Are We Losing The Race Against Climate Change?
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. 2012 was the hottest year on record here in the U.S., and not only that, but the Midwest was devastated by drought, what the USDA calls the most extensive drought since the 1950s. And then of course Superstorm Sandy hit. All that and the climate change we've been hearing about in the Arctic, melting sea ice, shrinking glaciers in Greenland.
Maybe it's finally hitting home, at least that's the conclusion of this year's draft of the National Climate Assessment, the government report put out every four years to give the president and Congress the state of the climate. President Obama seems to be listening, judging by his words at his inauguration.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.
Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling droughts and more powerful storms.
FLATOW: But does Congress agree? Representative Henry Waxman will join us later in the show, and he is starting a Congressional Climate Change Task Force. Even Representative Lamar Smith, Republican from Texas, who now heads the House Science Committee, he's known to be a climate skeptic, but he says he wants to hold a hearing, quote, on the state of the environment.
What does that portend? Will that help us get over the gridlock, jumpstart our renewable energy sector, maybe get a national climate change policy in place? Or can President Obama make meaningful changes alone, like regulating tailpipe emissions? And don't forget the states. California just kicked off its cap and trade program.
That's what we'll be talking about this hour, how the world is responding to climate change, what we might learn in order to tackle it here at home. For example while China puts out more, probably, the electricity made from coal than anyone else, they are now heavily investing in renewable energy sources. Are they beginning to get ahead on this? Are they going to lead the world in this? What can we do to follow them?
My next guest here is to give us a snapshot of the National Climate Assessment, what it means for the next decade, or 50, 100 years. Michael Mann is the author of, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines." He's also a distinguished professor in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences at Penn State in State College. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Mann.
MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, Ira, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.
FLATOW: Give us an idea of what this study - it's still in the works, the National Climate Assessment, is it not?
MANN: Sure, but it's an assessment of the existing scientific research, the existing literature. So we already have a pretty good idea of what science will ultimately constitute that report. It's the science that has been done in recent years, establishing the linkage between climate change and actual impacts that aren't just theoretical, they're not just something that we predicted, they're actually taking place.
We are seeing climate change now play out in terms of the way the weather is changing, the changing characteristics of our weather towards more extreme events of various types.
FLATOW: You know, and for the first time we're actually seeing or hearing scientists make that connection. They've been fearful about saying oh, you know, this is just the weather, it's not really the climate. But more and more we're hearing people saying this is what climate change looks like.
MANN: Well, that's right. You know, there's of course a certain randomness to weather. Weather you get on a given day is going to depend on the random vagaries of the atmosphere. But when you step back, and you look at the statistics of the weather, you can look to see if they're changing.
It's sort of like rolling dice. You know, you roll a die, sixes are going to come up, on average, one every six times. What we are seeing now is sixes coming up twice as often as they should. And what I mean by that are we are seeing all-time records for warmth in the U.S. over the past decade being broken at twice the rate we would expect from chance alone.
Over this last year, it was about 10 to one. And so there's a larger context. It was the warmest year in the U.S., as you alluded to earlier, and within that warm year were a very large and record-breaking number of extreme warm days.
FLATOW: So we are set on some kind of climate change course that is irreversible at this point?
MANN: Well, we're committed to a certain amount of additional warming of the globe. We've already warmed a little under one degree Celsius. We're probably committed to at least another half a degree Celsius just because of the heating that we've already put in the pipeline. So that means that we don't have a whole lot of wiggle room if we're going to avoid two degree Celsius warming of the globe relative to pre-industrial time, that's three and a half degrees Fahrenheit.
That's what most scientists who study climate change impacts say is sort of where we enter into the red zone, the danger zone, where we start to see some of the most severe impacts of climate change play out.
FLATOW: And what time, what part of the century might that happen?
MANN: Well, we only, as it turns out, have a matter of a few years to bring our global carbon emissions to a peak and begin to ramp them down pretty dramatically if we are going to avoid crossing a threshold in terms of the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere where we are committed to that warming.
So there is still time to avoid that dangerous threshold, but there isn't a whole lot of time. There's an urgency to the problem.
FLATOW: Are these future projections of four to five degrees Celsius, are they averages for the planet, the entire planet, the land surfaces, just which parts?
MANN: Sure, yeah, in the event where we basically pursue business as usual, where we don't enact any policies to bring down our carbon emissions, we're probably committed to somewhere between four and five degrees Celsius, that's seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit, warming of the globe by the end of this century.
That is just a global average. It turns out that the land warms faster than the ocean. So we'll see more warming than that where we live, on continents. And in the Arctic, we'll probably see twice that much warming. So if you're worried about the shrinking polar icecap, if you're worried about the Greenland ice sheet and the potential destabilization of that ice sheet and the associated sea-level rise that would come from that, we are headed on a course where we will see those things play out if we don't enact some changes now.
FLATOW: I want to bring on a couple of more guests. John Ashton is the former climate change ambassador for the UK and co-founder of the think-tank E3G. He's at Arizona State University this weekend to take part in the public event "The Great Debate: Climate Change, Surviving the Future." That's tomorrow, February 2nd, and more info on our website if you'd like to attend that event. He joins us today from KJZZ in Tempe. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Ashton.
JOHN ASHTON: Ira, thank you very much. And let me say it's an honor to be back on NPR, which to me has always seemed to be one of America's great institutions.
FLATOW: Well, we'll need you for pledge week.
ASHTON: I didn't expect you to disagree with that.
FLATOW: Eileen Claussen is the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia. She joins us also from KJZZ. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Claussen.
EILEEN CLAUSSEN: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.
FLATOW: Let me talk to you, Dr. Ashton, first. I mentioned at the very top of the show about China, and a lot is made about China. You've worked in China in the past, and you pointed to China as a country that's doing a lot to prepare for clean energy and the low carbon economy.
Yeah, we've seen pictures in the last week of the terrible smog and whatever that's in Beijing that's cloaking the cities. How can China make that claim, or how can you say that about China?
ASHTON: I think Chinese representatives need to speak for themselves, but let me at least offer an observation. Climate change and the response to climate change is beginning to be a force which is going to reshape the entire global economy. And at the moment, what you see is you go around the world, and you look at how that's impacting on different societies.
ASHTON: The leading force in that reshaping is not coming from this country. It's coming more from the European Union and from China than it is from the U.S. And as somebody whose life has been bound up with the U.S., with a second family in the U.S., somebody who I'm not ashamed to say that I love the U.S., it makes me sad that the U.S., at the moment, is in the position of a follower rather than a leader in this reshaping. Because I think that actually we will all find it a more comfortable process if the U.S. is also in the forefront of it, and the enormous resources and capacities that are encompassed in this country.
ASHTON: It's not that exciting things aren't happening here. You mentioned California earlier, and I think the whole AB32 impulse is a very interesting - the cap and trade scheme that they have there now that's just come into effect. Of course there are positive things happening but not at the intensity and certainly not projecting outwards into the world on a scale that you're getting either from Europe or China. China is...
FLATOW: Well, tell us about China. Give us an idea in numbers the scale we're talking about.
ASHTON: Well, let me just give you one number to - as a kind of indicator. Last week, one of the officials in China in charge of electricity system announced that they were increasing the level of ambition in the amount of new solar energy capacity that they want to install in China this year. I think their target was - had been the equivalent seven gigawatts as they say, the equivalent of seven large power stations.
ASHTON: They have now just increased that to the equivalent of 10 large power stations. That's new capacity coming into China in that field of solar this year as part of a plan to build the equivalent of 35 large power stations worth of solar over the next three or four years, up to the end of, up to the end of 2015.
ASHTON: So the solar story is very exciting. The wind energy story, which of course is a bigger, at the moment a much bigger part of their power generation capacity, is exciting. If you talk to the Chinese auto manufacturers, what they tell you is that they think the global future for cars is electric. And they're determined to win that race, and they're putting enormous amounts of investment into that. And I know that that's unsettling the European manufacturers. I don't know how it's going down in Detroit.
ASHTON: And meanwhile, the people who are trying to build a modern power grid system in China are also determined to make it world's most advanced flexible grid system that can talk to your fridge and your electric car and all the other things that you have in your house, so that the whole thing operates more efficiently.
ASHTON: That's, if you like, the new Chinese economy. Alongside it, you've got the old Chinese economy, which as you've said, is based on coal, and they're still building, they're now building about half as much new coal capacity a year as they were before the financial crisis hit. But it's still about one power station a week.
ASHTON: So you've got the high-carbon economy and the low-carbon economy, both powering along alongside each other. And I think the question for all of us, rather than just kind of standing back and being bowled over by the numbers, is to say how can we engage with China, what can we say to China, what can we build with China that will, as it were, strengthen the forces of high ambition inside China in this transition.
FLATOW: All right, let me take a break, we'll come back and hear some other views on this. And I know Eileen Claussen is chomping at the bit to answer this one. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Michael Mann, John Ashton, Eileen Claussen. You can tweet us @scifri or phone us, 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the politics of climate change and the economics of it and the engineering behind it and what the rest of the world is doing to fight it, what might be going on here in the United States.
My guests: Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines"; John Ashton, former climate change ambassador to the U.K.; Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia. 1-800-989-8255.
Eileen, what's your response to all of this?
CLAUSSEN: Well, I think John is much too pessimistic about the United States and much too optimistic about China. I mean if you look at Chinese emissions over let's say the period 2005 to 2010, U.S. emissions are down eight percent, the EU is down nine percent, and China was up 30 percent. Almost all the projections that I've looked at suggest that China will be about one-third of global emissions by 2035.
So yes, they are the number one solar tech manufacturer in the world, but only about .2 percent of their electricity generation is solar. They have more wind than anyone else in the world, but we actually in the U.S. have more that is connected to the grid.
So it is a question of how China moves forward. It's a question about how we all move forward. And I think the reality is, is that nobody is doing what the science tells us has to be done.
FLATOW: Well, one thing that China has that the U.S. doesn't is an energy policy. They have a direction. They have a vision of where they're going.
CLAUSSEN: We have a little bit here and a little bit there. I mean we have 30 states and the District of Columbia with renewable portfolio standards. California is the ninth-largest economy in the world, and they have a very ambitious cap and trade program.
We started to see some regulatory efforts by the Obama administration on cars and light trucks that have actually had an enormous impact. I think in the next four years we're going to see a lot more rules. So you have that on the one side, on the policy side, and then you've got something like the big boom in natural gas, where a lot of natural gas has replaced coal, and that's one of the reasons our emissions are actually going down. And that was market forces, not rules and policy.
FLATOW: Michael, where do you - can you be a referee on this at all?
MANN: Well, you know, you can certainly look at the glass as being either half-empty or half-full when you look at China because there is this - almost a schizophrenia. They are, as, you know, we heard earlier, building a coal-fired power plant every week, but they are investing more in solar and wind technology than we are.
I think our role is to show some leadership. One of the arguments that you sometimes hear from the developing world is that, you know, we here in the U.S. and the developed world, we had two centuries of access to cheap, dirty energy. And don't the other countries have the right to that same - to take advantage of that same energy source?
Only if we show some leadership on this issue when it comes to getting our own carbon emissions under control do we have the moral authority to speak to these other countries who want to come online with their own global energy - their own energy economies.
ASHTON: Can I come in again, Ira?
FLATOW: Yes, please John, go ahead.
ASHTON: Because I think there's a deeper level that perhaps casts a bit of additional light on this. And again, you know, I can't speak for China. I can only offer my kind of observations as a frequent visitor there. One thing that you get very strongly if you go to Beijing nowadays is a sense that the growth model, the way of structuring the economy, which has been hugely successful in many ways for China over the last 30 years, is now at the end of its useful life - carbon intensive, energy intensive, resource intensive, generating enormous internal stresses, the air pollution in Beijing being one example, which is not just economically damaging, it's politically destabilizing.
ASHTON: And so there is a very pragmatic, very open-minded approach to how can we build a new growth model. What does a low-carbon, ultra-energy-efficient, ultra-resource-efficient, more resilient growth model look like? And nothing - they have a saying in China; it doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.
ASHTON: You don't get the same kind of ideological constraints on the debate in China than you get certainly in my country and in parts of Europe, but frankly also, again, as a friend of America, you also get here, that you can't do this because this would be too much state and too much government intervention in the market.
ASHTON: In China, by and large, they're just, they're much more interested in what's the outcome and what might deliver the outcome. My worry about China isn't so much that, it's that you have in some ways quite a chaotic situation. It's going through rapid change. The rise in Chinese emissions that Eileen mentioned, of course, is associated with the rapid expansion in the Chinese economy, which has happened over the last - much faster than any other major economy.
ASHTON: But you know, Karl Marx wasn't the only person who noted that economic change has political consequences. And those political stresses now in China are quite acute, and there are very powerful interests who want to protect themselves in the change.
ASHTON: So you have a system which is much more in flux than in - and therefore much harder for outsiders to predict where it's going. But I do come back, you have to look at the structural forces that are - it doesn't tell you very much to look at, as it were, real-time changes in annual emissions. You have to try and identify what are the forces that are going to determine where jobs and growth and competitiveness are going to be coming from five, 10, 15 years in the future.
ASHTON: And I think at that level the Chinese debate is further advanced than it is in Britain, in most other European countries, possibly with the exception of Germany, but also I fear, and I regret this, but I think also further advanced than here.
FLATOW: What about India? I got a tweet from LauraleeDooley(ph), who says: There are 343 coal-fired plants proposed in China but 455 proposed in India. Eileen, what about that?
CLAUSSEN: Yeah, I think the projections suggest that India will be the number two coal-burner in the world in about five years. So yes, India is another country that we have to work with. I mean all the big economies, the 10 largest economies in the world, I think, account for about 70 percent of emissions, and that's really what's going to count when we think about Michael Mann's numbers about the climate and the number of degrees of warming that we're going to have.
FLATOW: But John, are the Chinese doing this because they feel that it's global warming that's the problem? What is their - or is it an economic and a business question?
ASHTON: I think it's a combination of factors. But I think that it's very striking how awareness of China's vulnerability to climate change, climate stresses, has grown rapidly over the last five years or so. Those stresses are much more tangible if you're Chinese. China is already under extreme water stress, for example. Droughts and floods really matter. They have very acute consequences in China.
ASHTON: The most politically sensitive issue of all in China is food prices. So if water stress pushes up food prices, that gets attention. And so I think it is a reasonably strong signal. It could be stronger. I think there's an interesting paradoxical difference between the reality in China and the reality in India, which we've just been talking about, which is that India is equally, as it were, on the front line of those stresses.
ASHTON: If the monsoon were to fail for a couple of years in a row in India, that would be a global catastrophe, not just an Indian catastrophe. And yet I think the degree of awareness among the elite in India, the people who have their hands on the levers, are pulling the levers, is a lot less. And so is the degree of pragmatism.
ASHTON: I think there's much more of a tendency among the Indian elite to see the conversation about climate change as some kind of hidden Western agenda to do India down in some way. And so that, I think, is not a helpful, is not a helpful factor.
ASHTON: But the other thing, of course, is that up until now, China is a lot bigger and still growing faster than India. It's a bigger piece of this jigsaw. It's actually quite misleading to compare the two because India at the moment is still an order of magnitude smaller, although as Eileen said, the coal part of the India picture is coming out(ph) very strongly.
CLAUSSEN: I mean I think one of the things that is really important to talk about here, at least for a minute or two, is not only how we need to reduce emissions but how we need to build resilience, because, as you mentioned, Ira, early on, I mean we've had Sandy, we've had the droughts.
China's had water shortages. At the same time, as we do the best we can on emissions, we also have to figure out how to adapt to this world that we have bought already.
ASHTON: I think that's absolutely right, and it speaks to a mistake that I think the climate community has made over the years, which is to talk about this predominantly as an environmental issue and a science issue. It's not, except in any trivial sense. It's an issue to do with security and prosperity.
ASHTON: If we want to offer a global population growing to nine billion people by the middle of the century a prospect of food security, water security and energy security, we've got to do something about climate stress, because otherwise, it's going to amplify those other insecurities.
ASHTON: These are absolutely fundamental national interests, and at the moment, there are very few countries, very few societies where we're talking about climate change in that kind of national interest kind of way. Interestingly, two of the U.S. politicians who have done that to some extent in recent years over the - in the roles that they've been occupying have been Senator Kerry and Senator Hagel.
ASHTON: So one of the exciting developments for those of us outside the U.S. is to see the possibility that they will be coming into the new public offices that they're - subject to the Senate - expected to hold.
FLATOW: Well, if you were in the U.S. a little longer or more, you'd see how quickly senators' minds can change when things happen to them politically.
FLATOW: Some, you know, hearings going on this week. Statements were made you would never expect coming out of some senators mouths.
ASHTON: Can I make one other...
ASHTON: ...sort of big point, Ira? I mean, again, as a sort of friend of America, if you like, for me, everything that has been wonderful about America in recent generations has come from the notion that we can use reason and science to understand the human condition and to improve it.
ASHTON: In other words, America had, for a long time, a political system which, I suppose you could call reality-based system. Let's understand reality. Let's use science to understand reality and improve reality. And, indeed, that's the legacy of the Enlightenment.
ASHTON: We have that in Europe as well, and it's something which, in some of the other emerging economies, is now coming into place. I - my impression is that that is coming under more strain in this country than it's come under for a very long time, because there are people who say, actually, you know, building upon reality is not the only way to make the choices that we face.
ASHTON: And that fills me with alarm, because I think it means that the only way to come out in the right place on climate change in America is to win that deeper struggle, which, in the - is really not a political struggle. It's a cultural struggle. And that means that the forces of the Enlightenment have to rally around and defend the reality-based approach to making the choices that we face.
ASHTON: That - if I can put in - I was asked to - by Arizona State University to say that there are still some tickets available for the great debate tomorrow night that was referred to at the beginning of the - and it'll be webcast. But as I understand it, that's kind of what ASU are trying to do by bringing this group of people together this weekend. But I think, you know, we have to understand, this isn't a policy debate about climate change. It's a political and cultural debate about the way in which we make the great choices that we're faced with.
FLATOW: OK. I have to interrupt to give a little station break. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. And I want to also bring in Representative Henry Waxman, who's a Democrat from the 33rd Congressional District of California. He's ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, congressman.
REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you. I'm pleased to join you and your other guests on this subject.
FLATOW: Do you find any change on Capitol Hill about, you know, some in the Senate have called the biggest fraud, the biggest hoax ever perpetuated on the U.S., meaning climate change?
WAXMAN: I think that the - those who are taking that position, primarily the Republicans, are boxing themselves into a state of denial, putting their heads in the sand and not even acknowledging the science. When the Republicans took over, I was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Republicans took over the committee because they won the election in 2010.
They voted overwhelmingly, constantly, to deny the science. They said that there's no such thing as global warming, that climate change is just not true, or if it's happening, we're not contributing to it. We've called on them over and over again to at least hold hearings with the scientists. We do have to make policy based on evidence, and we're hopeful that they will relent and look at this issue more carefully.
But in the meantime, Senator Whitehouse and I have joined together in organizing a bicameral task force to work on climate change, to bring public awareness to it, to develop ideas and to propose legislation, and we're inviting Democrats and Republicans to join with us. I don't think the Republicans want to be the party of flat Earth, but that's where some of their leaders are taking them at the moment.
But the reality is we've seen Hurricane Sandy. We've seen the destruction of climate changes with the hurricanes and forest fires. It's undeniable, and it's costing our country, well, in 2011, over $60 billion. And the total damages we had in 2012 from weather and climate disasters are going to be even higher, and we're going to continue unless we start taking action.
FLATOW: Congressman, we asked Lamar Smith, who's a Republican from Texas and now head of the House Science Committee, to come on the program. He's known as a climate skeptic. He said he'd be holding a hearing on, quote, "the state of the environment." Does that hold out any hope that some - there might be some meetings or changes of mind up there?
WAXMAN: I would hope so. He's the head of the Science Committee.
WAXMAN: And if they're going to hold a hearing on the state of the environment, they ought to bring in - they'll probably bring in the deniers, but they certainly ought to bring in the credible scientists who can speak with authority as to what we are seeing and what we're experiencing so that Congress can be informed and the public can be further informed.
FLATOW: Well, he's issued a statement - we asked him to come on the program, and he denied that opportunity. And he said I believe climate change is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles and human activity. But scientists still don't know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing. It is the role of the Science Committee to create a forum for discussion so Congress and the American people can hear from experts, draw reasoned conclusions. During this process, we should focus on the facts rather than on a partisan agenda.
WAXMAN: Well, that's fine. I think we ought to do that, and we ought to bring in people who can talk about the facts and base our policies on those facts. But I have to tell you, I'm still hopeful the Republicans are not going to continue to take this position that they have been taking. I know a lot of the Republican members are uncomfortable with it. But there's a - I have a sense of urgency about it, even if they don't buy the whole concerns that we're hearing. Isn't it prudent to reduce the greenhouse gases, in case they're wrong? We ought to take some actions. We've called on the president, Senator Whitehouse and I, to do things that the administration can do without Congress.
FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll get into some of those things. We have to take a break. Talking with Representative Henry Waxman. We'll be right back after this break. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about climate change, politics here and abroad with my guests Michael Mann, John Ashton, Eileen Claussen and Representative Henry Waxman. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, to Margaret in Manlius, New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Margaret.
MARGARET: Well, thank you very much, Ira. I've always been a fan of SCIENCE FRIDAY.
FLATOW: Thank you.
MARGARET: My - you're welcome. My concern is the natural gas comment. You know, here in New York, we are fighting having natural gas come. And with CO2 being a concern, methane gas is much more detrimental than CO2. And that is released when the natural gas is hydrofracked, and I'd really like that point to be considered.
FLATOW: OK. Let's talk about it. Michael Mann.
MANN: Sure. You know, I'm in a state myself, in Pennsylvania, where, you know, there's a development going on today, the Marcellus Shale - shale deposits, the natural gas contained within those deposits. And so there is, to some extent, an argument that can be made that, you know, unit of power - on a unit of power basis, natural gas produces - the use of natural gas for power produces less CO2 than, say, the burning of coal.
On the other hand, as the caller alludes to, there is this issue - and it's somewhat uncertain - of the matter of fugitive emissions. We don't know how much of that natural gas - that methane, primarily - might be escaping into the atmosphere through fractures in the ground in the process of recovering that natural gas. And that's a real wild card, because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than even CO2. That means that we are talking about making decisions in the face of substantial uncertainties. There's an uncertainty as to whether or not it's truly established, that natural gas is a less carbon-intensive energy source than coal, and it comes with different risks.
FLATOW: Let's get a bit into some of the gray area that still remains in climate change. What aspects of climate science are a sealed deal, so to speak, and what parts are you and other scientists still debating? There must be some stuff that you're still not sure about.
MANN: Yeah, I'm glad you asked that question, because it's a matter that's already come up in this discussion, the issue of uncertainty. And sometimes the issue of uncertainty, as we've heard, is seized upon by those who articulate the case for inaction. They say, well, we shouldn't take any action, as long as we're uncertain about this. Well, you know, uncertainty doesn't necessarily work that way. It's a double-edged sword. And uncertainty can just as easily cut against us, as cut for us. What that means is that the changes that we may see could be far worse than what we are currently projecting with our climate models. And there are some reminders, even this last summer, of things that are unfolding faster than we projected them to happen.
The Arctic - the decline in sea ice in the Arctic is taking place faster than climate models projected it to. The melting of the major ice sheets, the loss of ice from the major ice sheets which is contributing to global sea level rise is proceeding decades ahead of schedule. And so if we look at uncertainties in the science, yes, there are certain aspects where it's possible the projections overestimate them. But we're seeing that there's some very key areas of impact where we have actually underestimated - the scientific community has underestimated the changes as they're taking place, and the impacts that they're having. And anybody, you know, who looks at sort of cost-benefit analysis, economists who study these sorts of issue from a cost-benefit analysis point of view will tell you that you want to mitigate against those perhaps low probability, but catastrophic outcomes that might lie out there.
We can't rule them out, because of the uncertainty. And so much the same way that we purchase fire insurance for our homes - not because we think our homes are going to burn down, but because we went a hedge against that catastrophic outcome in the rare event that might happen. We should think of mitigating climate change of getting our carbon emissions under control as a planetary insurance policy.
FLATOW: Congressman Waxman, California just fired up its cap-and-trade program. Can you give us a little thumbnail sketch of how that works?
WAXMAN: The cap-and-trade program, or carbon tax, are ways to put a price on the consequences of putting these greenhouse gases into the air in order to give the incentive for the private markets, for businesses to try to develop technologies, to look for alternative sources of fuel, to be more efficient in their operations. It's not a government mandate as to how to do things, but it's a clear statement that there's an incentive, financially, to do the things that may improve the situation.
And I think that's all to the good. When we give those strong incentives, our business community often responds better than we ever expect it. There's no magic bullet to deal with climate change, but if we give people the right incentives - there's such a thing as the costs. Let's say, you're at a power plant. You burn coal. Coal is very cheap, so you figure that's all - you pay for the coal, you burn it and you get electricity. But there's another cost, and that's the cost of damage to the environment and public health.
And that to be attributed to the people who are burning coal so that we have a level playing field, and maybe those who want to use coal will try to figure out a way to reduce the carbon or eliminate the carbon or sequester it. Or the utilities will turn to renewable fuels because they'll be able to compete.
FLATOW: Eileen Claussen, you deal a lot with fossil fuel companies and have in the past. Don't they want some sort of consistency here so they know about their own future?
CLAUSSEN: I think the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean that all of them would actually like to see a policy to deal with climate change. I mean, the ones that we deal with would. And I - Congressman Waxman knows many of them because they were supporters of Waxman-Markey when we tried to move that through the Congress a couple of years ago.
FLATOW: That failed.
CLAUSSEN: But there are vested interests who really believe that dealing with climate change will hurt their own business interest and those are fairly powerful. And so...
FLATOW: Can you tell us who they are?
CLAUSSEN: ...the business community is really a mixed bag. But, Ira, if I could, could I just something about natural gas in response to the caller?
FLATOW: Yes, please.
CLAUSSEN: I think we know, technologically, how to deal with leaks of methane. That doesn't mean that everybody is doing it, but everybody could do it. And that would deal with some of the methane issue. If you take that off the table, there's no question that if you substitute natural gas for coal, that's a big improvement for the climate. If, on the other hand, you substitute natural gas for renewables, that is not because, of course, natural gas is a fossil fuel.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is it an engineering problem? Is it something we know how to do - the leakage?
CLAUSSEN: I believe it is something that we know how to do.
ASHTON: Can I add a word to that, Ira?
FLATOW: Yes. Go ahead, John.
ASHTON: I think that your caller, Margaret, was absolutely right to raise a concern about this. And I think that we've seen - there's a lot of excitement about shale gas in Britain and in parts of Europe as well. And as part of that, there's an effort going on to try to position gas, and particularly shale gas, as being at the heart of the answer to climate change. And I think there's been a disingenuous quality about that, because, as Eileen says, yes, your kind of real-time emissions are less than coal if you deal with the fugitive emissions.
But at the same time, you're locking in a further piece of fossil-generated electricity into your electricity system. Once you've invested in the power stations where they're going to burn the gas, then that's locked you in. And so I think we need to have a more open and honest debate about - I'm not necessarily in favor of just trying to, kind of, close it all down, but I think we have to ask ourselves what role does this play in the transition that we really need to make, which is to an electricity system which is genuinely carbon-neutral.
We're having an argument in Britain at the moment. It's absolutely raging argument, about whether we should have a carbon-neutral energy system by 2030, which is quite a rapid transition. And I think that we will probably get that commitment out of our political system in the next year or two. At the moment, the Conservative Party, which is heavily influenced by the Tea Party phenomenon here in the U.S., but with a, sort of, time lag of several years, is very hostile to the idea of putting hard limits of any kind on carbon dioxide emissions.
But I think in terms of what the public want and what the rest of politics wants in the U.K., I think the wind is in the sails - of that proposition. So if you want to have shale gas, you've got to say, how are we going to do this in a way which doesn't distract us from this deeper transformation we have to make? And, you know, there are issues about whether you want to do shale gas while at the same time capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that burning the gas emits.
That's technologically available as a choice. It cost money and, you know, you need a debate whether you want to do that rather than having more renewables or other common neutral forms of energy. But at the moment, I think there's a slightly distorted quality to the debate about gas, and we need to look at it in a slightly more sensible way.
FLATOW: Well, it boils down, right now, the debate, to just dollars and cents, as being cheaper and...
FLATOW: Right, Eileen? And...
CLAUSSEN: Yes, exactly. I mean, with the price of natural gas, it could crowd everything out of the market. I think, in the end, that's not sensible energy policy. You actually need a portfolio. But John is right to say that, at some point, you'd have to capture - if you're going to move to gas-burning power plants, you'd have to capture and sequester the carbon. Otherwise, if it displaces coal, it will then become the major source of carbon emissions.
FLATOW: Congressman Waxman, everybody looks to California as being a leader in all kinds of forward-looking things or, you know, from energy, the way food is grown, things like that. And you have experiments - I mean, statewide experiments. I'm thinking, for example, of creating electric cars and electric highways and thinking about high-speed trains. Do you think California can serve as something of an incubator for the rest of us? And what would that energy future look like for California?
WAXMAN: We are proud of the fact that California leads the country in advances that move from the West to East. The cap-and-trade program can be a model. California, of course, looked at reducing emissions from automobiles very early on to deal with our smog problem. And then even when we were pushing more efficient automobiles, it would use less gasoline. California championed the way, and now what California proposed is a national standard.
There are lot of things that can be done. What - and I'm proud of California. But what I would want to impress upon everybody is that we - this - we're releasing carbon into the atmosphere and it stays there for hundreds of years. The long life of the pollution means that the warming we're causing us practically irreversible. And it's important we act before too much time, too much warming gets locked in.
And there are things that we think we can do at the federal level and we need strong federal leadership. The president, on his own, has substantial authority to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, new and existing ones. Department of Energy can strengthen up plants energy standards, efficiency standards, to reduce emissions and save consumers money at the same time. And other agencies, besides EPA and DOE, have strong focus on climate.
We have an international agreement in place, called the Montreal Protocol to deal with the chlorofluorocarbons that were causing destruction of the upper ozone layer. And if we strengthen that, we would do a lot to reduce our contributions to climate change. There's no silver bullet. There's no one thing. It's not one thing or another. It's got to be balanced, and we had - just got to keep moving forward. Although, I'm going to have excuse myself.
FLATOW: OK. Thank you, Congressman.
WAXMAN: I'm delighted you're having the show and you have wonderful guests on.
FLATOW: Thank you very much, Congressman Henry Waxman of California.
WAXMAN: Thank you. Bye-bye.
FLATOW: I know this is a good time for me to interrupt on whether everybody know that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
We still do have some terrific guests.
FLATOW: Michael Mann, John Ashton and Eileen Claussen. And I think it was you, Eileen. Did you say before, that nobody is doing what science tells us has to be done?
CLAUSSEN: Yes, I did. It's better than I think.
FLATOW: And what is - tell us what no one is doing.
CLAUSSEN: Well, we - my point is, really, that we have little bits of effort in a lot of different countries. And I think if you look globally, Germany maybe among the best because of what they've done with their renewable sector. But no one is moving at the rate that we need to move, and no one is doing things, you know, of such a comprehensive way that we actually can deal with this problem. And so, I think the depressing story here is that we see little signs of progress, and we may see some more, and there maybe some structural changes. But we really are buying a lot of climate change and it's just going to be devastating. And it's also going to be costly to deal with.
FLATOW: Is there no low-hanging fruit left? I'm thinking like, you know, energy conservation, which could save a lot of energy and make...
CLAUSSEN: Absolutely. And I - and, you know, I think, you know, another reason for our sort of reduction in emissions is because we are seeing some improvements in energy efficiency, but these are really small when you look at the scope of the problem.
ASHTON: And I think, also, it's dangerous to say, let's go after the low-hanging fruit and leave the others, leave the rest to later. That's the point about the urgency. You've got to do it all at the same time. I mean, I agree with everything Eileen's just said, except with one - maybe with one slight distinction. Which is that one of the changes, over the last few years, is that you can now see, in some places, the low-carbon economy. You can touch it. You can feel it. You can see that it's delivering jobs and growth.
I grew up in Tyneside, in the northeast of England, which at that time was one of the most depressed places in Europe. Its heyday was in the Victorian ear. It was strong on coal, and steel and ship building. And all of those industries collapsed and some of the towns around where I grew up had unemployment rates of 50 percent and above. It's amazing that they still had social stability there.
That part of our country is now coming to life again. And it's coming to life on the back of low-carbon industries and low-carbon supply chains. They're building wind turbines on the banks of the Tyne. Nissan is building electric cars and exporting them around Europe from the banks of the Tyne. There are other renewable industries that are connecting to that. And if you go there, you get a sense of rejuvenation, revitalization, which is in the air, coming out of this transition to the low-carbon economy.
Eileen mentioned Germany. There are times now when the weather is both sunny and windy in Germany, when all of the electricity that comes out of your plug is generated by either solar or wind - 100 percent. So to give - I mean, and yet Eileen is right. We've only just began. But to give the impression that this is something that, it is so difficult, it must be out of reach, which is an impression many people, I think, still have. It's there if you look around.
FLATOW: All right. And that's - we're going to have end it there. That is - ending it on a hopeful note. Thank you, John Ashton, former climate change ambassador to the U.K. and co-founder of the think tank E3G, Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Arlington, Virginia, Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines." Also distinguished professor in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences at Penn State. Thank you all for joining us today.
ASHTON: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.
MANN: Thank you.
CLAUSSEN: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. And if you're thirsty for more climate change, you can head down to Arizona State University this weekend for the event, The Great Debate: Climate Change, Surviving the Future. That's on Saturday, tomorrow, February 2. More info is on our website. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.