The interesting points first:
- Climate is not the same thing as Weather. Weather changes, by definition. This year is not just like last year. We know how to predict the weather, and we have some understanding of how reliable those predictions are. Climate is a long-term concept, and knowledge about climate is riddled with uncertainty. It takes decades to figure out if the climate is changing, and that has almost nothing to do with whether we had a cold winter last year. We have no reliable way to predict the climate.
- The reason we can't predict the climate is it's too complicated and we don't know enough. There are many more factors than just carbon dioxide. There are a multitude of other greenhouse gases, including plain old water vapor. The influence of aerosols such as carbon particles or dust is very poorly understood. The influence of human-caused changes in land use, such as irrigation, clear-cutting forests, cities and hard surfaces replacing land, are very poorly understood.
- Nature has some feedback cycles both positive and negative that will play in the future climate, and we don't understand them either. Pielke doesn't really mention any of these, but some of them are the impact of permafrost melting releasing methane, clathrates in the oceans which have a tremendous potential to release methane if the ocean warms enough, and the loss of glaciers particularly in Asia leading to loss of irrigated agriculture. And there are larger cycles that we barely even have names for, such as the Bond cycle that apparently occurs on approximately 1500-year intervals (and yes, we are on the cusp of one).
- Pielke believes that there is enough consensus in the public that we could do something about climate change, and gives as evidence that the Montreal protocol for protecting the ozone layer was passed with less public support than we have now for alleviating climate change. But the kicker for him is what he calls the Iron Law of Climate Policy: people are okay with working on the climate as long as it does not impede economic growth in any way.
Here is where his argument starts to go off the tracks. It's all very well to have an Iron Law that people won't support anything that impedes economic growth. But never in the entire book does he mention that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet just does not make the least sense. We have ample signs around us now that we are reaching the limits of the resources that the Earth can provide for us. It isn't just Peak Oil, it's peak phosphorus, peak rare earth elements, peak copper, peak coal (not that far down the road if coal use increases).
- Another point from the book, which I think deserves a little independent verification, is that both sides in the climate change political wars are guilty of exaggerating their positions, using fear-mongering tactics, ad hominem attacks, egregiously misquoting published research, or just plain ignoring it. An example Pielke has been associated with is the claim that climate change is already causing far worse weather-related catastrophes, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. A careful study on his part showed that most if not all of the increased losses to weather catastrophes can be accounted for by increased population and increased development in vulnerable places. However, in the years since this book was written, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change IS causing more severe weather. Warmer water and air means more energy in the system, leading to more severe storms. And the recent change in weather patterns due to Arctic ice melt has already started to cause major weather changes.
- There is no doubt in his mind and in the mind of most thoughtful people that humans are having an effect on climate, both by land-use and by emissions. Human behavior is not the only factor that affects climate, another statement that most thoughtful people agree with. And finally, climate changes from whatever source are unlikely to make life on Earth better for humankind. We've really had it pretty good in the 10-12,000 years since the last Ice Age. Almost any change would make our lives more difficult.
The last chapter of the book is where the pixie dust comes in. Since according to his Iron Law people won't support climate change remedies that interfere in any way with growth, and it would be prudent to reduce the human-caused effects on climate, we would seem to be in a predicament. Pielke also points out that almost a quarter of the population of the world does not have electrical power, and that these people deserve ample energy as much as the rest of us. This leads him to conclude that energy is too expensive now, rather than too cheap, and we need a huge amount more energy now, and even more in the future. Nice, cheap, non-polluting energy that will make us wonder why we would even want to burn that old smelly, polluting, high-carbon petroleum any more. This is the answer to de-carbonizing the planet, right? Ample supplies of dirt-cheap and non-polluting energy. So cheap that we can use all we want; so clean that we can de-carbonize the atmosphere just by using it.
So, where do you get this marvelous energy? A few hundred billion dollars of research ought to do it, according to him. Just stop and think for a moment. Do you think if a vastly superior source of energy, far cheaper than petroleum, is out there just waiting for us, that the hundreds of billions of research money already spent would not have found it? Would Exxon keep going to the effort of pumping and piping and shipping petroleum if a few research projects would uncover this marvelous new and practically unlimited source? Can we repeal the laws of thermodynamics?
The author does not hazard a guess as to what this new source might be, just limitless faith in the ability of science to find it. I'm not an energy expert, researcher, or engineer. If you want more details on these things, there are numerous posts on The Oil Drum that can fill you in.
Concentrated sources of energy are very rare. We had our one-time legacy from 500 million years of sunshine falling on the Earth and we've run through roughly half of it now, in a little over a hundred years. Our current energy paycheck on the planet comes from sunlight, a wonderful but diffuse source. It takes a big front-load of resources to tap this energy, some in the form of rare earth elements that are becoming scarce (and are mostly in China, if you want to know). Solar panels do not last forever.
Fusion power is still a chimera; it's been "nearly ready" for more than thirty years. Nuclear power has many hazards and huge front-load costs, while uranium ores are rapidly declining in quality.
Corn-based ethanol is just a flim-flam. Energy return on energy invested for corn ethanol has been carefully estimated at about 1.34:1, barely more than break-even; some researchers believe you get less energy from ethanol than the petroleum energy that was put into growing the corn, transporting it, fermenting, distilling, and purifying it, then transporting it to the gas station. We can't keep our economy running with that kind of energy source. Cellulosic ethanol has the same problem of inadequate returns on energy invested. Used french-fry oil? Enough for a handful of eco-warriors, but not enough for all of us even if we quadrupled our french-fry consumption.
Coal is a very dirty fuel, and very costly if you wanted to clean it up, and the supply won't last long if we boost our usage tremendously. Natural gas? Yes, it's cleaner than other forms, and cheaper right now, but has the same limitations on supply going into the future. This can't be the marvelous energy source that is clean and practically unlimited. Do you have any ideas? Maybe we could tap all that dark energy that is supposed to be out there in the vast vacuums of outer space?
I think pixie dust is the only solution that fits the requirements. Wave a few hundred billion dollars of research money over the problem, and presto, it's solved.
NOTE: I've had more time to think about the book and the author, and I think I was much too easy on him. His book strained at gnats, elevating small quibbles to earth-shaking discoveries. Much of the climate-change-denier rhetoric is being directly funded by corporations that have a vested interest in business as usual, from the blinkered viewpoint of their next quarterly economic reports. We need a serious approach to this subject, not a series of nitpicking jibes followed by pixie-dust "solutions".
Of course, our author had painted himself very thoroughly into a corner toward the end of the book. He had admitted that human activities ARE involved in climate change. And his iron-clad rule of climate policy--nothing that interferes with economic growth--played the part of handcuffs in determining any realistic kind of solution. What's left? It has been extremely well documented that no kind of alternative energy can possibly fulfill even the present world energy demand (see almost anything written by Richard Heinberg for details; here's one: Searching for a Miracle.