from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Keystone, Science, and Politics

August 8, 2013

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Jeff Tollefson has an excellent new piece in Nature exploring the debate within the scientific community over Keystone XL. It makes two things pretty clear. As a matter of substance, there’s pretty much no one beyond Jim Hansen willing to come close to endorsing the “game over” claim. Yet there’s still a ton division among scientists – it’s over political tactics instead. Ken Caldeira captures the situation well: “I don’t believe that whether the pipeline is built or not will have any detectable climate effect,” he tells Nature. Nonetheless, here’s his bottom line: “The Obama administration needs to signal whether we are going to move toward zero-emission energy systems or whether we are going to move forward with last century’s energy system”. That sort of sentiment is political– and there’s nothing wrong with it – but, as the Nature article nicely shows, it’s distinct from any scientific debate.

That’s why some of the political coverage of the article is so mind-bogglingly frustrating. Here’s Politico’s Morning Energy:

“The journal Nature wades into the long-simmering debate between scientists who agree that Keystone XL is ‘game over’ for the planet and others who say focusing on that one pipeline is distracting from bigger climate change concerns.”

Policymakers and the public are told, over and over, that the Keystone debate is between people who think the pipeline would be a climate nightmare and people who think it would not be. What the Nature article rightly establishes is that, among scientists, that is not a real debate. Yet when the Nature article is translated for a DC audience, some irresistible force somehow recasts it as “scientists disagree”, thereby losing a perfect opportunity to help people understand what scientists really know.

This is of course not a phenomenon unique to the Keystone debate, but it sure is prominent when it comes to the pipeline. We hear, for example, that some economic experts believe that Keystone would substantially raise Midwest gasoline prices, while others disagree. In reality, empirical work (along with theory) makes pretty darn clear that whatever the impact of Keystone on regional oil price differences, that wouldn’t have a meaningful knock-on effect for gasoline itself. (One can legitimately debate the costs and benefits of maintaining current oil price differentials, but that’s distinct from talking about gasoline prices.) The only serious debate, once again, is over whether brandishing these claims is a useful political tactic for people who want to stop Keystone, and, more generally, for people who want deal with climate change. After all, if people really thought that Keystone would raise gasoline prices, they’d presumably conclude that it would curb gasoline consumption and therefore cut emissions too.

It’s taken decades to (mostly) get past the he said-she said style of reporting on even the most basic climate science. That practice can’t have done anything but sow unwarranted confusion among policymakers and people at large, making serious climate policy less likely (even if it’s far from the only factor behind slow-moving climate policy). If we want to see serious and well-informed policymaking to deal with our climate problem, it’s going to be just as important to get past a similar culture of he said-she said reporting on climate policies in instances where there isn’t actually real scientific debate. This is something on which everyone who wants to see ambitious climate policy – and therefore wants just-the-facts reporting on the (limited) costs of many serious emissions-cutting policies rather than falsely balanced nonsense about claims like "carbon pricing might kill the economy" – should ultimately be able to agree.

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