Action 105. Get less uncertain reading Climate of Uncertainty.

I don’t do nearly the amount of reading on climate science that I frankly should, so I picked this up recently: Climate of Uncertainty: A Balanced Look at Global Warming and Renewable Energy, published in 2010 by William Stewart, a lawyer who heads the Climate Change/Global Warming division at his firm.  I wanted to see how Stewart translated this subject to make it approachable and to learn more about how someone from a legal perspective might approach this difficult and certainly litigious subject.

Stewart does a surprisingly good job of navigating the extremely complex world of climate science and technological responses given that he is not a scientist. His book is a very broad, high-level introduction to many of the major aspects of climate change science, including a good treatment of where the science is still evolving and where there is still substantive uncertainty in the outcome of our effects on climate. His first few chapters are a very understandable and simple, while not being overly simplistic, treatment of some of the major predictions that current science (or science of a few years ago, anyway) is making about what we expect to see in a changing climate.

He also does not shy away from, and does a pretty fair job of, taking on and trying to sort fact from fiction in the world of climate skeptics.  Stewart does a good job presenting the basis and extent of truth in some of the major “claims” put forth by skeptics- “the hockey stick controversy”,”climate gate” “global cooling” and other arguments regularly thrown out on the skeptics side. I do think, however, that he shies away from making some of the connections about the economic and political motivations that underly many of the skeptics’ claims. Its pretty darned clear how deep the pockets and tight the connections are between some of the skeptics that clamor most loudly about the lack of evidence for climate change and its effects, and the economic and political interests of their benefactors, and Stewart dwells less on that territory than might be warranted. While he claims, accurately, that “bias and propaganda dominate both sides of the climate debate,” I think its worth pursuing further than he does what the source of those biases are. Certainly, nonprofit environmental groups are guilty of oversimplifying connections for the benefit of making a point that the situation is worthy of our concern and activism (for example, claiming simple causative relationships between individual extreme tropical storms and climate change, when our scientific ability to connect storm frequency to climate change still has substantive uncertainties). On the other hand, the difference between the motivation  between why environmental groups might oversimplify (profound concern about the human and environmental impacts of climate change) and the  motivations of many folks who would deny the trajectory of climate change and our hand in it (economics and power; a small proportion of these folks are probably true scientific skeptics, but realistically, let’s face the fact that climate change policies are hitting a wall not because of the lack of evidence of the threat, but because of the substantive political and economic obstacles in our way).   Regardless, the conclusion Stewart reaches regarding this skepticism is on target, “that is not to say that cynicism should win the day… it is the risk, not the certainty, of climate change that does or does not warrant action. A homeowner does not buy insurance knowing his house will burn, and humanity need not wait until its fate is sealed before pursuing prudent preventative action.”

So what does “prudent preventative action,” mean? Stewart doesn’t have the answer- I’m quite sure no one has one answer- but he does provide a solid overview of many of the technologies and policies that might be in our toolbox for addressing the risks of climate change. Inevitably, the few short chapters Stewart provides on nuclear power, smart grids, “clean” coal (my quotation marks), and biofuels, cannot come close to doing justice to these topics, as they are rightfully each several  books in and of themselves. However, if you want an introduction to the menu of clean tech and energy efficiency options we need to be looking at on climate change, this book provides a nice start.

One of the most jarring aspects of reading Stewart’s book was to me to read his section on natural gas, which he calls “a bridge to a renewable energy future” but “not a long-term solution to existing climate change or US energy security challenges,” because” the combustion of methane still emits large quantities of carbon and its supply is finite.” Reading this makes me realize how swiftly the energy playing field is shifting under us, and how by not taking a proactive role in directing our energy choices, we are falling dangerously far from the best application of natural gas- as a bridge fuel- towards a position where natural gas is viewed as the next economic boom and source of American energy security, with little regard to its environmental and health effects.

Because the US is not laying out a clear path for reducing fossil fuel emissions- we have no carbon pricing system, international treaty, or overarching regulatory policies that would help us systematically evaluate and choose technologies that move us towards a particular emission reduction goal- natural gas is fast becoming the next great energy boom following oil’s footsteps, with the exceedingly dangerous risk of entrenchment of this energy into our political and economic decision that may keep us drilling far past the point where we should be phasing it out for its pollution and climate risks. This is a point that Stewart does not seem to grasp at all- perhaps because when he wrote this book, the natural gas boom was only just getting underway, and he did not have the foresight to see where a vacuum of leadership on energy policy might take us. I think now, within just a few additional years, we are seeing a natural gas trajectory that does not match his hopes or the hopes of many others who labeled it a “bridge fuel” to a cleaner energy future.

William Stewart is not Al Gore, and he most certainly is not Bill McKibben. You will not find in his book the sense of urgency or passion that many others who write about climate change and our options for response have brought to the subject. Frankly, part of me finds his uber-balanced approach frustrating for this reason, because to be dispassionate about a critically important, time-sensitive issue leaves you feeling more like you’ve just been debriefed on policy than asked to take action. Stewart’s parting comments about public action, such as “the chances of a positive result increase each time one of us learns more about the nature of the challenges that lie ahead”, strike me as purposefully vague and noncommittal to the point of irritation. For a man who dedicates this book to his seven children with his concern that “my generation will deliver onto yours a world rife with extraordinary peril and complex challenges”, finishing the book with a call to action that consists of hoping more people get educated because it might get us where we need to go is, well, not exactly the inspiration I was looking for. But, as I said, Stewart is not McKibbin, his is not the voice of an activist, and he is solidly right that we need a hell of a lot more honesty and transparency in the issue of climate change if we have any chance of navigating towards a path that sustains us.


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