you know, I was wondering whether that one would resonate. In fact, you wrote in, in your blog, in response, you said, you have some sympathy for him?
RP Yeah, I mean, I do have some, and I don't have some, I mean, we all know that discussion and debate over climate change is very censorious, and you know, very quickly people go after people's employers, and they want you to be fired, and so on. At the same time, Kirk is the Head of Responsible Investing for a major bank. And he was at an investor conference where, you know, typically, almost always, people do not present themselves as brave truth tellers undermining their own industry. So I get it, if there was some outrage from his employer, you know, I'm a tenured full professor. And so you know, I'm pretty secure in my position, so I can, I can gain and lose writing gigs, left and right. But that's not going to change how I approach my business. And so I think it's different in different situations. But there is this overall tendency, and I know, I have junior colleagues who are afraid to say certain things, where there is an online mob, for lack of a better word that will, you know, turn on people if they are perceived to be out of line. That's it's not, you know, obviously not unique to climate change, it is a sign of the times that we're in on for discussion of any difficult issue.
ML And that brings us to kind of the two big themes of this conversation, you know, on the one hand, you know, why did I invite you to have this conversation? Because I think we can do a powerful job educating, you know, some of the audience about what is and isn't happening with climate change, and you're, you know, you are across the detail, I'm across some different details, that'll be a good conversation. But there's also this subtext about who is allowed to pursue that discussion, and who is not allowed to pursue that discussion. So, you know, let's kick off. I think that I've seen you do this quite often, because you have been called all these names and so on, because of some of your interventions. Do you want to just start by laying out what is your position on climate change? I mean, are you I'm actually, you know, I'm not even going to use the word denier. I never use it, because I think it's just it is absolutely part of that phenomenon of excluding people. So but what is your position on climate change?
RP Yeah, and my position on climate change has been, looking back remarkably consistent for geez, almost the 30 years I've been writing on it. I was the I think the first person in the United States to write a PhD dissertation, on the role of climate science and supporting climate policy. I had the advantage of growing up in a household where my father is a famous atmospheric scientist. So I knew about the greenhouse effect by the time I was in junior high school in the 1980s. Climate change is real, it's serious. Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is a if not the major driver in climate change. What I'm saying is boilerplate IPCC conclusions. I have strongly supported IPCC since you know it since the beginning. And I have, you know, one, one difference for me is I came to the climate issue as a scholar, first through studying adaptation, based on my work at National Center for Atmospheric Research, the 1990s. And later, I came to energy policy and mitigation. So in that sense, my career is kind of backwards around compared to how the issue has evolved over time. But I think if people take a look at my writings, if they actually take a look at my writings, that's the key there. I'm pretty, you know, plain consensus science sort of a person. Have I published things that some people haven't liked? Sure. That's normal. Have I taken issue with IPCC sometimes? Yeah, sure. I'm an expert. That's my prerogative. So I don't... Over the years when people call me names and try to put me in a bin I don't belong, I've always viewed that as a sign that you know, they can't find anything wrong or sufficiently wrong. In my analysis to impeach that, so they go after the person, it used to bother me a lot more. But I think, you know, over time, my work has stood the test of time. And, you know, it's not just me out there getting called names anymore. It's, you know, there's a lot of people who've been put into the category with me that, you know, also like me, don't belong there.
ML Okay, so just to be very clear, then. So, climate is changing. And you said that humans are a if not the major contributor? I mean, again, that's not quite orthodoxy these days, which is that it is humans. I mean, are you? Are you fully orthodox or somewhat orthodox on that?
RP I am fully orthodox in the sense that I support the IPCC conclusion. I mean, here's one important detail that people don't generally appreciate. The Framework Convention on Climate Change defines climate change only as those changes caused by the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. IPCC has a much broader definition, and refers to climate change as referring to any source of change. And it's, you know, we've learned over time, and again, this is Orthodox IPCC, that things like aerosols, land use changes, work that my father has done, for example, and so on, and that there are broader human impacts on the climate system than just greenhouse gases. So I think it's really important to recognize that orthodoxy is not the linear effect of one atmospheric constituent. It is complicated. And that's what the IPCC says. And one of the challenges I've had over the years, and I'm sure we'll talk about this is that sometimes simply saying plain vanila IPCC statements, gets turned around and called climate denial. We see this on extreme events and so on. So the physical science of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide, <inaudible> that's outside my expertise. I'm like you I'm like most everybody else, I defer to the expert community, which is the IPCC. So if people say, well, what's your view in detail on climate change? I say have a look at Working Group I. Because you know it's not my job to to challenge or impeach that community.
ML Okay, and then what about on mitigation? Because you wrote a book in 2011 called Climate Fix. What were you saying in that book? And how might it have changed since then?
RP Yeah. So that book, I mean, that was a fun book to write. That was, it was based on the Kaya identity, which I know you've explored in detail on this show. The title, "The Climate Fix" was kind of a, you know, maybe too clever, but a play on words. Because a fix can be a problem. A fix can be a solution. A fix can be a sticky situation you can't get out of
ML Okay. Let me ask you the Kaya Identity, because although aspects of it have certainly been covered, we've never talked about it as such. And it's a great one. But I think I have this kind of acronym klaxon. But I'm also going to have a kind of, you know, complicated name klaxon that says, you need to say, what is the Kaya Identity?
RP So the Kaya Identity, it's the basis for my book, The Climate Fix. It is it is the single most powerful tool that we have for understanding the challenge of emissions reductions. And it was it was developed in the 1980s, by a Japanese scientist called Yoichi Kaya. And the point was to generate profiles of future carbon dioxide emissions so they can be plugged back in to climate models. And it says there's four reasons why we have increasing carbon dioxide emissions: more people, more wealth, energy consumption, and energy production. That's it. There's nothing there's nothing outside of that. And so the Kaya identity really allows us not only to create scenarios, but to work backwards from scenarios and say, well, what would it take, if we wanted to get to net zero carbon dioxide, and we wanted to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. And it's it's so simple with four factors, that the mathematics are really easy for anyone to understand.
ML Right. And the way it's come into these shows is, for instance, it's, as you say, it's population times wealth per capita. Well, so we don't talk about population. I'm very, I like people. If somebody wants to go and have a show about how we should reduce population, that's not going to be my show, then you've got wealth per capita. And you know, we can have a discussion about what that means. How do you measure wealth, but I want more wealth, more human potential, more cultural activity, better healthcare, and so on. And certainly in the developing world. We've talked a lot on these shows about how we've got to, you know, we've got to support people in developing their capacities. And then you've got energy use per unit wealth, and that's a lot of the stuff around energy efficiency, energy productivity, technically. And then of course, the last one, which is carbon per unit energy, which we talked about a lot on these shows. So the Kaya Identity for those not familiar with it, it is a fantastic jumping off point. Now did you in "The Climate Fix", did you look at some of the solutions, renewable energy or whatever for those different pieces of the formula?
RP Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So in "The Climate Fix", what I did is, you know, I took issue, and this was, you know, a while ago now, but I took issue with the way that we use scenarios, scenarios of the distant future where we can put in all sorts of assumptions and make emissions look like they're going up, like they look like they're going down. But really, the challenge of emissions reduction starts today, we have a vast infrastructure, which we consume an enormous amount of energy worldwide, 80 to 85% of it is fossil fuels. And I simply said, alright, let's take the Kaya Identity, the first thing to understand is, we're not going to get rid of people, like Logan's Run for people of a particular generation, we're not going to make people poor, it's just not going to work. We all know about the yellow vests in France, and how governments right now are propping up fuel price subsidies. So GDP is off the table. And what that means is we have only two instruments that we can use to achieve deep decarbonisation. And one is energy productivity, as you mentioned, often reduced just to energy efficiency. And the other is the carbon intensity of the energy that we produce. Now, I won't go through it. But if you get into the math, whatever we do on efficiency, and efficiency is important, not least because it helps us become wealthier. But whatever we do on efficiency, carbon intensity worldwide has to go down to close to zero. That means we need to replace existing fossil fuel infrastructure with non-carbon infrastructure. And at that point, it becomes a math problem. And we can figure out how much kit has to be replaced over what time period, while at the same time, recognizing that global energy consumption is going to increase. And again, irrespective of what we do in wealthy countries, because there's a lot of places around the world that lack where people lack energy access. So in "The Climate Fix", I walked through this exercise. And it's simply presented the magnitude of the challenge. And the first step in solving a problem is understanding the magnitude.
ML Now, so far, it's sounding very, very, in a sense, mainstream amongst those people who are, you know, who've woken up to the climate challenge and to energy centrality and the sorts of things we're going to need to do. Sounds very conventional. Now but you've got into a situation where people have called you, they've called you an... What is it an irresponsible skeptic, we'll talk about who in a second, they've called you denier, as you've already said, you've been you've been told that you're outside the mainstream of science, when you've said that all you're doing is representing what's in the IPCC. And then, you know, writing about how we might fix it. So it's sort of, I think we have to start now by talking about hurricanes. Because that kind of was your portal into some sort of, sort of, into this kind of world of, of being othered from within a lot of the climate discourse. So let's start with when did you start working on hurricanes? How long have you been working? Are you just you know, somebody who's dipped in a little bit or have you don't a lot of work, and and then what did you find?
RP Yeah, so I, I started working on hurricanes in my postdoc, which I started in 1994, working for a guy named Mickey Glantz, and he was the founder of Climate Impacts Research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And I was hired to do a detailed study, not of climate change, but of policy responses to Hurricane Andrew, South Florida. And then the 1993 great Midwest US floods. That postdoc became a staff scientist position at NCAR. And at some point, Mickey came in came in one day with a Newsweek magazine, there used to be magazines they used to be made out of paper, and he handed it to me I had on the cover, floods, hurricanes and blizzards blame global warming. Again, this is early days in the climate and extreme events controversies. He put it on my desk, he says, why don't you why don't you look at this? And so that kicked off what has been, you know, 25 plus years of studying hurricanes. And, you know, the first big paper we did was 1998, with a scientist named Chris Landsea. Great name for a hurricane researcher, Landsea. He's now one of the top people at the National Hurricane Center. But we started with a paradox. The paradox was 1991 through 1994 was the most expensive period for hurricane impacts in history. It was also the quietest period for Atlantic hurricane activity in the last 50 years. And we said how can it be the most expensive and the quietest? And that led us many discussions, discussions on basketball courts, and over beers. But that led us to a paper where we said, well, let's let's ask let's answer a question. If every hurricane season of the past happened with 1995 population, 1995 infrastructure, how much damage would there be? And we called that normalized hurricane damage. And that kicked off, we've done a, you know, a series of papers on that, widely cited, unfortunately largely ignored by the IPCC, which has been enormously influential in insurance and reinsurance and in finance, because we were among the first people to offer an alternative to catastrophe models for understanding trends and damage. And so, you know, I don't know how many papers I and colleagues have done on hurricanes, but it's, you know, it's in the dozens. They're widely cited. I'm pretty proud of that, that kind of thread of my research career.
ML In preparation for this, I had a look at a couple of those papers. I didn't go all the way back to 1998. But I found 2005. And to quote from it: "The paper concludes that with no trend identified in various metrics of hurricane damage over the 20th century, it is reasonable to conclude that the significance of any connection of human caused climate change to hurricane impacts necessarily has been and will continue to be exceedingly small. 2012, you essentially repeated, I think the similar sort of analysis, and said, evidence in this study provides strong support for the conclusion that increasing damage around the world during the past several decades can be explained entirely by increasing wealth in locations prone to tropical cyclone landfalls. And then you've just written a blog piece, just, I think, a few weeks ago. And broadly, it's the same story, you're finding the same story that the damage by hurricanes is caused by what we put in their way, by our wealth, and where we, where assets and infrastructure and real estate is, and not by the physical science of hurricanes. Is that a correct interpretation of your?
RP Yeah, that's I mean, that's perfectly fair. And then again, let me say this is, this is fully accepted by IPCC. This is not you know... Anyone who understands kind of development and the history of how coastal wealth has accumulated. It's not going to be anything more than common sense to understand that, that the driver of increasing losses happens to be wealth. There's no surprise there. I often tell people like if you want to look for signals of climate change in hurricanes, don't look at economic data, look at hurricane data, look at actual climate data. One data point, that gets me into trouble a lot. And then again, it's straight out of the IPCC straight out of the World Meteorological Organization straight out of NOAA here in the United States, the official agency that keeps the dataset from 1992 to today, there is no upward trend in landfalling hurricanes, or landfalling major hurricanes. So there is no
ML Roger, is that just in the US, or is that globally?
RP So let's just start with you know, that's the US, globally, we did the first study in 2013. With Ryan Maue and Jessica Weinkle, where we looked globally at hurricanes over the time of record, which goes back to 1970. In the Western North Pacific, we can go back to the 40s and the North Atlantic we can go back to 1900. But globally, we have data from 1970. And again, there's no upward trend over that timeframe for hurricanes. That has been... we updated that dataset for the World Meteorological Organization very recently. When I tell people, there hasn't been an increase in hurricanes, I get funny looks, people have asked questions. And part of the issue is, I think, if you just started paying attention to hurricanes in the last 20 years, which is a lot of people a lot younger than me, you would think there's a lot more hurricanes. The most notable feature of the US hurricane record is an 11 year period, from 2006 to 2017, where there were no major hurricane landfalls onto the continental United States. So of course, if you're 40 years old, and you've just come to the climate issue in the last 20 years, you might think "I don't remember hurricanes when I was in college", and of course, you'd be right. That's why we can't substitute our experience for actual climate data. So the ... And I think I think we're past the controversy on this except maybe on, you know, on Twitter, but most people now accept the fact that the main driver of economic losses, not just for hurricanes, but for disasters generally, is what we build, where we build, how we build it, and then what we put inside of it, in terms of wealth.
ML Right, and just one question, and I want to come back to this question about not just hurricanes but broaden it to other sorts of disasters, weather, climate related disasters. Just in terms of the data. You said that you, you've mentioned a number of times, you know, you look at the data, we built the data, we built the database, we updated the database, you've got this, your work over that 30 year period, you've been building databases, contributing to database, what is the definitive database for this stuff?
RP Yeah, so the World Meteorological Organization, which is an instrument of multilateralism in the United Nations system, has done heroic work in taking data that... Hurricanes occur in different ocean basins around the world. And different national and regional meteorological organizations have responsibility for collecting that data. And as you might guess, they collect it maybe a little bit differently. They use different criteria for putting storms in categories. So they've done heroic work in creating a harmonized global dataset that we can use for these sorts of purposes. So that is the physical science data. The economic data that we use for the United States comes from dataset kept by the National Weather Service. And then internationally, Munich Reinsurance and Swiss Reinsurance have the most authoritative records, which really, unfortunately, only go back reliably to about 2000.
ML Okay, but the point I'm sort of, you know, fishing for is, is there anybody out there? Are you using your own data? Are you using your own facts? Is there anybody else with different facts, different data? Because, you know, it has become, as you said, it is controversial. If I, you know, if I point to your work, and I've done this on Twitter, you get just so many people that pile in and say this is wrong, and they sort of act like it's your own private dataset. Is that right?
RP That's not right. There. I mean, maybe on Twitter, but in the scientific community, there's essentially no controversy on historical landfalls in the different basins. There are different ways to interpret things like the translation speed of hurricanes or poleward movement, where, you know, we have satellite records, we have ship records and so on. But you know, for damage, it's pretty straightforward. It's the intensity of storms at landfall, that is the most important variable. And everyone pretty much uses the same data for that purpose.
ML Okay, so let's broaden to these, you know, other types of, you know, climate slash weather related damages. So we're talking droughts, we're talking wildfires, we're talking flooding, we're talking heat waves. Right now, what is your position on... In any of those areas are we seeing a climate fingerprint? On any of the things when you see these stories that we've just had this fearsome heatwave in India and the attribution science, which is what they now call what you started to do 30 years ago with hurricanes, they would say it's made, that climate change has made that 30 times more likely, you look at the wildfires in California or in Australia. And you know, there's some... certainly the consensus that I read is that this is, you know, climate change has made that more likely. And the same with the floods in at the moment, Australia and these other things. So according to you, is any of that real?
RP So the first thing to say in what I'll get you to that is, we can't talk about extreme weather as a big category. Extreme weather involves phenomena. And we have to take them phenomenon by phenomenon. The IPCC Working Group, I, Sixth Assessment Report, which came out last fall, Chapter 11, goes through each of these phenomena, and comes up with a statement of what is known and what's not known, and the degree of consensus. And so there are a few items for which and the second thing to say is the way the IPCC has worked historically, is it defines a change in climate is a statistically detectable change over 30 years or more of data. And attribution refers to well, if we find a change, can we then put some causality on greenhouse gas emissions? So there's detection first, then attribution. The IPCC concluded that with respect to heat waves, in many parts of the world, interestingly, though, not North America, but in many parts of the world, they have detected a statistically significant increase in heat waves. So yes, it is absolutely the IPCC position that we've seen that and that increase can be attributed to greenhouse gas scores. So that's perfectly reasonable conclusion. A second area where the IPCC has some confidence that they have detected a signal of human caused climate change is in what's called extreme precipitation. People have to be real careful, extreme precipitation is is... It's a colloquial term, but it's also a scientific term and the IPCC goes to great lengths to say, don't confuse extreme precipitation with flooding. So here I am, summer Boulder, Colorado. If we get five centimeters of rain today, that's an extreme precipitation day. Will it cause flooding? No, it won't. So, but again, extreme precipitation is another area where they have detected and attributed. Now when we get to other phenomena, floods worldwide, meteorological and hydrological drought, tornadoes, there is no attribution to be sure. And very little, very little detection. In some regions, things go up, some regions, they go down. Now, there is an important area where there has been a detected trend that has been attributed in some parts of the world. That's what's called fire weather. The IPCC does not weigh in on wildfires, or forest fires per se, because they are multi causal due to, you know, forest management and things like that. But what they do focus on is what's called fire weather, which is a combination of hot and dry conditions. And they have found an increase in fire, weather, and a number of places around the world. So with respect to extreme events, there is that, you know, there's something there for everyone. But it's really important to understand that with respect to tropical cyclones, which includes hurricanes, flooding, meteorological and hydrological drought, and tornadoes, the events that we see on the media the most, the IPCC does not have confidence in either detection or attribution. That's just what the data says, you know, and I know it's not, you know, it's not popular to say that, but this has been a consistent finding of the IPCC for many years.
ML Okay. And so there is something there, what you're saying, If I glossing this back to you to make sure that we're very clear, and the audience can keep up and I can keep up, you're saying that in a number of areas, there are things that are going on that are both they can be detected, and they can be attributed, and we can be pretty sure and they are harming people, there are real harms. So if somebody said to you, climate change damage is happening now, you could agree with that statement.
RP So when you jump from the physical event, to the damage, things become a lot more complicated, right, because damage requires the intersection of an exposed and vulnerable society on the one hand, and an extreme event on the other hand, right? So so if your position is that, yes, heat waves have led to greater heat exposure, then certainly that's the case. All else being equal. Right. You know, there's, more human impact from heat waves that occur in the Pacific Northwest, than in Phoenix say,
ML But if I take very vulnerable people, you take the Horn of Africa, East Africa right now, you know, there is a drought there is. I don't know what the temperatures are doing there, but there's definitely a drought. And there are certainly those who are saying this is climate change. And certainly, you know, a lot of the livestock has died and the people are really suffering. Are you? Are you, you know, do you sort of, do you look at is that one of the ones where you say, okay, this passes all the tests, detection, attribution, and vulnerability. So therefore, yeah, that's probably, you know, a climate damage, or are you? Are you unable to, or unwilling or unable to do that?
RP Well, so let's make this clear, you raise a really important point. So we went from talking about 30 year plus trends in events to raising, say, a particular drought in the Horn of North Africa. So there is a relatively new area of science that has developed that's called event attribution. And the.. So there's a few things to say about that. The way that that is done is you take a climate model, a physical climate model, and you say, well, how would the world have developed if we never emitted any greenhouse gas emissions? Alright, so you plug that in your model and come up with some results, you run it a second time, and you say, alright, we're gonna put greenhouse gas emissions in, carbon dioxide this time and see how the world would evolve. So you have two model realizations. And then what is done is they're compared. And they say, well, what would the risk be of this event, this type of drought in the greenhouse gas version versus not the greenhouse gas version? That's called event attribution. The IPCC has acknowledged it but has been pretty, I don't know subdued on promoting it. Because, again, it's early days in that sort of science. There are a number of challenges. We have a lot of climate models, right? Because you can get one model and get a realization that says something, all right, that's interesting. And it helps with hypothesis generation, but it's certainly not, not certainty. Another issue is what do you do if the IPCC does not detect trends in drought? Overall, over 30 years, but this one drought illustrates a higher risk. There's a logical conundrum there. So there is a lot of caution on the event attribution. I guess, the last thing I'll say is that the people who have developed that, you know, all good thoughtful scientists, but but the motivation that they have expressed is, number one, they want to help get the stories in the media. And number two, they want to underpin lawsuits for responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. For me, all of that says, I'm not quite ready to abandon the IPCC's conventional framework for detection and attribution. These are interesting, provocative studies, they certainly generate headlines. But I'm not sure that they have the stature of 30-year, 40-year, 80-year datasets, looking at drought, floods, tropical cyclones, and so on. I'm not ready to substitute models for evidence quite yet.
ML Right, and you use it, I use an example and you followed it up the droughts in Africa, but that would presumably also go for the heatwave in India and Pakistan, we're just now reading that it was 30 times more likely, but that's in this model, run against that model run not based on the fact that the last few years, I've seen 30 times more of those events than the previous 30 years.
RP I mean, you hit on exactly what one of the conundrum is. Because if there's an event that's 30 times more likely than it used to be, then the proper question would be to say, well, why haven't we seen an increase of 30 times over the last, you know, 50 years, or whatever the data set happens to be? It's a little bit like saying, you know, my, my deck of cards, I've put in a whole bunch more aces. So it's 30 times more likely, you're gonna get a blackjack? Well, you know, if you don't see 30 times more Blackjacks, you might question whether, you know, those cards were put in there properly.
ML So let's just go back for a second to Stuart Kirk's presentation, because one of the charts that he showed was about deaths per million from all of the kinds of climate weather causes. So deaths from floods, droughts, storms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures. And he showed a chart where it dropped from about 250 per million population per year to just visually from his chart, it looks like almost zero. Presumably, there's been a lot of population growth, but but it looks like deaths from those causes have been going down, not up, which you might think from the news coverage around climate damages. So is Stuart Kirk, right? That we actually have got fewer deaths from all those causes, or is he wrong?
RP Stuart Kirk is actually right on this point. From about 100 years ago to today, the total number of deaths have decreased. And also the proportion of deaths as a proportion of the population by several, two-three orders of magnitude. And this is one of the great science, technology, policy success stories that we rarely hear about. And but at the same time, this is what makes it so difficult to attribute climate change signal to human impacts, because at the same time that the climate is changing, and yes, it is changing, but still too is society, and so too is our ability to deal with the vagaries of weather. So it's exceedingly difficult to say, well, this person died because of climate change, or that person died, as deaths have declined by by orders of magnitude. So that's a great success story. And it helps to illustrate that, you know, if we care about impacts, then there's more than just climate change going on. There's also societal change. Right now that can also reverse I mean, those who are very concerned about climate would say, well, that's all very well, but we may be about to go into some point. And we're going to talk about scenarios in the future in a minute. But I want to just play you a clip, if I might. And this is Professor Michael Mann. I'm sure you know, by reputation, possibly even personally. And he came on a show called Democracy Now in December last year, and there had been some tornadoes and they have tragically killed a number of people in America. And he came on the show. And he linked this very strongly to climate change. And let's listen to what he says.
MM If you look at the total impact of climate change around the world. Wildfires, droughts, floods, heat waves, coastal inundation, climate change is already costing far more lives than COVID-19. It is deadlier.
ML So Roger when you hear that, what do you think?
RP Well, I think, you know, Professor Mann probably needs to brush up on his disaster statistics and maybe stick to physical science. If you look at the excess deaths that have been calculated based on COVID, over, you know, over the past two years, in a round number, it's an incredible number, something like 10 million people per year, take a look at official data on people who have lost their lives and those various extreme events that you've described. It's about 5000 per year, in a round number, still too many, every person matters. But to try to assert that climate change through these four or five extreme events exceeds the number of deaths versus COVID. It's just simply irresponsible, it's wrong. And it illustrates one of the challenges of this area is that, you know, if I say something that's accurate, repeated out of the IPCC, as you said, there'll be a whole swarm of people on Twitter to correct what's... Supposedly correct, but it's correct information. And if someone like Michael Mann says something that's obviously false, it gets, you know, it gets a free pass out there. So this is one reason why a nuanced discussion of climate change is so difficult is because misinformation is allowed to persist uncorrected.
ML Roger, let me just come back at you for a second. Because you've used a figure of 5000 annual deaths from these climate slash weather related disasters. I came up with a figure a decadal average of 20,000. I think it's 18,000 or 19,000, under 20,000. Is there a reason for that delta?
RP So the data that everyone relies on for deaths from natural disasters comes from a group in Belgium called CRED they have a dataset called the EM-DAT dataset. And there's some some questions you want to raise about what data to use over what time period Do you include earthquake or geophysical deaths, Fair number over the last decade would be 10,000 plus or minus. 5000, is closer to what's happened in the last three or four years, which have been exceptionally low, which is very good news. Earlier in the decade there were larger loss of life. All that is to say that the the adding up of deaths related to natural disasters is a very imprecise science. So I I'm not going to quibble with a number of 20,000 over the last decade, or 5000, over the last...On average over the last few years. Over the long term, what is clear is that the reduction is so sufficiently large, that a few, unfortunately, a few thousand here and there in the recent years doesn't detract from that incredible decline of millions of deaths over the better part of a century.
ML Right, so we're talking about 95%+ declines over the last century. So it's a very clear signal either way,
RP And it may be larger than that, because as you might guess, in the 1920s, the world wasn't so great in calculating, estimating deaths from from natural disasters. So but when we get order of magnitude changes, those are very easy to see.
ML Okay, so let's move on from this somewhat morbid discussion. And go back to where we were. Okay, so now let's come back to hurricanes into your own story, because you were hired to write about climate and to be very statistically based by an outlook. This is Nate Silver, it's Fivethirtyeight. And his brand is all about being data based. And you joined to write about it. And you wrote, I'm assuming that what you wrote was essentially the story of hurricanes that you've just told us, is that correct? And what happened?
RP Yeah, so this was this was a while. August 2014. I had been in conversation with Nate, he interviewed me for his book on some of my the research that I've done, he asked me to come on, I made a deal with him. I said, I'll write about climate stuff, if you let me write about sports stuff. And so he asked me for my first piece to write a piece summarizing that what was then the recent report of the IPCC, the so-called SREX report, Special Report on Extreme Events. I resisted at first saying, you know, I've testified before Congress on this. I've written on this for the last 15 years. Plus, you really want me to write about it again? And the answer was yes. So I wrote a piece, which is still is a really good piece. And you know, thanks to their editors that said that the the overwhelming reason for increasing disaster losses is not changes in extreme events. It's changes in society, where we build straight out of the IPCC, I made the additional obvious point that the richer a country it is, the better prepared it will be to withstand the effects of natural disasters. That led to an early Twitter mob outrage. The whole world fell in. And I didn't last very long at Fivethirtyeight, the editorial staff there gave in pretty quickly.
ML So I said that you'd been called an irresponsible skeptic, that was Paul Krugman, no less than Paul Krugman. You had sort of you suddenly got your own page on some of these blogs that try and you know, sort of maintain message unity on the climate narrative. And then John Holdren, who at the time was the President's Scientific Adviser? He said, that you were outside the scientific mainstream, which was sort of strange if everything that you said was in the IPCC, was based on IPCC and the associated peer reviewed studies. What did that sort of feel like? You said that you had to leave Fivethirtyeight. But what does it feel like to be told by somebody so prominent and senior, that you're outside the mainstream, you're some kind of gadfly?
RP Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, if it was just if it was just John, you know, saying that in passing conversation or even, you know, putting it out on the internet at the time, you know, that's, that's fine people, people call each other names. But what happened was I had testified before the US Senate, just a few months before John Holdren did, and my testimony, for whatever reason, I don't know congressional testimony goes viral, but it received 400,000 views on YouTube, it was spread all over the place. All I was doing was summarizing the IPCC. So a few months later, John Holdren is testifying before the same committee, the same senators, and he starts making claims about increasing extreme events. And one of the senators said, hold on, hold on a second Dr. Holdren, we had a witness in here just a couple of months ago, who have summarized the IPCC. And that contradicts what you're saying. And Holdren, I think Holdren panicked. Because he said, well, well, that that guy's outside, he didn't address the issue that guy is outside the mainstream. Holdren went back to the White House, and within a couple of days, posted up a six page, it was kind of a screed you might get from your angry uncle, but a screed on and posted it on the White House website. And so I am the, I think the first and only scientist who has been attacked by the US Presidential Science Advisor in the history of the position. And so that in itself was much more significant. And, you know, within a year, I was under investigation by the US Congress.
ML So Representative Raul Grijalva, not sure if I pronounced that right, actually asked for an investigation and sort of insinuating that you were funded by fossil fuel companies, is that the thrust of it?
RP Yeah, the accusation was that I was taking secret money under the table for my testimony, and so contacted my university and asked that I be investigated, they asked, you know, I had to turn over emails and financial records. And you know, of course, I haven't received any money from fossil fuel companies, my Ferrari, you know, it says Exxon on the license plate, but you know, don't pay any attention.
ML Roger don't joke, because, you know, that will be taken out of context. And it'll be all over Twitter. And we'll both be in trouble.
RP Yeah, I mean, it was it I'm not, I mean, it's 2022. And I'm older and wiser. But I have to say that you know being attacked by the White House, being attacked by, you know, a member of Congress, being investigated by my university. That was a dark, difficult time. But it also told me, you know, who my friends are, who supports me, who doesn't. And, you know, it really altered the course of my career and my life. And, you know, with with the advantage of hindsight, you know, made the best out of it. And it's probably for the best, but, but boy, I would not wish, wish a congressional investigation on on any of it on anyone. It's no fun.
ML Which raises an interesting question, because you actually said in your blog on Stuart Kirk, you said that you have some sympathy for him. Does that mean you also have some sympathy for Michael Mann? Because some people say he takes these extreme positions, because he has been so hounded and investigated and he's so harassed, and therefore it's kind of justifies his behavior. Do you have sympathy for him?
RP Absolutely. I mean, I mean, one of the good things about being kind of a public figure and having your career out in public is there's a paper trail. And I mean, people can go on my old blog. When Representative Joe Barton was coming after Michael Mann when, when the Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was coming after Michael Mann. I was one of his most outspoken and strongest defenders. And, in fact, he cited me in his defense. You know, I may disagree with some of the things that Mann has said in some of his approaches. But boy, the minute that a member of Congress or an attorney general of a US state starts investigating him, you know, I'm on his side because, you know, we're both professors and we both have tenure. And we have a right to call things like we see them. So yeah, I had a lot of sympathy for Mann. And, you know, and I'm proud to have been publicly defending him.
ML So Roger, thank you very much for that very clear statement of support for Professor Michael Mann, fellow academic who has been harassed, hounded and even unfairly investigated. Now, we're reaching the point that I promised the audience, we would have a natural break. So Roger, please don't go anywhere. And we'll be back in a few minutes. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation. So welcome back, everybody. I hope that you've enjoyed the break in this longer than average episode. In the first part, we were talking about specific climate impacts hurricanes and others. Now we're going to turn to concerns that Roger has raised about climate science in general. Roger, you recently wrote a paper with Justin Ritchie, entitled Distorting the View of Our Climate Future, the Misuse and Abuse of Climate Pathways and Scenarios. And you made some really pretty major pretty substantial and brutal claims. You said that climate science research and assessments under the umbrella of the IPCC have misused scenarios for more than a decade. Symptoms of misuse have included the treatment of an unrealistic extreme scenario as the world's most likely future in the absence of climate policy, and the illogical comparison of climate projections across inconsistent global development trajectories. Now, frequent listeners to Cleaning Up will probably know exactly where this is going because I have invaded against this scenario, RCP 8.5 In the most recent IPCC Assessment Report Six it's been replaced with an equivalent scenario called SSP5 8.5 and I've talked about it quite frequently on these shows. I consider it to be wildly implausible. I had a Twitter hashtag, #RCP8.5isbollocks and frequent listeners will know about that. But for those that don't, could you just give us a quick refresher on what is RCP 8.5?
RP Yeah, so, in order to project different futures, recognizing that we can't predict how the future is going to evolve. You know, going back since the start going back 30 years, the IPCC has used an approach to looking into the future called a scenario analysis, and scenario analysis dates to the 1960s. To RAND Corporation scenario analysis, was developed by Shell Oil. It's a well-established approach and is extremely useful. Long story short, there has been a debate within the IPCC family, whether scenarios are meant to illustrate plausible futures, or whether we're supposed to identify the most likely future. And at some point, and this is where IPCC, in my view, got things off track. The most extreme scenario of its little scenario set goes by the name, RCP 8.5, was identified as the single sole what's called a reference scenario. A reference scenario is in plain English, this is where we think we're headed. This is the baseline on which we're going to evaluate policy, evaluate impacts, and project the future. And it turns out that that scenario, overeggs the pudding. I mean, it's, it's there's too much it's, it's not a plausible scenario anymore. So let me just say one thing, the science is difficult. Science is complicated. Every one of us who engages in research, we make mistakes, we go down blind alleys, we go down, we go to dead ends, we produce papers that are wrong. Being wrong about something isn't a problem in science. The problem is, what do you do when you find out that you're going in the wrong direction? Do you stick to your guns and you say, you know what, we're going to keep going headstrong do you attack the people who are criticizing you? For the climate community, the issue isn't so much that it developed and followed RCP 8.5. We could debate and discuss that. But the issue is that now for many years, that has been known by many people in the community. And yet in the most recent IPCC report, that scenario features more than any other. So for me, yes, that is a signal that there are some self correction issues in the scientific community. And one way to call attention to that is to write articles that call it out, even if they're unpopular amongst some in the community. And that's what we did.
ML Right and in terms of RCP 8.5, and it's got a successor scenario, in the most recent assessment report, which is SSP5 8.5. But it's all talking about 8.5 watts per square meter of forcing by 2100. And just for the audience that doesn't follow this in as much detail to get there, you have to burn a lot of coal. I mean, we're talking about something like 7 to 10 times as much coal as currently, in a world where coal use has actually peaked something just under a decade ago. And so this is why it's come up in a number of these conversations. Because it's not just slightly implausible, it is by now wildly implausible. And in fact, there's a paper in 2017, which I think has not received nearly enough attention. And this is, again, it's Justin Ritchie, and co-researcher, called Hadi Dowlatabadi, and they produced a paper in 2017. That essentially questioned how much coal there is that can be extracted and burned. And is there even enough to get to that scenario?
RP Yeah, I mean, let me just say all credit to Justin and Hadi for their work. Justin is a genius. I mean, there's there's a few points in a long academic career, when you remember the first time you read a paper and how it altered your thinking. And I remember in 2017, reading his paper about, about high coal futures, and are they still plausible, and you know, light bulbs going off in my head. And by February of 2018, I was giving a talk on it in Japan, in front of Yoichi Kaya. This should have been a fundamentally pathbreaking paper that caused some introspection in the climate science community. Instead, I think I just looked this up yesterday, his paper has been cited 55 times in five years, which is, in my view, a sad statement on the community, his work has been largely ignored. Now, I've been lucky. I've gotten to know Justin and I've collaborated with him now on I don't know, three, four or five papers since then. But the notion that implausible scenarios sit at the center of a lot of climate research, that information was available to all of us in 2017. And so my issue isn't so much, you know, did we originally get scenarios wrong? But what do we do when it's pointed out in legitimate, peer reviewed, solid research? That they're out of date? Do we quickly update them? Or do we we hold fast, and unfortunately, we're holding fast.
ML And I had this infuriating experience talking to Nico Bauer from the Potsdam Institute on another podcast, where I challenged this kind of, you know, 7x to 10x dash for coal, which includes coal to liquids, right? And the thesis being well, if you're going to have a wealthy world, you're going to keep traveling, transporting things. And if the oil runs out, and the gas runs out, because by 2100, it will have peaked, then the only thing you can use if you don't believe, because you haven't figured you haven't got the numbers on how renewable energy is getting cheaper and batteries are getting cheaper. So electrification of transport is not a thing. You believe in coal to liquids. And I had this huge discussion with him when I said nobody in my world, the energy world is planning or thinking about or would consider or conceive of a return to coal to liquids. And yet, that was what was driving the RCP 8.5 scenarios. And it was that implausible. And yet, as you say, no course correction. So what scenario are we currently on? If it's not 8.5 where are we currently headed?
RP Yeah, let me just say one thing in response to that, before we start talking about more plausible scenarios, you know, I've done a lot of thinking and, you know, I have a lot of experience with why might it be that the climate the physical science climate community holds so fast to RCP 8.5? And the answer, it's pretty mundane. It's pretty useful and good for physical science climate research. If you want to see the signal of greenhouse gases in climate model output, then you are much better positioned if you have a scenario with a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. It's not because of climate politics. It's not because of climate policy. It's because the needs of climate research are better served by an extreme scenario, even though the needs of policy might be served by a much more plausible scenario. So I do think that this is an issue that involves a lot more kind of down in the weeds science-y type politics, not so much the hot politics of climate change. Now, you asked, you know what, what's a more plausible scenario. People may be surprised to learn in the IPCC community and in the science community, largely, there is no one who is tasked with the responsibility for assessing scenario plausibility. If you go to the IPCC reports all the way back to the beginning, the number one criterion that it applies for inclusion of scenarios in its report, is plausibility. And so if you ask an IPCC author, what's plausibility actually mean, in practice? No one knows, because that's not been a priority. So I can just tell you quickly about some of the recent research we've done, we took 1311 scenarios that were confined in the IPCC scenario database. And we asked a simple question of this big set of scenarios, which one's best matched two criteria. One is how carbon dioxide emissions have evolved from 2005 to 2020. And which ones best match the projections of the International Energy Agency, which does short term scenarios from 2020 to 2040 or 2050. And come up with I think our result was 177 scenarios survived that, that test of comparison to reality and the short term predictions. The next thing to do is say, well, what are those 177 scenarios say about the long term future? All right, if we call those the plausible scenarios, what do they say? If you take a look at just the Fifth Assessment Report scenario database, that's the median value of one of those 177 scenarios is 2.2 degrees Celsius. For people who are technically inclined, it's a 3.4 watts per meter squared scenario in 2010. 2.2 degrees is not 2 degrees, it's not the Paris target. It's not close to 1.5 degrees. But nor is it four or five degrees that you would find in the very extreme scenarios. So what we concluded in our paper, which was just published a couple of months ago, is that, in actuality, deep decarbonisation is an enormous challenge. But the world in 2022, is much better positioned for that challenge, then we probably would have thought, or certainly would have thought in 2005. And so, you know, it's good news, but it's qualified good news. It means that we're not fighting against the building of 30,000, new coal fired power, coal fired power plants, I mean, we still have 6000 on the planet, we have to retire. But the challenge is significantly different than we might have thought it was once.
ML I just want to go back to your point about nobody is assessing plausibility. And so you use this methodology and you said, 2.2 degrees, and effectively the equivalent of an RCP 3.4 would be plausible. But I just wanted to highlight actually, because we had Inger Andersen, who's the head of UNEP and the IPCC reports to UNEP it's part of the UNEP, and I had her on the show, Episode 77. And I actually asked her why the question that you'd like an answer to whether you suppose that it's because it's convenient for research, I asked her, Why does the IPCC continue to center its research, as it does unequivocally on RCP 8.5? And her response was, "as you know, because you look into this in great detail, the percentage likelihood of the scenarios are provided". And I pushed her on this. I said, I'm sorry, Inger, I need to come in. There are no percentage likelihoods between the different RCPs or SSPs. And she, she reiterated the point, which was extraordinary to me, that the Head of the UNEP does not know that the IPCC does not say that RCP 8.5 is extremely implausible. And that something else is plausible with percentages. It doesn't, it really doesn't. It has gone some way to hinting that RCP 4.5 is more in line with things like the IEA and the track so far. And in fact, just before COP there was an update on the NDCs the Nationally Determined Contributions and that's out there. And it doesn't... It's very interesting cause it includes a chart which includes RCP 4.5 and shows tracking, but it actually excludes RCP 8.5 And it's never no one at the IPCC has ever said we should really stop using this completely because it's not plausible, have they?
RP Yeah, I mean, it's, I have some mixed views on this. I mean, so for a lot of people. I've been working on scenarios, you know, off and on since you know 2007 If anyone, including an expert is not familiar with the details of scenarios and how they evolved. Complete forgiveness, I mean, it is it is mind-bogglingly complex. I gave a talk yesterday, I could not even give the history of scenarios in an hour. So if people don't really understand how they've been used, how that's changed. I get it. It's really, it's really challenging. At the same time, the scenarios are so important, and they're so central to everything we talked about in climate science impacts and policy, that someone needs to have that responsibility. And, unfortunately, that doesn't happen. So the IPCC, you know, the recent Sixth Assessment gives some really mixed messages. So it said up front, and I think one of the early chapters that said that the RCP 8.5 and it's it's correlates are low likelihood and the world is more likely on a track consistent with a 4.5 watts per meter. Didn't follow that up in the report. And again, I get that also, because if you have, since the last IPCC, probably 15,000 to 20,000, peer reviewed papers that use RCP 8.5 is the IPCC really going to say, we're going to ignore all that research that's been funded and done and is on people's TVs? This, to me, this speaks to the need for a brand new way to do assessments, we cannot develop scenarios in 2005 and still be using them 17 years later, we need a much more rapid turnaround, we need to be able to do science that is on a more of a policy relevant timescale.
ML So I broke energy Twitter or climate Twitter at one point by saying those papers, not the ones that use RCP 8.5, to kind of give something a big kick and see what happens. But the ones that position it or call it business as usual. And when I say position it, you know if they say the damages are going to be this unless we take action, and then there'll be that and if the if the this is what the damage, even if they don't call it business as usual. But I called for those papers to be essentially withdrawn, and then either resubmitted after correction or simply withdrawn. Because they are. I mean, it's very hard to know what to call them other than junk science.
RP Yeah, you know, the scientific, you know, the body of scientific research is full of papers that are obsolete, are no longer relevant or had bad data. I mean, I don't think that's a problem. And, you know, the effort to withdraw or correct them is probably not worth the time and effort. But in using them and understanding them. We're smart. We know, we know today that those are implausible scenarios. I mean, I think one of the issues that boggles my mind all the time is there are there are 1000s of studies that use RCP 8.5 either as a business as usual or they might call it a high emissions. But the implication it's this is the trajectory we're on. And the scenario that's used for quote unquote policy success is RCP. 4.5. And they're paired up improperly. One as a baseline and one as a policy scenario, if people knew that RCP 4.5 was considered in large parts of the literature, policy success and today, much of the literature looks at RCP 4.5 as an upper bound based on current policies, try explaining that one to a policymaker. Right, that what you thought was success today is the worst case scenario. It's a challenge, I think for the for the scenarios in the climate research community.
ML And let's give an example of that because I have tried to explain it to policymakers, and it's very hard. The US National Climate Assessment 2018 actually does exactly this. I mean, it's it's buried on page 1358 But it shows damages from RCP 8.5 damages from RCP 4.5, and says this is the benefit we get if we take action, right. And one scenario has got a population of 12.7 billion, 12 billion. And the other one has got a population of 8.7 billion. And they subtract one from the other and say this is what will save if we take action on climate. And I'm assuming they don't mean population control. I'm assuming they mean shutting down coal fired power stations, it is completely and you called an improper comparison. And then it's of course, even more improper when you say that we are already on track for 4.5. And actually what we're fighting for and what gets me out of bed every day is to try to get to 2.6 or 1.9 or some much better scenario closer to you know what very orthodox, well under two degrees and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Paris Agreement targets, but that National Climate Assessment is regarded and is communicated you know, you and I can point it out with our little bandwidth but sheer weight of communicators saying that there is this huge benefit to climate action. And then it gets amplified not just in the documents, but that got into the New York Times and CNN did it not?
RP Yeah, I mean, so this is this is a good example. In this, this is something else that gets me in trouble. Scenarios are great for exploring the future if you want to hit a climate model to see what happens to generate hypotheses. But at this point in the climate debate, I often think that these scenarios get in the way more than they help. If I was, you know, if I was in charge, I would say, you know what, forget about these, for policy purposes, forget about these scenarios, we want to get to net zero CO2 by a certain date. So you know if that's 2050. If that's 2070, let's pick that date. And let's start talking about policies to get us to net zero, rather than hiding all the assumptions and projections behind these different scenarios, as you say, with different GDP, different population growth, and so on. The reality is we're here where we are today. And we can have some certainty about what the world looks like today. We want to retire all that coal, we want to retire all that natural gas, and all that oil. That's those are the scenarios that we should be looking at. And this gets back to my book, "The Climate Fix". At the time I proposed we looked at at rates of decarbonisation, which is the, you know, the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. I've since realized that even that's too technical. So let's just look at exajoules of fossil fuel energy and set targets and start discussing, debating and measuring how we're doing on that target. Temperature targets are fine. But you know, most people don't know what they mean, they certainly don't know how they translate into how our energy infrastructure must change over the next 50 years.
ML Right. So I'm smiling because I'm trying to avoid a rabbit hole. Because when you talk about exajoules of fossil energy, of course, there's a factor of three between primary energy, which is what generally gets measured in exajoules and what the economy really needs, which is actually the challenge is really about 1/3 of what a lot of people think it is. So when you get people like Bjorn Lomborg, showing how impossible it is. They're generally just got the wrong end of the stick. But I don't want to go down that rabbit hole. I want to ask...
ML That's a subject for another podcast and I hope to do that one. I want to ask then, how do you respond to something like there's a paper Schwalm Glendon and Duffy RCP 8.5 tracks cumulative CO2 emissions? I mean, this is a scientific paper, it's a peer reviewed paper, gets published. It was in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 2020. Right, couldn't get much more prominent than that. And it says we're on track for RCP 8.5, and then it gets picked up. And it's used as the basis of a major publication by McKinsey. First of all, was there any merit to that publication? And what are the impacts of that being used by a company like McKinsey?
RP Yeah, so there's a few things to say about the Schwalm paper. None of them particularly generous. What they did in their methodology is they didn't actually rescue, RCP 8.5 what they did is they said, Well, if we take RCP 8.5, and we acknowledge that it has incorrect assumptions about coal energy going forward, and we strip out its land use assumptions and put in equally incorrect land use assumptions. So they would... IPCC projects that land use emissions will be generally declining throughout the century. What they said instead was well, well, let's assume that they rapidly increase. Nobody's saying that, but that's what they said. And we invent a new scenario, then, under those circumstances, maybe RCP is so wrong, that it's right, because its errors all cancel out. You know, ironically enough, the Global Carbon Project, the very next year, published a dramatic revision to land use estimates that revise them down. So that, technically that study has some problems. There's a further problem. And you know, it's inconvenient and it's unfortunate to raise this, but that study was funded by McKinsey. And McKinsey was not acknowledged. And then McKinsey was the main organization promoting it, because they have a number of reports promoting RCP 8.5. So the whole situation is just not a good moment for science. I don't I mean, that study is often cited to kind of rescue RCP 8.5. But I haven't met very many analysts or researchers who think that the assumptions in it are particularly plausible. So we see this in research a lot where a study is produced in order to fill a need for a citation and in this case to counter work by Glenn Peters and Zeke Hausfather, which got a lot of attention, and they had their exchange in PNAS, and people can read that if they want to. But I think the consensus in you know, IPCC sort of tipped its hat to this. Consensus is that RCP 8.5 is not rescueable at this point.
ML And since we're doing a sort of tour of major papers both you know some of the good and some of the bad and you've brought up Hausfather and Peters and they are very much on the side of the kind of the clear and the good here because the Nature commentary 2019 They wrote something called the business as usual story is misleading. And that was really to my mind when sort of my hashtag, #RCP8.5isbollocks could have got its first outing in some ways and Glen was very generous when I had him on the show and said that yeah, my hashtag sort of prompted him and, and Zeke Hausfather to write that piece.
RP Yeah. I mean, Glen and Zeke are two super smart guys. super thoughtful, and also super approachable and engageable on social media, and I have a lot of respect for their paper. Probably the most important thing wasn't what they said, because it had been said before by Justin Richie, numerous times, but where they said it. Once the Nature editorial board decides to commission a piece like that. That's a signal that, you know, this has gone mainstream. And I know, you know, the Twitter discussions that you motivated through your hashtag and persistence, and the efforts of a number of people helped to you know, elevate that issue. But, I mean, honestly, it was only yesterday, I tweeted out two papers with, you know, RCP 8.5 as BAU. It's... the issue it persists, even though there is a wave of support within the community for understanding that that scenario, is a bit dodgy when used in policy context.
ML Right. And in fact, there's still a scenario called SSP3 8.5 being used in papers. And not even the modelers is in the most tortured modeling runs can even produce that scenario. But if you want a really big result, you go with a huge population from SSP3, and you go with the heating from the 8.5 scenario, and then you mash them up and you get you get lots of whether you're in malaria or whatever it is that you're worrying about. You get this fabulous result. It's a complete, but it's scientific nonsense.
RP Yeah, it's unfortunate. And you know, as you say, SSP3-8.5 doesn't exist in the scenario world, but it exists in some of the impacts world. It's actually an important scenario that's being used in the US government's regulations employing the social cost of carbon. So these are not, you know, trivial scientific issues that eggheads debate, these have real world consequences. And, you know, I, you know, let's be clear, because they have real world consequences. That's one reason why it's hard to get them corrected, because there is sort of a intellectual lock-in between policy, politics and science.
ML I want to come back to that and talk about some of the impacts why it matters, in terms of resource allocation, Central Bank, stress tests, and so on in a minute. But before we do that, there's one other paper that I want to highlight. Again, it's in Nature, November 2021. And the the headline is, top climate scientists are skeptical that nations will rein in global warming. And the results were over 60% thought that the world will warm over three degrees by 2100. But you've already said plausible is 2.2, 2.4 it's that sort of range. 60% of climate scientists think it'll be more than three degrees by 2100, 61% experience anxiety, grief, or distress, and 66% engage in advocacy related to climate change. Now, to me, the issue here is what do you call a climate scientist? Because the IPCC has these different working groups, and somebody who is an expert on mosquitoes moving north or ice melting, or flooding, some of the things we've talked about, hurricanes may not know enough. Probably doesn't know enough about the energy system to judge which scenarios are plausible or implausible in the absence, complete absence of guidance on on which ones are plausible.
RP Yeah, I mean, you can put me down with Vaclav Smil on this one. Even experts in energy systems, you know, going back 50 years are not great prognosticators of where the energy systems are going. Our track record and prediction of the future and something as complicated as you know, the rest of the century, and decarbonisation, which involves politics, geopolitics, war, technology, I don't put a lot of weight. I mean, that's why scenario analysis is important. We want to come up with policies that are robust to whatever happens in the future. Wars with Ukraine or technological developments or rapid shifts in climate. So I don't put a lot of weight into long term speculative predictions, because historically, none of us, not me, not you nobody's good at that. I mean, if we were good at it, you know, we'd probably be sitting on a beach somewhere with a big bank account, we can't anticipate the future.
ML Okay, you can't answer. And I would agree. I mean, the prediction is hard, particularly about the future. But the issue here for me is, this article gets rolled out very frequently, as a way of saying, you know, Michael and I suspect, also Roger, you're wrong. It's much scarier than you're portraying. Because 60% of climate scientists say that we're headed for three degrees, and etc, etc. Why would they be so concerned? And of course, my you know, my response to that is, and I've looked at some of the people who answered that questionnaire is they may be climate scientists in the impacts, vulnerabilities, etc or the geophysics of how the planet works. But they are not experts at all, in the one thing that would tell them whether they should be that worried or not.
RP Yeah, I mean, this is this is... What you raise is a much deeper issue in how we think about climate change. Maybe you think about the structure of the IPCC, you know, the one that gets number one, and usually number one is at the top of the table, is the physical science working group. If you actually understand how the IPCC works, you will quickly realize that all of the action starts with Working Group III, that's what provides the information that ultimately drives the climate models, it has always been that way. So yes, there is a privilege that we have we see this in COVID, in public health, that, you know, we we privilege, the expertise of people with virology background or infectious disease, but whether people wear masks or they socially distance, or, you know, whatever, has a lot more to do with sociology and politics than it does, you know, with biology or medical science. So, so these are deeper issues in what sort of expertise is privileged in these discussions. At some point, I have to think that the disparity between the physical sciences expertise in climate and the energy systems expertise has to spill out into the open because there is an as you say, an increasing gap between the views of those two communities.
ML Right. And now at this point in time, central banks and stress tests are kind of the leading edge, the bleeding edge of this discussion. Because central banks, and this was raised by Stuart Kirk, in his presentation, are throwing scenarios at the financial system. And Stuart Kirk talked about how these scenarios buried in small print, there are these huge shocks, he raised the issue of interest rate shocks. Interestingly, Stuart Kirk didn't raise the question of whether the scenarios were plausible at all. So he just said, Miami will be six meters underwater. And it doesn't matter. Whereas I think where we've been going is well hang on a second, actually, it's not going to be. But what are the central banks assuming in their scenarios, sorry in their stress tests?
RP Yeah. So, well, the stress tests used by central banks are themselves a function of a number of scenarios that are used to drive them. And this gets down another rabbit hole. There's an entire industry and sub industry of consultants and contractors, unfortunately, including some of the same institutions that provide scenarios for the IPCC, who are funded to produce scenarios to drive these stress tests. And if you take a look at these scenarios, you actually take a deep dive in the rabbit hole, you will find that many of these scenarios don't pass test of plausibility and it's you know, there's the Network for Greening the Financial System scenarios, where business as usual, it was pretty close to 8.5. And they came up with the version 2.0, and now it's more like 6.0 scenarios. Still implausible, I would argue. So if the point is to generate stress tests for plausible worst case scenarios, someone has to have the task. It has to be someone independent, someone who doesn't have a stake in the game, who can come up with criteria of plausibility, what does that actually mean? How would you know it when you see it? Right now, that's either black box or no one's doing it. And so, for me, stress testing itself creates risks for the financial system. And I think Stuart Kirk was right and in one sense he went too far with his flippant comments and talking about things, another sense, he didn't go far enough, because he completely missed out on the extreme scenarios and plausible scenarios, that you know, would have been a stronger part of his message.
ML So I had the privilege of having Mark Carney on this show. And he talked about the GFANZ, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, but also the Network for Greening of the Financial System, which is the network of central banks. So if you had a few minutes with him, what would you tell him about particularly about those stress tests? What would you recommend that he did? What would you want him to know?
RP So it's interesting, one of the things... I'm not sure I can tell Mark Carney anything that would be of importance, this this issue is so characterized by interlapping conflicts of interest. So you know, Mark, one of his hats is he's a principal in a company that invests in renewable energy projects around the world. Another hat is he helps to oversee stress, you know, the basis for stress testing amongst central banks that invest in projects that his company benefits from. So So, and then on the other hand, the same, the same scenario, developers also provide scenarios for the IPCC, which then gets fed back into governmental decision makings. So the issue here is, if this was the fossil fuel industry, people would be going nuts, right? Because there's all these interlocking, if you learn that Exxon was in charge of funding, a side project for IPCC scenarios, you know, one or both eyebrows would would go up pretty high. So, you know, for me, the issue is that we have to ensure that whatever we do with stress testing and <inaudible>, it's all conducted with scientific integrity. And that means just following basic principles of conflict of interest, of independence, of transparency, plausibility should be front and center as an issue of transparency, everyone should be able to see what the criteria of transparency are, for the selection of scenarios by the Bank of England, say. You have to dig through dozens of reports, even to understand where the scenarios are. There's not a lot of transparency here. So, you know, again, I don't know if I ever would have an audience with these folks. And I don't think they would be amenable to this. But this is one where, where governments in particular have to be sensitive to the fact that they're creating a new infrastructure of institutions. And those institutions should follow basic principles of democratic governance, and I don't think they are right now.
ML Okay, so you wrote this paper with Justin Ritchie, saying, the climate science community is misusing scenarios, and you... It's a long paper, and you've got lots of examples, which, you know, are pretty easy to kind of verify. And you kind of give, provide some recommendations, which are along the lines of what you've just said, good scientific principles, and, and transparency, and so on and so on. What was the response from the climate science community? Did they kind of go, hmm, you make some good points, and we need to do that you're right, or did they close ranks?
RP You know, I don't think it was really either, I think, um, I mean, it's really interesting, like, my work out in public is pretty much ignored by the climate science community. Some of my work was cited in, I was cited in all three IPCC working groups this past year, which, you know, that's great and rewarding. But some of the most, I think significant work was not paid attention to. I have a small group of people, I won't name any names, unless they get in trouble that I interact with in the climate science community are fully aware of these issues. But you know, you won't be surprised to learn that many of the leading climate journalists and climate scientists have blocked me on Twitter. I don't exist for many of these folks. So I do. I mean, I can look at the downloads and see how many thousands of times our papers are download. They're getting read, but very few people actually show up to talk, discuss debate or tell us where we're wrong. And, you know, for me, having impact but not recognition, you know, that's fine. That's, that's I'd much rather have it that way than the other way around.
ML Right, right. And what do you say to those people who would say, you know, just keep quiet, because climate change is real. And yeah, the impacts might not be happening, you know, there are impacts you've acknowledged that the really bad stuff will not hit this decade, next decade, maybe even not this century, and I had Johan Rockstrom on Cleaning Up and he talked about how the commitment time, the time when bad stuff can be caused is now, the fuse that we're lighting is now, but the bang might be in hundreds of years. He didn't phrase it like that. But he talked about the commitment time and the impact time. Commitment time in decades, impact time in centuries. But you know, the only way we're gonna get action is by raising the alarm. And we should be... If that means exaggerating the science, so be it. Message unity is key, and that we should keep quiet. What do you say?
RP I mean, it's funny. I mean, I've, I've had this conversation on and off with colleagues for about 20 years. And, you know, for me, it's it's, you know, I'm trained as a political scientist. And once you recognize that success in deep decarbonisation requires a sustained effort over the better part of a century. Alarm doesn't work. What works is a low level of pressure applied continuously. One of my mentors once said, If you want to turn around a battleship, you don't kick it, you lean on it, and you you have a tugboat and you push it, and eventually it gets moving. We need in the scientific community, we need legitimacy and trust for many, many decades. I am concerned when I see you know, in other settings, like with COVID, how politicized science and science advice can be so quickly. I'm concerned about populist movements, I'm concerned about the loss of support in the US, at least for universities. For me, the best way to ensure continued legitimacy and trust is to be open, honest and call things like we see them. And I do differ with some colleagues, I think that if we say, hey, we made a mistake here with RCP 8.5, we're going to fix it. That doesn't reduce trust, that increases trust. And I think there's, you know, an ample empirical evidence of what builds and doesn't build trust among the public. So yeah, I am not a big fan of ends justifies the means argument, that, you know, we need to get action. So whatever we say goes, I think that the science is plenty strong enough to survive course corrections on climate change. And I have little concern. I think that if the scientific community came out and said, hey, guess what, we got good news. RCP 8.5, as a central scenario is off the table. But we got bad news, because RCP 4.5 is still on the table. I think the public would number one, they'd be you know, that's a positive message. And they say, yeah, I trust those scientists. Because when things go, you know, they go down a wrong path, they fix it. So it is an orientation to research and policy that I know, not everyone in the community shares. But you know, at the same time, looking at COVID. And working on that topic a lot for the last couple years. The same debates occur there also. And it's a part of our times at the interface of science and politics.
ML So Roger, on that note, I think we're going to have to wrap up, it's been a marathon session, halfway through, we turned it into a two parter, or at least gave people a bit of a nature break. But thank you so much for joining us here. It's been extremely thought provoking. And I think a very important discussion. And I would like to think that instead of it being brushed aside as so much of your sort of difficult thought or difficult inputs into this climate debate have been, I would hope that it spurs more discussion. So thank you.
RP Thank you Michael, appreciate the time. I appreciate your preparation. And I wish you all the best of luck with the podcast going forward. I'm a fan.
ML Thank you very much. And of course, most importantly, I wish you a fantastic sabbatical. When you come over to Europe I hope you have a good time. So that was Roger Pielke Jr, Professor of Science and Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. And I thought it was going to be a fascinating and controversial conversation. And indeed, it was. My guest next week is Julia Pyke. She's the director of finance for Sizewell C, and that's the new nuclear power station being built by EDF. So please join me at this time next week for a conversation with Julia Pyke. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group