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There was a lot of Rome left after Nero

Even in the little world of climate science, we saw our share of hooliganism during the final days of the Trump Administration.

In November, the White House removed Michael Kuperberg from his role as the executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and replaced him with David Legates. Legates is widely known as a climate change skeptic. In the week before the inauguration, Legates and friends published a set of unscientific, unreviewed documents claiming copyright of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This motivated Legates’ near-immediate removal from his detail to OSTP. All of these moves were unsavory, unethical, and perhaps illegal — but existing as insignificant noise in those last days.

Barely two weeks later, President Joe Biden signed a stack of executive orders on #climateday. This contrast to the exiting administration is more like switching a vacuum cleaner to a leaf blower than a pendulum swing.

As expected, as soon as Biden was in office, he went to work reversing many of Trump’s executive orders. As much as this is celebrated by those concerned about the planet, this continuing practice is a terrible way to form lasting policy. We’ve ceded our approach to climate change to the signature of whoever helms the executive branch, and hence whichever party holds the office of president. The whole process becomes an exercise in personal belief and partisan tribalism.

Therefore, I feel an important strategic goal in the next two years is to establish a firm legislative foundation for both mitigation and adaptation in response to climate change.

The mitigation issue

Mitigation — which focuses on reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — appears to be a top priority of the Biden Administration. But mitigation requires major intervention across the entire planet’s infrastructure of energy production. This would force a transition in large sectors of the economy and disrupt the hierarchy of corporate and national power. Therefore, it is one of the most difficult outcomes to achieve.

Adaptation, on the other hand, can be localized. It’s often a reaction to an existing or increasingly obvious problem — the sea lapping at your home’s foundation, for example. As with many problems, the potential exists to scale coherent and coordinated individual approaches into regional solution strategies. It should be more tractable to develop adaptation policy and law. There could be lasting (perhaps even bipartisan) support and benefit with more focus on adaptation.

Climate awareness is pervasive among most of Biden’s cabinet nominees and agency political appointees. This offers potential for climate issues to infiltrate policy interpretation and regulation enforcement. Still, without legislation to fund and support these efforts, they will fall into the same pattern of executive back-and-forth that we now experience at the national level.

Large organizations tend to fragment activities, and the federal government often carries this to an art form. Indeed, as a manager at NASA, I discovered many colleagues felt they benefited — or even thrived — in such an environment. In crisis, we’ve seen individual agencies and resources come together in unique configurations, so we know the capacity for collective action exists. The capability often does not. Biden is taking an important first step to change that. He has appointed Gina McCarthy as White House National Climate Advisor. She will face the daunting tasks of wrangling countless federal pieces into a cohesive whole. I would like to see the effort persist in a National Environmental Security Council.

Rebuilding … better than before?

Pipeline

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order revoking the permit, issued by the Trump administration, that allowed construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Some visionary aspects of the Biden Administration’s approach to climate and energy stand in stark contrast to the Trump Administration. I’m impressed by the new president’s move to combine elements of social justice and environmental policy. Our culture and values will need to evolve, though, if we expect to see a healthier society.

I believe one of the most important lessons we learned from the Trump Administration is the importance of ethics. I worked in government for more than 20 years. Even at Michigan, I remain involved with government. But I never before experienced the swing in ethical values that we had in the Trump Administration and I was alarmed by the attacks on science and scientists. The erosion of integrity placed excellent scientists in unfamiliar roles with no good outcomes.

Since Jan. 20, I have been truly impressed by the new administration’s focus on science and climate. The team appears to have done an impressive level of planning. But it’s still the federal government we’re talking about, and the tendency to fragment and shift with elections continues to create endemic and persistent barriers.

We must protect the ethical foundation of our government; it should not reside in the self-interested stroke of an executive’s pen. Throwing science and ethics into turmoil for personal and partisan gain does not help our climate. Success, beyond even two years, will depend on how quickly we move from the initial enthusiasm to addressing real, strategic work.

Comments

  1. Linda Peck - 1972

    Thank you, Mr. Rood, for the insight into this very real problem of our ebb and flow government. How do we proceed to get a mandated ongoing organization or preferably organizations to advise and implement climate change policies. Will you be following through on this idea in the future? Thank you.

    Reply

    • Richard Rood

      Hi,

      I wish I had the answer. I have spent 20 years trying to develop a sustained approach in weather and climate modeling. I think my efforts have contributed to making that little part better but it is still not good.

      Within the confines of government, I would start to try to frame the climate problem as a problem of “environmental security,” which I talked about a couple of Climate Blue columns ago.

      Presently, I advocate a permanent role in the White House, parallel to the National Security Counsel. But those White House Counsels are, as we just demonstrated, subject to political vacillation.

      Even though interpretation of regulations and policy causes are still subject to instability, having legislation does provide some stability.

      Reply

  2. William Rau - 1961

    Mr. Rood, you very correctly stated your concern about the rapid executive orders coming from the White House and the need for constrain and get a consensus on this issue and others. This issue of climate change is of a magnitude that requires severe deliberation with input from many. Also, an admission that we are still learning from cause and effect.,
    Not long ago I read about the effect of Pacific Ocean current and how that was impacting us. I no longer hear any of that discussion. This past year I was pleasantly surprised to hear that CO2 emissions had dropped for the first time in years. I believe the reason given was that there are fewer coal burning power plants having switched to less costly natural gas. Now if that seems to be working why in the world would we want to shut down drilling for gas? If we push to shut down coal production, gas and oil drilling were does that leave us?
    I guess the answer to that may be windmills and solar panels. To do that in a cost effective manor is many years away. Oh, and I believe that those products are made in China….oh well! More jobs down the drain.
    Now the one that boggles my mind…shutting down the Keystone Pipeline. Do we really want to transport the oil via trucks and trains? What is more inclined to pollute the atmosphere? There have already been a number of devastating train wrecks with these tankers. How many very skilled workers are now unemployed?
    Back to your point—bring groups together that can advise the administration on these matters, do not rush these decisions. Thanks for your article.

    Bill

    Reply

    • Richard Rood

      Hi,

      You walk right into the heart of the problem.

      Communication: Indeed the Pacific Ocean has enormous effects on regional, say, California, and global climate. It is still important, but it is just not talked about so much right now. Plus, there is not much we can do about it.

      Coal and gas: Coal is bad, tar sands (what they talk about in Alberta and Keystone) likely worse, gas is better, but gas is not good. So is gas a way to get us off of coal? In many cases, yes, but we still need to get off of gas. We need to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide by > 80% in the next 30 – 40 years. We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to, say, 350 parts per million. It is a point of substantive argument the roles that gas plays.

      Keystone: Does that, primarily, facilitate fuels from tar sands that are worse than coal? If yes, do we want to do that? Or are those tar sands going to be developed no matter what, and does the pipeline make transport both safer and reduce CO2 from trucks and trains? (As I recall the National Academy of Sciences took the position that is does.) Should we continue to subsidize the generation of fossil fuels, especially dirty fossil fuels? Is our calculation skewed because we do not really account for the cost of carbon dioxide pollution to the environment? Again, there could be substantive argument around the Keystone issue.

      What about nuclear energy?

      What about our policies that drove manufacturing of solar panels to China? Wind turbines? (We make these in Colorado, but it is often through foreign investments.)

      Personally, I come down on Keystone should not be built because we need to turn to leaving the carbon in the ground. Especially dirty sources and those sources that have very high public health and environmental risk. I think the business model and economic benefits of renewable energy are fast turning us away from the dirtiest most expensive sources of fossil energy – especially, if we do not subsidize fossil fuels and devalue the costs of fossil fuel waster. But gas will remain in the mix for a long time – petroleum as well. Do we leave them, but figure out how to capture their carbon dioxide?

      Interesting to think of Climate Policy versus Energy Policy and does in make any sense to view them separately. That is a false choice that we pursue through executive orders.

      Reply

  3. Anne M. Thompson

    Always nice to read your thoughts and sound ideas. Let’s hope the climate issue progresses better than we expect!

    Reply

  4. Richard Rood

    Hey, Anne Thompson! Hope life is treating you well. I remember when SHADOZ was new. Does not seem that long ago. Thanks for reading and a note.

    Reply

    • Dan Ouellette - 1984

      Hello Dr Rood,
      Someday our school kids will get some balance in their science instruction and learn about the Vostok ice core data. Its thousands of years of data show the opposite of what we are repeatedly told. They show that temperature is actually a driver of CO2 levels – not the reverse. Now that, Dr Rood, would be ethical. Yet if the goal is truly to reduce CO2 emissions, it’s already been happening in the US without coercion over the last several years with our transition from coal to natural gas. Unless you enjoy bureaucracy and edicts, rejoining the Paris Agreement is harmful. It will handcuff America while nodding at the world’s largest CO2 emitter, China. Here is the truest indication that man-made climate change is a myth. The actions of its believers don’t match the urgency of their claims. They still blithely use fossil fuels. They don’t curtail their use of electricity (~63% comes from those fuels). They show no change in their lifestyles despite the “existential” threat. The most visible still fly their private jets and maintain their multiple homes. The American public, far keener than politicians hold them, has climate change near the bottom of issues important to them.
      Dan Ouellette

      Reply

      • Richard Rood

        This is an interesting message that I will use in class.

        I think that I can produce evidence that will pass tests of credibility and legitimacy that will stand in substantive opposition to each assertion that you make.

        However, there is one that I need to refute for the benefit of other readers, as well as scientific integrity.

        For the record, we do use the Vostok ice core record. Indeed there are some times when the temperature precedes co2 in that record and other times when it does not. This is because there are many different causes of temperature and co2 variability. These causes are at some level uncorrelated; they do not occur with the same characteristic time spans. Hence, co2 and temperature have a complex correlation.

        To link your argument on correlation is a classic logical error of false cause, aligned with confirmation bias.

        As an useful thought experiment. Almost every year in, say, Michigan, the temperature increases between January and July. At the same time co2 decreases. Why?

        For those interested you may comment on the class exercise (I hope.).

        https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1LwhXISVNxxtWmx6Snut3VkrC_fwG07jh9QczpRf-KYM/

        Reply

        • Dan Ouellette - 1984

          Hello Dr Rood,

          In January of the year you turned 20, your hair was dark. In July of the same year, your hair was still dark. From those six months of data, we can therefore project that, at the age of 60, your hair will still be dark. I hope you can see that we can’t take a tiny slice of weather data and make meaningful long-term projections. The Earth has been around billions of years and there are cycles that are a day long, a year long, and thousands of years long. The Vostok ice core data shows a latent connection between temperature and CO2. It shows that when temperatures trend up over centuries of time, CO2 levels also trend up, but hundreds of years later. The opposite was also found to be true. When temperatures trend down, eventually so do CO2 levels.

          If the correlation between CO2 and temperature is complex, why are we repeatedly presented with a simple solution: reduce our CO2 emissions? If the correlation is complex, how are politicians able to explain it? If the correlation is complex, it sounds like we’ve got more research to do before we claim that the science is “settled”.

          What affect will the Paris Agreement have on China? If little or none, then what is the point? It would be interesting to see the evidence of how Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, for example, has altered his lifestyle to prevent the world from ending.

          Dan

          Reply

          • Richard Rood

            Hi,

            My point is not to suggest that I can take a slice of weather data and make a long climate projection. My point is that the correlation between co2 and (T)emperature is not direct. The example shows the T increasing because of solar heating, and co2 decreasing because of biological uptake by, say, trees. Indeed, in this case, on this time span, T and co2 are anti-correlated.

            That does not suggest that under all conditions that T and co2 are anti-correlated.

            Indeed on a longer time span, that the Earth is not, primarily, frozen relies on the presence of greenhouse gases, especially water and co2, to maintain our temperate conditions. Do you accept that basic role of greenhouse gases? If no, then the conversation is over. If yes, then we walk into more complexity.

            Assuming a yes answer, then co2 and T are related, and therefore, we would expect there to be some correlation. How strong that correlation might be, depends on what other factors affect co2 and T.

            I don’t know what you mean by latent, but if you are suggesting that co2 and T just happen to be correlated for 800,000 years, then is that coincidence? Is that because there is a independent, external factor that influence T and co2 to that behavior? Or is it because there is a physical mechanism that connects co2 and T?

            If we follow the evidence we have from scientific investigation, then it leads us to the physical mechanism. That then leads to there should be some correlation, but that correlation does not define the entirety of the relationship.

            Using my hair as an example, age does not describe the entire relationship with my hair color.

            So your initial assertion of T leading co2 increases, in some instances, does not excuse co2 from having a role, and perhaps a primary role, in governing the Earth’s average temperature. It tells us we need to know more before we can draw that conclusion. We need more investigation.

            One place investigation might lead would be the physical chemistry that connects temperature with the storage of co2 in the ocean – a temperature increase followed by co2 release from the ocean that “takes over.” It might lead us to understanding what is happening with growth and decline of trees. It might lead us to natural oscillations in the ocean circulation that periodically expose deeper ocean water with the surface. It might lead us to solar variability. We have to examine these other influences on the behavior of T and co2, and hence, their correlation. We are likely to find that all of these and other factors are important.

            The conclusion that is reached by investigation that considers the complexity suggested by the observations is that co2 is very important to the planet’s temperature, and that if we persist in increasing the co2 then the planet will warm.

            We can conclude the same about methane, about n2o, about CFCs. But why do we discount these relative to co2? Because we count molecules and heat, and co2 is most important.

            Why do regulate or propose to regulate methane and CFCs, because we want to keep it a co2 problem, and not an even more impossible methane and CFC problem. Is not immediate regulation of methane one the Biden 100 day agenda? Do politicians, indeed, only talk about co2?

            Why do politicians cast things as a simple co2 problem? Lets assume that the political message does correlate highly with the mention of co2. The political argument is always too simple. – too polarized, too black and white, too right and wrong, to us and them. But, I assert, that a more careful examination of, even, the political message would reveal that the correlation is not unity.

            Real policy, good policy, is more complex, and still likely too simple.

            China? I think and analysis of US and China positions on Paris and what it means to the behavior in each country will not serve the US well. I don’t think it will prove either to be an especially good world citizen, with respect to climate change.

            A question that always interests me in the ice core / Vostok argument, why choose to give this observation, this data, these variables such high priority relative to 1) other more modern, more complete, more accurate data, and 2) more comprehensive and accurate measurements of the climate? Why such focus on these data as if they are canonical, absolute, or complete?

            Reply

  5. Norb Roobaert - 63

    Hello Dr. Rood, Good to visit with you again. I look at things from a practical view. Shutting down fossil fuels and living by the Paris accord will be fine until people begin to experience the results. Once you’re short on energy to heat your home, drive your car, and take that trip things will be looked at in a new light.
    I think we should do a better job of teaching our kids how to conserve energy. Turn the heat down wear a sweater. Turn the tv and lights off when you leave the room. Consolidate your trips to the store, carpool, and save energy in many other ways. It seems to me kids are not taught or practice this.
    Best Regards,
    Norb Roobaert in Texas

    Reply

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