Wedges: The Sequel

In his 2010 book, The Climate Fix, Roger Pielke Jr. writes:

The view that decarbonization of the global economy is a political problem and not a technological problem has been strongly influenced by a 2004 analysis by two Princeton researchers, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, that was published in Science. The analysis is often referred to by its very useful focus on a concept called a “stabilization wedge”…In their paper, Pacala and Socolow identified fifteen possible stabilization wedges, including approaches such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) from coal power plants, enhanced nuclear power, and improved soil management in agriculture.”

After detailing a major critique of the wedges approach by NYU’s Martin Hoffert,  RPJ goes on to write:

The stabilization wedges and the IPCC have shaped the policy debate on decarbonization away from technological innovation, under an assumption that we have all the technologies that we need (or soon will have them). In a very practical sense, that assumption is very likely to be wrong….any commonsense climate policy will take a look at the real numbers behind the stabilization wedges and recognize that technological innovation must  be a central strategy behind any effective policy focused on accelerating decarbonization.

Earlier this year, it was widely reported that one of the co-authors, Robert Socolow, had come to regret that the “wedges” thesis was grossly oversimplified by climate advocates, making it seem that it would be easier to achieve than it really was. However, he quickly walked back that story and now, this week, has firmly doubled down on the “wedges” scheme.

Andy Revkin has valuably elicited reactions from experts over at Dot Earth. He also links to reactions from Freeman Dyson and Nicholas Stern. So Andy has provided a nice one-stop shop for this renewed, and very important debate.

24 Responses to “Wedges: The Sequel”

  1. Keith Kloor says:

    I just noticed that RPJ is having a bit of fun here–mainly with his headline.

  2. Thanks Keith … the kink-in-the-curve that I discuss at my blog should be sufficient evidence to resolve any technical debates about the wedges.  As far as zombies, they never die;-)

  3. EdG says:

    “its very useful focus on a concept called a “stabalization wedge””

    “stabalization” – presumably a typo/spelling error
    [Fixed. Thanks]

  4. Jarmo says:

    There are very few people in the climate discussion sphere who actually do the numbers on the basis  of existing realities instead of throwing up assumptions of a million windmills here and 40 000 square kilometers of solar panels there, or that all people halve the miles they drive . RPJ is one, David MacKay is another. Their conclusions may be depressing (like a bank manager telling you that your mortgage is under water) but kicking the can down the road and dreaming of unlikely outcomes (a fair summary of climate politics today) gets us nowhere. 

  5. jeffn says:

    Jarmo, That’s a common misreading of American politics. The left has discovered that kicking the can down the road and dreaming is actually pretty good electoral politics. As long as everything is a gauzy, vague “we are the ones who oppose pollution” mantra, they can use it every election. It’s eco-political theater. When they put things on paper- millions of windmills, WWII-style rationing, regressive tax hikes – the whole thing falls down. At that point, of course, they just blame the other party and nefarious “fossil fuel interests” (though nobody can explain why coal barons want nuclear plants, oh well).
    Obama and the Democrats weren’t going to do anything about carbon emissions (or Gitmo, Iraq, or intel gathering on terrorists). and the media certainly isn’t going to point this out.
    This is why you may have gotten the impression here recently that the governor of Texas (Rick Perry) and a four-year-old grass roots movement against govt spending (Tea Party) have single-handedly caused global warming by emphasizing a denial of evolution (except in speeches, ads, press releases, platforms, and printed material, group meetings, etc etc ). 

  6. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Keith I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Dave Hawkins (NRDC) reaction. I’ve bolded the bits I found particularly interesting:

    “First, Rob attributes the lack of action (presumably the failure of Congress to pass a federal cap-and-trade bill) to “public resistance.” I disagree. Based on my observation of the process, the failure of the Senate to take up the House-passed climate bill (or some variant of it) was not due to “public resistance,” but rather due to a very aggressive and organized opposition led by the Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute (API), and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The senators influenced by this opposition were primarily Democrats (the Republicans having decided well in advance of the interest group opposition campaign that they would oppose legislation as a matter of political strategy). The Chamber/API/NAM opposition convinced wavering Democrats that anyone who voted for a climate bill would be attacked aggressively for that vote in the 2010 campaign and elections. Those senators were unconvinced that supporters of the legislation would be able to mount a sufficient counter campaign to offset these attacks. So I regard the failure of climate legislation as due more to a lack of strong calls for action by the public rather than public resistance to action. This is an important distinction, because it has implications for what messaging, if any, can turn this situation around. I am skeptical that there is any way for supporters of action to talk about climate protection so as to generate a general public demand for action that is intense enough to cause swing politicians to vote for legislation if it is as aggressively opposed as were the cap bills in the last Congress. Removal of this impediment to action may lie not in efforts to get the public to demand action, but in efforts to ease the opposition of those who are fighting action.
    There is also the efficacy of Rob’s call for more nuanced descriptions of the climate problem. Rob’s essay appears to suggest that it is uncertain members of the public who are the target audience, and his three message suggestions appear to be aimed at persuading that audience that supporters of climate protection action are not unreasonable zealots. To do this he suggests we should 1) not suggest that protecting the climate involves only good news; 2) acknowledge that the range of consequences from increased greenhouse gas concentrations is large and uncertain; and 3) that there are dangers presented by cutting emissions too fast.
    While I share his discomfort with the message that fighting climate change means nothing but good news for everybody, I don’t see any evidence that a more nuanced message would do anything to increase the demand for action from the public or reduce the opposition from groups like the Chamber, API, and NAM. We should acknowledge that protecting the climate is hard work, but we should not do so with the expectation that this will produce a consensus for action.
    On the issue of describing the uncertain range of outcomes, I think that most advocates who are influential already do acknowledge this fact. We do not argue that science proves a particular set of disastrous impacts are certain to occur at some particular level of greenhouse gases. Rather we argue that the higher the concentration, the greater the risks are of significant damages, and that we cannot rule out that many of these impacts could be truly catastrophic. That risk profile warrants action now.
    The most puzzling aspect of Rob’s essay for me is his treatment of the issue of how fast to reduce emissions. He appears to argue that resistance to action will diminish if supporters acknowledge that some climate protection actions could have negative consequences. But the three examples he mentions ““too rapid an expansion of nuclear power; wholesale conversion of lands to bio-energy production; and geoengineering to block sunlight ““ all have been the subject of substantial warnings and even opposition by strong advocates of climate protection. Ironically, an aggressive embrace of nuclear power has been argued by politicians like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham as essential to get support for action from conservative politicians.
    On this last question of how fast to cut emissions, Rob goes beyond advice about communication and presents conclusions about what level of emission reduction is advisable. He says the lowest global emission target for 2050 that he is comfortable endorsing is a level equal to today’s emissions. And he concludes, “[g]iven present knowledge, that goal is probably ambitious enough; pursuing tougher goals could lead us to opt for cures that are worse than the disease.”
    This is a very provocative statement, and I would expect someone who is careful with analysis as Rob is to provide some support or citation for the proposition that setting a tighter target for 2050 will create significantly higher risks that unwise mitigation approaches will be pursued. But he provides no such support. Indeed, I believe that in connecting ambitious targets with unwise implementation actions, Rob is linking two aspects that need not and should not be linked. The proper response to the risk of taking stupid actions in the pursuit of appropriate goals is not to weaken the goals to inappropriate levels; it is to make the case that certain actions are stupid and should not be in the portfolio of responses unless modified to avoid the risks that they present.” 

  7. NewYorkJ says:

    Earlier this year, it was widely reported that one of the co-authors, Robert Socolow, had come to regret that the “wedges” thesis was grossly oversimplified by climate advocates, making it seem that it would be easier to achieve than it really was. However, he quickly walked back that story and now, this week, has firmly doubled down on the “wedges” scheme.

    To be clear, Socolow “walked back” the heavy spin that others (NG, Pielke Jr.) were putting on his comments, such as mischaracterizing Socolow’s view that the wedge approach was “a mistake”.  Kudos to Romm on getting the truth on that one.

  8. Tom Fuller says:

    Sheesh. I thought this was all about wedgies–the reason so many thousands of nerds and geeks went commando over the decades. And it’s about energy? Sheesh.

  9. Jarmo says:


    I read both NG story and the piece at Romm’s and fail to see “spin”. Socolow basically says the same thing in both stories. I think KK also misread them. At NG:

    Climate Scientist Fears His “Wedges” Made It Seem Too Easy
    With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” Socolow says.  “There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal.” Socolow said he believes that well-intentioned groups misused the wedges theory…. Those seeking to curb climate change must acknowledge  “the news is unwelcome,” he said, “and the job is hard.”

    and at Romm’s:

    Here, I suggest that public resistance can be partially explained by shortcomings in the way advocates of forceful action have presented their case…I submit, advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum…..We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome…. It is counterproductive for advocates of prompt action on climate change to pretend that the new knowledge has only positive consequences, such as the stimulation of green jobs and elegant new technology….The job will be very hard and will require sustained focus.

    My take on the wedges is that reality is beginning to bite. For example, Socolow is no longer suggesting that ethanol production should be ramped up from the current 1.4 million barrels a day to 34 million barrels a day to reduce gasoline consumption.


  10. NewYorkJ says:

    Jarmo: I read both NG story and the piece at Romm’s and fail to see “spin”. Socolow basically says the same thing in both stories.

    Do you need it spelled out for you?

    NG story: “It was a mistake, he now says.”

    Pielke: Socolow: Wedges were a mistake

    Socolow: Steve Pacala’s and my wedges paper was not a mistake.

    NG story: “The wedges paper made people relax.”

    SocolowI do not recognize this thought

    NG story: “Well-intentioned groups misused the wedges theory.”

    Socolow: I don’t recognize this thought.

    Socolow: Pielke writes “it is hard to imagine that Socolow’s comments can be in reference to anyone other than Romm.” I am not a close follower of Joe Romm’s blog. I did not have him in mind.

    I understandn there are defeatists who want to portray the problem as being impossible to deal with.  Their efforts to delay certainly make it more difficult.

  11. I predict that any technological innovation initiative aimed at addressing AGW and subsidized by the current administration, will be attacked by the right.  Witness the hysteria over Solyndra and the way it’s being used by the usual Congressional, media, and  thinktank bloviators to attack energy innovation funding.
    So how does Pielke propose to surmount this cynical political roadblocking?   Wait for a magical AGW-aware GOP candidate and congress?

  12. Jarmo says:

    #10 NewYorkJ

    Sorry, I read the Socolow piece at ClimateCentral, not the discussion at Romm’s blog, and compared that to NG text. That’s where my impression is from.

    I now read the Socolow’s comments at Romm’s. However, I can’t find this quote anywhere:

    ” Pielke: Socolow: Wedges were a mistake”

     As far as I understand, Pielke Jr regards the analysis behind wedges as faulty (rate of decarbonization is in reality slower, growth of emissions faster, need for emission reductions greater than postulated by Socolow). In the opinion of Pielke, something like 25 wedges are needed instead of 7 or 9.

    What is interesting about Socolow & Pacala, they very clearly state that all possible technologies must be employed and mention nuclear, natural gas, CCS and, originally in 2004, biofuels and hydrogen as transportation fuels. Looks like biofuels are a waste of time, hydrogen requires clean energy we don’t have anyway.

    But I digress. The big question: when the best guys in business are of the opinion that we need to use every technology available and then some, why do people concerned with climate argue against technologies or fuels that will reduce emissions? As if we have a choice?


  13. NewYorkJ says:

    Jarmo (#12),

    The headline “Socolow: Wedges were a mistake” is from a Pielke Jr. blog post (since I’m limited here to one link, you can Google that headline if you’d like), which remains in place since he has not corrected it.  I understand Pielke’s view on wedges.  Distorting Socolow’s view and making presumptions about it is inappropriate, however.

    Looks like biofuels are a waste of time,

    I’m not seeing that.  Not all biofuels are the same.

    when the best guys in business are of the opinion that we need to use every technology available and then some, why do people concerned with climate argue against technologies or fuels that will reduce emissions? As if we have a choice?

    We do have choices (and influencing those choices include emissions, other environmental costs, and economic costs).  That’s one of the points of the wedge approach.

  14. Kendra says:

    Tom at 8.

    How DARE you have a sense of humor!

    Anyway, it’s not just nerds and geeks, it’s also women “of a certain age” – that’s why we love it that calf length skirts haven’t gone out of style (or… have they… and we just don’t know?) 

  15. Kendra says:

    P.S. Those without experience might think ankle-length would be even better – but try going upstairs carrying things in both hands! Also, in my opinion, the move away from them being mandatory was THE most liberating thing for women EVER.

  16. Tom Fuller says:

    Hmm. Kendra. My wife would question your comment about me having a sense of humor, number one. And number two, I consider it distinctly possible that we have different things in mind when we discuss wedgies…


  17. Kendra says:

    Sometimes wives really have it a bit rougher than “other people.” Surely, I didn’t misunderstand the word “commando?” 

  18. Matt B says:

    @11 S Sullivan – a big nuclear electricity (could be thorium, could be conventional, doesn’t matter) push would be greeted with open arms by many in the GOP.

  19. Marlowe Johnson says:


  20. Tom Fuller says:


  21. Matt B says:

    @19 Marlowe – Seriously, you’re going to argue this point? C’mon….
    But, since you insist, here is a section of the New York Times’ summary of the 2008 Republican Party Platform:
    “Pursue dramatic increases in the use of all forms of safe, affordable, reliable “” and clean “” nuclear power”
    There is no mention of nuclear power in the NYT summary of the 2008 Democratic Party Platform.

  22. NewYorkJ says:

    Matt B,
    I don’t think the official Republican Party Platform is a very good indicator, as they haven’t really followed through with some of their goals, while other goals conflict with their stated desire to move to zero-emissions.
    In the long run, American production should move to zero-emissions sources, and our nation’s fossil fuel resources are the bridge to that emissions-free future.
    What indication do we have that Republicans have supported moves towards zero-emissions sources?  Most are vehemently denying there’s even a reason to reduce emissions.  Most of their platform specifics back up their 2nd goal, which don’t really support the first goal, unless “long run” is 100+ years out.
    If we are to have the resources we need to achieve energy independence, we simply must draw more American oil from American soil.
    We support accelerated exploration, drilling and development in America, from new oilfields of the nation’s coasts to the onshore fields such as those in Montana, North Dakota, and Alaska.
    We oppose any efforts that would permanently block access to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

    They oppose any efforts to limit business-as-usual coal production, which doesn’t help move towards zero-emission sources, or help the nuclear industry.
    We firmly oppose efforts by Democrats to block the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

    There have been broken promises, such as many Republicans seeking to end renewable energy tax credits, in contrast to their earlier platform.
    We therefore advocate a long-term energy tax credit equally applicable to all renewable power sources (solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower).
    And as we know, Republicans oppose all broad-based solutions (tax and dividend, cap and trade, mechanisms Republicans back in the day used to support) that would substantially lower emissions and provide further market incentive for ramping up production of low carbon sources like nuclear power, which proposals from Democrats specifically did.

  23. Keith Kloor says:

    Marlowe (6),

    Been meaning to answer this, but it’s been a busy few days. I also think I need to ponder what he says, including the other responses. Lots of fodder for a future post, that’s for sure.


  24. Matt B says:

    @ 22 NYJ,
    I agree that the GOP is not at all guaranteed to carry out their platform as it is written. Other political concerns (be they petty, be they important) will change their direction. Or, maybe the party just  switches direction, simple as that. And I have no doubt that some in the GOP will oppose their own platform simply because a Democrat takes the exact same position.
    (Note: Democrats play fast and loose with their platform also & here’s an easy example; in the 2008 Democrat Platform they specifically state they will close Gitmo. Hasn’t happened, and they had the House & Senate for 2 years. I know that many in the Democratic Party still want this done, but in your words “they haven’t really followed through with some of their goals”. It happens.)
    But, I don’t see any of your arguments contradicting my simple statement that many in the GOP will support nuclear. It seems kind of silly to argue this point.

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