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August 26th, 2019

↳ Environment

Summer in Brabant


On the pressures of policy-relevant climate science

Without any “evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation,” or any promotion of inaccurate views, how can bias enter a scientific assessment? In their new book, Discerning Experts, Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, et al explore the pattern of underestimation of the true consequences of climate change.

Climate change's impacts are uncertain; predictions about climate change are difficult to make. Taking an ethnographic approach, Discerning Experts shows how those difficulties, coupled with the nature of the public discourse, and the pressures that come when research is going to be discussed and used in policy, have tilted climate assessment optimistic and cautious.

In a summary of their book, Oreskes et al explain three reasons for the tilt:

“The combination of … three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to ‘least common denominator' results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.”

These tendencies, according to the authors, pertain to the applied research context. The academic context is different: “The reward structure of academic life leans toward criticism and dissent; the demands of assessment push toward agreement.” Link to a summary essay in Scientific American. Link to the book.

  • In an interview, Michael Oppenheimer elaborates on other elements that skew the assessments: the selection of authors, the presentation of the resulting information, and others. Link.
  • In a review of the book, Gary Yohe reflects on his own experience working on major climate assessments, such the IPCC’s. Link.
  • A David Roberts post from 2018 finds another case of overly cautious climate science: models of the economic effects of climate change may be much more moderate than models of the physical effects. To remedy this, “We need models that negatively weigh uncertainty, properly account for tipping points, incorporate more robust and current technology cost data, better differentiate sectors outside electricity, rigorously price energy efficiency, and include the social and health benefits of decarbonization.” Link.
  • Tangentially related: carbon tax or green investment? It’s worth considering not just all possible policy options but also their optimal interactions. A paper by Julie Rozenberg, Adrien Vogt-Schilb, and Stephane Hallegatte concludes, “Optimal carbon price minimizes the discounted social cost of the transition to clean capital, but imposes immediate private costs that disproportionately affect the current owners of polluting capital, in particular in the form of stranded assets.” Link to a summary which contains a link to the unpaywalled paper.
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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court


Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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