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Iconic climate strategy was no mistake – scientist hits back at media reports

Princeton physicist Robert Socolow, the mastermind – together with ecologist Stephen Pacala – of the ‘wedge’ strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has told Nature that he stands by his iconic concept – despite media report to the contrary.

In a paper published 2004 in Science, Socolow and Sacala had proposed seven ways to reduce carbon output – so-called ‘stabilization wedges’ – including improved energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energies, carbon storage and sequestration and land use change. They argued that by tackling each of these, it should be possible to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide from rising beyond 500 ppm in the next 50 years. While not uncontroversial, the concept was, and is still, often referred to as the most pragmatic approach to the problem of global warming. Some think it could actually be the solution.

But if a National Geographic news story is to be believed, Socolow has become suspicious of his own brainchild, or at least bitter about what some people have made of it. The article suggests that Socolow now says that the ‘wedges’ approach was a mistake becasue it fueled a false believe that global warming might in fact be a smaller problem than we thought.

Socolow is quoted: "With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy (…) There was a whole lot of simplification (…) Our paper was outflanked by the left (…) The intensity of belief that renewables and conservation would do the job approached religious.“

Unsurprisingly, this has caused a tempest in the blogosphere. But Socolow, who made the remarks at a talk he gave at a recent workshop at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says the National Geographic reporter in the audience has misunderstood his message.

Here, in excerpts, is what Socolow told Nature today by email:

Steve Pacala’s and my wedges paper was not a mistake. It made a useful contribution to the conversation of the day. (…) Our paper said we had the tools to get started, indeed the tools to “solve the climate problem for the next 50 years,” which our paper defined as achieving emissions 50 years from now no greater than today. I felt then and feel now that this is the right target for a world effort. I don’t disown any aspect of the wedges paper.

– The wedges people made some people conclude, not surprisingly, that if we could achieve X, we could surely achieve more than X. (…) In language that may be excessively colorful, I called this being “outflanked.” But no one that I know of became relaxed when they absorbed the wedges message.

– I am not aware of anyone misusing the theory.

– All of us are more comfortable with believing that any given job is impossible or easy than hard. I (…) say that the job is hard. I think almost everyone knows that. Every wedge was and is a monumental undertaking. The political discourse tends not to go there.

– I did say that there was and still is a widely held belief that the entire job of dealing with climate change over the next 50 years can be accomplished with energy efficiency and renewables. I don’t share this belief. The fossil fuel industries are formidable competitors. One of the points of Steve’s and my wedges paper was that we would need contributions from many of the available option. Our paper was a call for dialog among antagonists. We specifically identified CO2 capture and storage as a central element in climate strategy, in large part because it represents a way of aligning the interests of the fossil fuel industries with the objective of climate change.

We’ve emailed the National Geographic reporter, Doug Struck, to get his take on Socolow’s statement. We’ll update this post if and when we hear from him.


  1. Report this comment

    Tony Garcia said:

    Global warming presents an once-only opportunity, but to see this one has to abandon the common oversimplification of seeing any issue from only one perspective. We have the tools today to mitigate sea level rise and oceanic acidification but nobody is looking or listening.

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    Russell Seitz said:

    Would Quirin care to open a pane on Alan Robock’s Comment piece?

    I’m sure many wish to reply to it

  3. Report this comment

    Donn Lobdell said:

    Surely, it was a false belief not a false “believe.”

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