Roger Pielke Jr.: the politics of unlikely climate scenarios

Summary: The public policy choices we make about climate policy depend on the future that we expect. Here Roger Pielke Jr. describes an example of how climate scenarios too often misrepresent what we know about our world and its likely futures.

Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.


Pielke on Climate” – part 3 of 3.

The Politics of Inconceivable Scenarios.

By Roger Pielke Jr. at The Climate Fix.

Posted with his generous permission.
Lightly edited.



Welcome to issue #7 of my occasional newsletter on climate and energy issues. As a reminder, my day-to-day research or writing is focused on sports governance and various issues of science policy. But I’ve written a fair bit on the topics of climate and energy over the past 25 years, including two recent books and a boatload of academic papers, and I’m paying attention. So caveat lector {reader beware}! …

The Politics of Inconceivable Scenarios.

Last for this month, but perhaps most important, is a hugely significant paper published by Justin Ritchie and Hadi Dowlatabdi of the University of British Columbia titled “Why do climate scenarios return to coal?” {In Energy, December 2017.} The paper argues that the IPCC’s scenario for future emissions of carbon dioxide most often characterized as “business-as-usual” (technically called RCP 8.5) should be considered implausible. They explain: “RCP8.5 no longer offers a trajectory of 21st-century climate change with physically relevant information for continued emphasis in scientific studies or policy assessments.”

Why does this matter? A “business as usual” {BAU} scenario is frequently used as the basis for projections of how the future climate will evolve in the absence of climate policy that seeks to reduce emissions. The difference between BAU and a climate policy scenario in terms of climate outcomes is thus characterized as the consequences (and sometimes the costs) of not mitigating.

Right away you can see that for those seeking to argue the case for mitigation action, there is every incentive for BAU to be as bad as possible. But what if BAU isn’t as bad as it used to be, under assumptions that may have made sense in the 1970s for a dramatic return-to-coal through the 21st century? Should today’s BAU baseline be made more realistic?

Clean Energy. CEA image
Clean Energy. CEA image.

Larry Kummer has done a great job documenting how RCP 8.5 has been frequently invoked as a “business-as-usual” scenario.

{See “Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!” describes the implausible assumptions of RCP8.5 — which makes it a good worst-case analysis. Also see this about the use of RCP8.5: “Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.“}

In fact, once you start looking, you’ll see RCP 8.5 everywhere in the climate impacts literature. For instance, just yesterday, PNAS published a quick-turnaround study by Kerry Emanuel: “Assessing the present and future probability of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall“. It argued that storms like Hurricane Harvey will become 6x more common by 2100 under RCP 8.5. But if RCP 8.5 is implausible, then so too are Emanuel’s results (any other methodological issues aside).

Revisiting BAU has profound significance. As Ritchie and Dowlatabadi explained in an earlier paper (“The 1000 GtC coal question: Are cases of vastly expanded future coal combustion still plausible?” in Energy Economics, June 2017 – Gated): “For the past quarter-century, high emission baselines have been the focus of research, explicitly or implicitly shaping national policy benchmarks, such as estimates for the social cost of carbon.”  That innocuous sentence gets close to a third rail of the climate debate — the social cost of carbon (SCC).

The more extreme the BAU scenario, the higher the SCC and the higher the cost of what those using the SCC would claim to be acceptable regulatory action. See the incentives at play here?

The Ritchie and Dowlatabadi paper reveals a deeply problematic aspect of the climate issue: It depends almost entirely on competing visions of the future as codified in integrated assessment models. The costs of action and inaction are based on the assumptions used to build these models – not evidence, not data but assumptions.

Policy arguments based on assumptions in highly speculative models are tailor-made for pathological politicization, appeals to authority and gatekeeping to protect from critical views. Based on this, in the real world of politics they also have very little weight in near-term policy decisions.

A far better approach would be to focus on carbon-free energy as a proportion of global supply and to argue about what would actions would move that proportion from a current ~14% towards upwards of 90%.

Proportion of global energy consumption from carbon-free sources

Richie says he has faced some difficulties getting his arguments published: “Despite getting over 30 peer reviews collected from all of these journals, no one has shot it down,” he said, adding that he still has detected a reluctance among some scholars to grapple with his observations. “Maybe I’m completely wrong about all of this, and here I’ve written all these papers and there’s some critical flaws in them. That’s great — tell me about it,” Ritchie said. “Please! Someone just read it!“

Read it. It is important.


About global coal reserves

The stories about almost unlimited coal reserves were based on crude estimates — looking at volume but ignoring their energy content (much of them have the energy content of kitty litter). The process of marking them down began with “Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy“ by Gregson Vaux. Many reports continued his work, especially the 2007 National Academies report: “Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy.“

The relationship between mineral reserves, resources, and prices has long been understood by geologists and those in the mining industry, but is poorly understood by the public (as seen in the flood of nonsense during the “peak oil” hysteria of 2005-13). For a good intro see this excerpt from the classic Copper the anatomy of an industry by Sir Ronald Prain (1975).

The posts in this series

  1. Institutional decay in climate science.
  2. More misreporting of experts’ reports.
  3. The Politics of Inconceivable Scenarios.
Roger Pielke Jr
Roger Pielke Jr.

About the author

Roger Pielke, Jr. is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the U of CO-Boulder. He was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is now Director of the Sports Governance Center in the Dept of Athletics. Before joining the faculty of the U of CO, from 1993-2001 he was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

His research focuses on science, innovation and politics. He holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science from the University of Colorado. In 2006 he received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research. In 2012 Roger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Linköping University in Sweden and the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America.

His page at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has his bio, CV, and links to some of his publications. His website has links to his works, and essays about the many subjects on which he works.

He is also author, co-author or co-editor of seven books, including The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (2007), The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (2010), The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (2014), and The Edge: The War against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports (2016).

Some of his recent publications.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about Roger Pielke Jr., about coal, about the RCPs, and My posts about climate change, and especially these …

 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

… see Pielke’s book The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. See my review. Here is the publisher’s summary…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

6 thoughts on “Roger Pielke Jr.: the politics of unlikely climate scenarios”

  1. The 1000GTC coal study link is busted. Otherwise, good thinking, and I think Pielke has a good point – although I would not be surprised if renewables start eating coal and gas’s lunch for good soon, hopefully with fusion swinging in some time afterwards. I would not want to be a country whose economy is based on oil and gas exports in twenty years, even if I’m sure they’ll still be valuable.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Re: 1000GTC study

      I’ve fixed the link! Thanks for catching and reporting this.

      Note that the two Ritchie and Dowlatabdi papers are complex in data add reasoning — and gated. Personally, I believe that the standard geology answer (in Sir Ronald Prain’s book) is a more useful guide to the available supply of coal.

      “I would not be surprised if renewables start eating coal and gas’s lunch for good soon, hopefully with fusion swinging in some time afterwards.”

      “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
      — Attributed to Roy Charles Amara as paraphrased by Robert X. Cringely.

  2. I was surprised when I read up on the scenarios, something I only did recently. Describing RCP8.5 as “business as usual” is *at best* advocacy disguised as science.

    Climate scientists need some scenarios of atmospheric CO2 concentration (and lots of other inputs) for their models. This is very sensible. But which scenarios?

    The actual explanation for the range of scenarios is given in the paper – “A special issue on the RCPs”, Detlef P. van Vuuren et al, Climatic Change (2011):

    “By design, the RCPs, as a set, cover the range of radiative forcing levels examined in the open literature and contain relevant information for climate model runs.”

    So, if we look back at early modeling in the 1960s it was common to examine “doubling CO2” as a representative case. Of course, people wanted to find out what happens if CO2 concentrations go higher. So a few people examined “quadrupling CO2”.

    Now van Vuuren and team provide a “plausible scenario” to produce 4x pre-industrial CO2 concentrations – because that was their brief.

    Climate scientists have no special scientific insight into the demographic transition and why it won’t happen in sub-Saharan Africa (even though it has happened in every other country that came out of poverty), uptake of technology and why it won’t happen in the future, or in the economic development of sub-Saharan Africa. For that we need professional astrologers.

    It seems extremely unlikely that RCP8.5 could occur. No one in climate science has justified using this scenario (especially as “business as usual”). It simply arrived because some climate scientists once tested climate models on 4x CO2.

    It’s easy to prevent RCP8.5 – even if the amazing convergence of events take place as described in RCP8.5 all the world needs to do is produce plentiful natural gas and sell it cheaply to developing countries.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      Science of Doom,

      RCP8.5 is a useful analysis. Basic risk planning requires worst-case scenario to remind of us the consequences if we are stupid or luckely. Or, for example, if we’re like the crew and passengers of the Titantic — suffering from back luck and stupidity.

      But, as you say, calling the worst case scenario a “business as usual” scenario is misrepresentation — advocacy. It’s not a matter of scientists’ ability to predict the future. The B.A.U. scenario assumes continuation of current trends. The worst-case scenario assumes that current trends change — all for the worse.

  3. Pingback: Scary but fake news about the National Climate Assessment | Watts Up With That?

  4. Pingback: After 30 years of failed climate politics, let’s try science! – Weather Brat Weather around the world plus

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