04 September 2012

Romney vs. Obama in the ScienceDebate

A group called ScienceDebate.org -- sponsored by the AAAS, NAS and Council on Competitiveness -- asked both US presidential candidates on a range of questions related to scientific topics to which they have now posted replies.

A lot of the replies are just campaign boilerplate, but there are a few items of note. Most significantly is the fact that Mitt Romney's reply on climate change is far more substantive than that from President Obama -- call me surprised.

Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action. 
Somebody on that campaign is channeling The Climate Fix;-)

Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem.
Seriously? "Reaching historic agreements"? Historically inconsequential maybe. For those single issue voters focused on all things climate, the Obama campaign's response says: "You''ll vote for me no matter what pablum I give to the ScienceDebate." Slap!

The election certainly won't swing on issues related to climate, much less science. One reason for this of course is that there isn't really much difference between the candidates on most issues of science -- at least not as expressed in the answers provided to ScienceDebate.org -- both candidates love science, innovation, education, healthy food, clean water, science free from politics and an open internet.

I'd be surprised in a single US citizen changes their vote based on the replies. They are interesting nonetheless. Have a look at their answers here.

Postscript: And in case anyone is curious, I am voting for the incumbent.


  1. Romney's full climate answer is really pretty good.

  2. Obama's climate position is childish and grandiose. I am pleased that at least my vote will offset yours ;^)

  3. I'd like to see the Obama that supported coal and oil initiatives and voted against the Kyoto Protocol as an Illinois state senator, debate the Obama that pledged to kill the coal industry after presidential ambition surfaced.

  4. -3-Papa Zu

    Thanks, but I do not think Senator Obama ever had a chance to vote for or against Kyoto. What vote are you thinking of? Thx

  5. Can we ask both men which is hotter, the 1998 UAH satellite YTD monthly global temperature anomaly through July that averaged +.534 degreesC or the 2012 figure for the same YTD period in 2012 of .167 degreesC. Is it fair to ask why the Troposphere is so much cooler in 2012 or should we ignore the global data and keep all questions focused only on the 3 months of summer in our back yard and use them as a proxy of global conditions for temperature rather than actual global data?

  6. In romney's full response he implies there is much debate about the science of climate change and does not acknowledge the degree of risk. That nullifies anything he says afterwards in my books. If Republican scientists such as Richard Alley don't have credibility in his books then i'm at a loss

  7. -4 Roger,
    I suspect Papa Zu might be referring to Illinois Public Act 90-0797: "Section 1. Short title. This Act may be cited as the Kyoto Protocol Act of 1998."

  8. -7-MattL

    Many thanks ... you are correct, Illinois State Senate 1998. Discussed here:


    Same old story, iron law and all that ;-) Thanks!

  9. Does it matter? Yes, if anything we might do would make any difference, whether CAGW is true or not. When will we get it into our thick little sculls that puny little us, can NOT fight the sun or the oceans or the possible, though improbable CO2 scenario!!!


    "It is impossible for humans to control carbon dioxide levels in the air.
    To attempt to control carbon dioxide levels in the air is futile.
    It is an act of selfish, weak, cowardly stupidity to lie to divert funds from real environmental
    and humanitarian needs. It is shameful and inhumane."

  10. -6-Robert,

    We have the largely speculative and sometimes fantastical risks attributed to unnatural catastrophic climate change and the oft-observed and historically-noted risks attendant to grandiose government programs. Assuming anthropocentric CO2 really does initiate a drive toward a markedly warmer world and given the rate of increase in Asian emissions (China has passed the US and the EU combined), any national program to drastically reduce Western emissions would be like attacking a forest fire with a squirt-gun - a very, very expensive squirt-gun. So what we will end up with is a markedly warmer world AND a crippled Western economy, a double-whammy disaster. I prefer Romney's approach, assuming economically prudent encouragement of innovation. It is much easier to adapt to whatever comes from a position of economic strength than it is from a position of economic debility.

  11. But how does Romney propose to incentivize technological innovation? For noncarbon energy technology it doesn't just happen, without a price for air and carbon pollution, and/or government funded research....

  12. In romney's full response he implies there is much debate about the science of climate change and does not acknowledge the degree of risk.

    Only if you take a one-sided view of risk.

    Romney acknowleges that there is a chance the world is warming. Obama does not acknowledge that there is a chance the world is not warming.

    Romney's position therefore moves further away from much of his base, and allows the other side may be right. Obama makes no such concession. His position assumes one position, and has no fall back.

    So which is actually calculating a risk, and which merely taking the position of his base?

    There is a risk that the money spent on CO2 reduction is being largely wasted. (Note this is true even if the world is warming, and even if CO2 is responsible. You can be warmist and still opposed to cap-and-trade.)

    What I take you to really mean is that Romney is insufficiently anti-CO2.

    (For the record, I would vote Obama, if I was a US citizen. My dislike of his position on warming is not party political.)

  13. A "no regrets" principle is as incoherent as the precautionary principle as the basis for policy.

    The precautionary principle has been criticized for being precautionary only toward the risks the advocate cares most about and neglecting other risks (including opportunity costs).

    "No regrets" is equally incoherent by prioritizing regrets about opportunity costs and neglecting regrets about taking insufficient action.

    Both the precautionary principle and the no-regrets principle try to present an unrealistically sunny picture of life, in which tough choices and the downside risks of any policy can be airbrushed out of the picture.

    The fact is, with limited resources you can't be precautionary toward all deadly risks and you can't avoid regrets.

    People on all sides of the climate policy debate (there are more than two sides) ought to be clear and honest about which risks their preferred policies address effectively and which risks they neglect.

  14. Roger, I already voted for Obama once and was greatly disappointed so for me it's a toss up between Romney and Clint Eastwood's chair. :-)

  15. -13-Jonathan Gilligan

    Thanks ... when I use "no regrets" it has nothing to do with priorities about opportunity costs, insufficient actions or risk.

    Consider this-- you doctor tells you you need exercise and suggests running on the treadmill. You hate the treadmill. But you discover you love tennis. And you'd play for hours just for the joy of the game. Instead of trying to convince yourself to run you the treadmill for exercise, which you hate, you instead join a tennis league for the love of the game. You'd play tennis even if there was no exercise benefit, but you actually get the exercise as a side benefit. No regrets.

    This logic is also the basis of the "oblique" policies recommended in TCF and The Hartwell Paper.


  16. The concept of a "no regrets" policy is incoherent.

    I would have no regrets about a carbon tax of $75/ton. We've been dependent on fossil fuels too long as it is. We need more tax revenue anyway. Bring it on.

    And if one replies to that "But I would regret that very much" you are essentially just formulating a "policy" that consists of getting everything you want.

    As nice as it would be if we could put aside discussion of the certain and uncertain costs and risks of AGW, I don't think it's possible to do so.

  17. Politics hummm, vote for Obama and get carbon dioxide tax by stealth? 'Leading from Behind' might be just the book to read if you do... over to you in the hot seat.

  18. Like it or not, the US national debt is a more immediate problem than atmospheric CO2. (More Iron Law.) Once interest rates go back up, and in the long term I see no alternative to that except pretty massive inflation, our debt will rapidly become unsustainable.

    BTW, I will most certainly vote for Romney. Even if I didn't regard events 2009-2012 as a clear vindication of my vote in 2008, the complete gridlock that would continue after an Obama victory will seal our doom.

  19. louskannen, China's emissions haven't yet passed the US and EU combined. According to the IEA, 2011 emissions were

    US: 5.3 Gt CO2
    EU: 3.6 Gt CO2
    China: 8.5 Gt CO2

    Their per capita emissions are only 37% of the US's.

  20. @19

    China's per capita CO2 emissions were recently reported to be 7.2 tonnes per person here.


    China's polulation at the end of 2011 was 1,347,350,000 which equates to 9.7Gt CO2. There concern that China's emissions have been underreported.

    "The paper identifies a 1.4-billion tonne emission gap (in 2010) between the two datasets. This implies greater uncertainties than ever in Chinese energy statistics,"


    The 1.4Gt gap added to your 8.5Gt would put China at 9.9Gt which seems more in line with per capita estimates of 9.7Gt reported by the Guardian.

    Check out China's coal production growth, imported coal growth and consumption growth.


    It is Chinese hockey stick with undeniable evidence that China is committed to an upward trend in coal consumption and an upward trend of CO2 emissions for quite some time. Louskannen provides an accurate assessment that reductions in US and Eu CO2 will dwarfed by Asia's increase.

  21. Roger:

    The flaw with many "no regrets" policy proposals is that they assume there's always an analogy to tennis. Often, there's no option so pleasant; only a choice among differently nasty alternatives.

    If I love cigars and my doctor tells me that the only way to cut my cancer risk is to give them up, there isn't a no-regrets option analogous to tennis.

    As with cigars, there isn't a no-regrets solution to climate change. If there were, it wouldn't be a wicked problem.

    Whereas Romney proposes to carry out no-regrets measures, you've been writing that no-regrets measures are not feasible at present. In TCF you criticize Pacala and Socolow for being too optimistic about what can be achieved using no-regrets measures that can be pursued with existing technology.

    Since we don't come anywhere near being able to carry out an effective no-regrets policy (something like tennis) with existing technology, you conclude that the best we can do is undertake a crash R&D program to invent no-regrets RE<C technology and another crash R&D program on air-capture and storage in case the RE<C program fails to deliver.

    That seems very different from and much more pessimistic than what Romney says in the quotation above.

  22. -21-Jonathan Gilligan

    Thanks for your comment. It appears that we have vastly different conceptions of the meaning of the phrase "no regrets" in policy.

    You are correct that there are some situations where there are no "no regrets" options available, but climate change is not one of them. In fact, one of the strategies to deal with so-called wicked problems (which by definition have no solution) is to recharacterize them as tame problems, and thus bringing "no regrets" int play. Hence, in TCF I focus on CO2 not "climate change."

    Stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere can be framed as a purely technical problem -- 90%+ energy consumption must come from non-CO2 sources. We are currently at ~10%.

    How do we get moving away from 10% and toward 90%? One option would be to argue that people have no other choice (doctor to cigar smoker). We've seen how well that is working;-)

    Another option would be to pay attention to policy lessons such as shale gas that shows that the way to expand clean(er) energy is to make it cheaper in real terms than the alternatives. This is accomplished through innovation.

    Are there any other reasons why making energy cheaper might make sense? Yes, in addition to the parochial economic benefits, 2 billion people lack access to basic energy services, and their ability to get on the grid is in part a function of costs. So, in addition to focusing on no-regrets non-CO2 forcings (like soot) and adaptation, we might also focus on RE<C to enable cheaper energy and expanded energy access. We would get the climate benefits as icing on the cake. There are of course other ways to think of "no regrets" strategies (e.g., eliminating short-term negative health consequences from coal particulates).

    I would argue that "no regrets" strategies offer the only feasible path to getting the world moving from the 10% to the 90%. Would it be enough to complete the job? I don't know. But the challenge now is to start moving in the right direction.

    These are of course my views, though both Romney and Obama should adopt them;-)

  23. -11-David,

    Cracking open a whole new revenue stream for government or wannabe government is the last thing you want to do if you want reasonably-affordable innovation. Of every dollar collected in carbon tax or whatever, 10 cents will go to research, the cost of which will be inflated to take advantage of the new money and 90 cents will go to expand government influence. As P.J. O'Rouke noted, "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." If the government is to be involved in research funding, it should come from existing program revenues. That'll keep it leaner and meaner than it would otherwise be.

    Most innovation is evolutionary; it would benefit from limited, timely and targeted financial support whether by government or industry. It would help if government got a clue - in the past, even today,it has spent like a drunken sailor on dreams and schemes that were not ripe for development for one or more reasons. Once launched, these end up as expensive failures or, worse, ongoing costs or liabilities to little or no (or negative) benefit. Once launched, they are hard to stop without big political or financial ramifications. We've got to be smarter and wiser up-front instead of later when picking through the wreckage.

  24. louskannen: A carbon tax can be made revenue neutral, by reducing other taxes or refunding it on an equal per capita basis.

    There is too little "existing program revenues." As a percentage of GDP, federal revenue is at the levels of the last 1950s.

    Not all government spending has been a failure: the Internet, space launches, satellites, AT&T's monopoly, the human genome. Medicare has made tens of millions of lives better than they were before it. Same for Medicaid. Public health research and expenditures have done a lot to improve lives. Emergency response by governments at all levels is far superior to what it once was.

    I think your view is very one-sided.

  25. Thank you, Roger, for your patient responses to my comments.

    I think our discussion is not about the definition of "no regrets" but about its role in policy formation. I think there's solid agreement that "no regrets" policies make a great starting point---if they're really no regrets, then everyone should be able to agree on them regardless what they think of the issue they're intended to address.

    The disagreements are about whether no-regrets makes a sensible stopping point for policymaking: Romney seems to be saying "no regrets measures only." You don't take as hard a line, but seem to me to be arguing that while more aggressive measures to curtail CO2 might make sense, realistically your no regrets measures are as much as we can hope for, and that's not such a bad thing.

    I'm with you right up to the point where you seem to me to be saying that it's not such a bad thing if all we can achieve are no regrets measures.

    Our disagreement (which wouldn't be very interesting if it were just you and me, but this is the disagreement that many people who think as I do have with your, and BTI's recommendations) is in our different responses to your comment, "Would it be enough to complete the job? I don't know."

    You claim to have tamed the wicked problem by invoking the power of innovation to provide a painless way to decarbonize the economy. But you also take great pains to emphasize that this innovation is necessary because we can't decarbonize the economy with today's technology without imposing terrible hardships on most of the world's population, especially those living in the poorest nations.

    But you present no serious analysis, no empirical evidence to demonstrate that innovation policy can deliver what you're asking of it: RE<C soon enough and at a large enough scale to decarbonize the economy before the risk of catastrophic climate change becomes unacceptable (To head off any misunderstanding: the risk is uncertain and what's acceptable is a political judgment, not a scientific one, as you know)

    If innovation can't deliver, then you haven't tamed the wicked problem and we're back to tough decisions about balancing the energy needs of the poor nations (and others) against risks of global climate disruption.

    So, to recap: Everyone can agree that taking no-regrets measures is good. The disagreement is whether we should ONLY take no-regrets measures.

  26. -25-Jonathan Gilligan

    Thanks ... a few quick replies before heading off to lecture...

    1. "But you present no serious analysis, no empirical evidence to demonstrate that innovation policy can deliver what you're asking of it"

    In policy there are no guarantees. I have heard this argument enough to motivate a column on it, see it here:


    If you want a conventional economic analysis of why a technology-led approach works better than targets and timetables then see Chris Green's analysis for the Copenhagen Consensus (with all of the pluses and minuses that come with such methods).

    2. "Everyone can agree that taking no-regrets measures is good. The disagreement is whether we should ONLY take no-regrets measures."

    This is an academic disagreement. Experience has spoken clearly and loudly on the viability of measures with "regrets" -- I summarize this logic here:


    Actually, it may be more than academic since some of those pushing the impossible (hard targets/timetables/high carbon price) are among the staunchest advocates against pushing the practical.