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Andlinger Center News

September 29, 2011

In an essay published Sept. 27 on Climate Central and in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Robert Socolow revisits the revolutionary “wedges” approach to climate change that he and Steve Pacala laid out in the journal Science in 2004.

Socolow’s conclusion: the core messages of the wedges model are as valid today as they were seven years ago. However, Socolow says, “public resistance can be partially explained by shortcomings in the way advocates of forceful action have presented their case. Addressing these shortcomings might put the world back on the course we identified.”

Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and affiliated faculty member of the Andlinger Center, and Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, in 2004 proposed “stabilization wedges,” a quantitative approach to choosing and evaluating sets of seven (now nine) mitigation strategies that use existing technologies, from fuel efficiency improvements to increased use of solar or wind power.

So why has progress been so slow on curbing the global carbon-dioxide emissions?

“Familiar answers include the recent recession, the political influence of the fossil fuel industries, and economic development imperatives in countries undergoing industrialization,” writes Socolow. “But, 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. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every ‘solution’ carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team — that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears.”

The essay was published with nine remarks solicited in advance from a wide range of commentators, including Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), and climate-change skeptic Freeman Dyson.