Week in Review: July 10

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

A year of magical thinking on climate change, making headway on the science of medical science policy, a new human genome, probiotics for famine victims, and China’s science budget.

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Illustration: Joe Kloc

Climate Change: Nothing a Little Wishful Groupthink Can’t Solve

The US Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works began holding hearings this week in preparation for its introduction of a bill to combat climate change. Some observers hope that it will take up and strengthen the flailing legislative monstrosity that is the Waxman-Markey ACES Act. This will not be easy absent a sea change in what are commonly regarded as the best responses to climate change. Current “best responses” to climate change fail to perform the one critical function of such a response: actually reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The magic of Kyoto, not to mention Waxman-Markey, is that offset mechanisms allow parties to continue emitting greenhouse gasses while claiming reductions! Clearly, the sooner the whole world can get down the weird counterfactual wormhole that is the use of offsets, the better.

Alas, then—weep at the news emanating from Italy. The G-8 has struck out, failing to agree to a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, although they did agree to not let global average temperatures rise by more than 2°C by 2050. Or maybe save your tears; such a promise is as close to meaningless as a syntactically coherent sentence can be. At any rate, it was immediately deemed inadequate by veteran campaigners such as Oxfam’s Antonio Hill, who complained that the G-8 claims they want to avoid cooking the planet while refusing to turn down the heat.

Such criticisms are not entirely fair to the members of the G-8. India, China, and Russia have all been quite clear in their refusal to even countenance reducing emissions if it means impinging on economic growth—and those are three of the biggest four polluters on Earth. And it’s putting too much emphasis on promises, anyway: The first thing to go if developed countries’ economies exceed any emissions caps would be the emissions caps. Staying under them so far has been more an exercise in bookkeeping legerdemain than anything else. What the veteran climate campaigners seem to not understand about lofty promises (or their absence) is that expecting diktat to prove sufficient to answer the problem of climate change is as reasonable as expecting old King Canute to keep his feet dry by commanding the waves to leave them be.

Timely, then, was the publication of “How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course,” a report by the Institute for Science, Innovation, and Society at the University of Oxford and the Mackinder Program at the London School of Economics. What the co-authors of the report make clear is that without the technical ability to actually reduce the amount of carbon the world economy emits, no amount of promises will make a bit of difference. This ought to be a non-controversial point. Yet for those for whom fighting climate change is as much a matter of ideology as it is a matter of good sense, the report’s argument is a problem—“nothing could be more harmful” than it, claimed one critic of the report. (Among its co-authors is the invaluable Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado, a man who has taken more flak from self-described friends of humanity and Earth than the Eighth Air Force did from the Germans. Pielke has links to the ongoing debate about this report on his blog.)

What’s actually harmful, however, is the magical thinking that leads proponents of the Kyoto-like status quo, of the weighty pronouncement from a summit mode of policy making, to fight against what should be self-evident: To reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we need either fewer people around doing less interesting things, or we need sources of energy that emit far fewer of those gases (and the means to capture a good chunk of what’s already out there). Calling someone dangerous or radical for making that point—as opponents of the Oxford/LSE report have called the report’s authors—isn’t helping anyone. Concentrating governmental efforts on funding basic research and improving technologies as well as motivating business investment will get the technologies we need to where we need them: cheap enough so that retailers will sell them to average consumers. It’s already happening, as Best Buy, for example, announced this week that it would begin selling electric vehicles. That’s what I call climate progress, and it wouldn’t take much more than a few dollars’ tax per ton of carbon to make that progress a whole lot faster.

Quantifying the Use of the NIH

When John Marburger was the head of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, he called for a “science of science policy”: a study of just how much science did contribute to the well-being, economic and otherwise, of society. In that spirit, a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at how funding for the US National Institutes of Health has affected death rates from four major killers: cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. While not utterly convincing in its analysis—there are thorny questions about counterfactual history, causation, and more that are not addressed—the paper argues that increasing NIH funding over the past 50-odd years has had a discernible impact on annual death rates. Thus, the authors argue, NIH funding has enabled the US to “avoid” some 35 million deaths in the last half-century.

The authors are interested in more than just notching victories in the NIH’s belt. They also make an interesting argument about the major economic impact of those avoided deaths: NIH funding has boosted the economy by keeping people at work later into life and has reduced the amount of money that would have been spent on mitigating the effects of disease. As the world gets grayer and the US, at least, plunges into a major debate about the future of health care, the kind of analysis represented by this paper will be crucial. Someone be sure to put this on the desk of Francis Collins, whom President Obama named July 8 to head the NIH.

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