The Government and Climate Change

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Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat from Tennessee, is chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. He talks with Ira Flatow about the government's role in curbing climate change and about his top legislative priorities, from clean energy to competitiveness.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next: when it comes to global warming and our role in causing it, the science is - the science is pretty much settled. What's up for debate now is, what do we do about it? If the goal is to curb the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases we're pumping into the atmosphere, that conventional wisdom always - how do we stop that - conventional wisdom has been to suggest a cap on carbon emissions, limit how much carbon can be spewed out of tailpipes and smokestack. Straight cap on, but there is an alternative called carbon trading.

Joining us now to make the case for carbon trading is the chief scientist for environmental defense. He has co-authored a paper in this week's Science magazine that says a cap-and-trade system is the only way to guarantee a drop in CO2 levels by a target date. Our number: 1-800-989-8255, if you like to join in the discussion.

Bill Chameides is the chief scientist at Environmental Defense in New York. He joins us here in our SCIENCE FRIDAY studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL CHAMEIDES (Chief Scientist, Environmental Defense, New York): Hi, Ira, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Please, do a better job than I've been explaining what do you mean by the cap and trade.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Okay.

FLATOW: Then why it's better.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: The most important part of what we're talking about is the cap part. Actually, in Congress, as the representative was talking about, there are lots of bills that they're considering. And some of them, I would characterize as pretender bills and some of them are real bills. The real bills mandate a decrease in emissions over time. They apply a cap. So the first part is cap.

The next question is, if you go in and have a cap, what's the most effective, what's the most efficient way of limiting costs and getting the reductions as quickly as possible? And experience has shown quite often that the way to do that is let the marketplace figure it out. And the way you harness the power of the marketplace is by allowing a commodity to be traded. In this case, you would trade carbon emissions across emitters and people who can save emissions and that's what - that's the trade part. That's the carbon trading part.

FLATOW: So, only to just see if I can tweak(ph) - tease(ph) this out a little bit. If I make cleans(ph), if I - in fact, really - let's say, I'm a power plant and I put clean, carbon-free emissions, I could have credits for those that I can now swap, right, with someone who might not be so clean and sell them for money?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: That's right. Think about it as two power plants. They both have the same cap. One power plant - your power plant is really smart. And if - you figure out a way to lower your emissions even below - further than below your cap, I'm not so smart, I'm going to have to give you money to make up that difference. So we reward innovation.

FLATOW: Now how do you know that this will work better than mandatory - just caps system?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Well, I think the only way to do a cap system is allow for trading. The reason it works better is because it gives rewards to people to go beyond the limit. Suppose we're - again, we're two power plants. And you have your allowance and I have my allowance. If we can't trade, all I want to do in my power plant, all you're going to do in your power plant is get to the allowance. You're not going to do anything more than that. On the other hand, if you know, you can make money by coming up with a new technology that's going to get your further down the road, you're going to do it. I'm going to try to do it, too. Everybody's going to try to it and you're going to spark innovation.

FLATOW: Now, this is something because the earth doesn't care where the CO2 is coming form.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: That's absolutely right.

FLATOW: The earth could do it any - you could trade international.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: That's right. You can trade internationally. For example, a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the world are coming from burning tropical rainforests. Power plants could pay tropical rainforest countries to slow the rate of deforestation, save that precious resource and get relatively cheap benefits in terms of, in terms of lowering their emissions and everybody wins.

FLATOW: I have a question for it, a challenge to this system.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Okay.

FLATOW: Because I think it's an interesting idea. A significant amount of greenhouse gases in the form of methane come from cattle. And the, I think research show that the worse off the cattle are, the more methane they actually put. Healthy cattle don't put out as much methane. Could you do that with farmers? Also, with cap-and-trade...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: You could. In fact, if you have what we call carbon offsets, where you allow for people to figure out ways of lowering emissions even though they don't have enough part of the emission scenario, they don't have allowances. They can sell those as credits. So for example, if I'm a hog farmer, and I know the waste - that you might not want to think about exactly what that is...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: ...but the manure gives off methane. I can figure out a way to capture that methane, use that as a credit and sell it to a power plant to make up for their emissions. So there's all sorts of opportunities for people to figure out ways to prevent emissions from natural systems, to enhance the uptake of greenhouse gases in natural systems like farms and forests and use those as offsets to sell to emitters.

FLATOW: In order to do a cap-and-trade system that's binding, how big a hurdle is it? Do you think that Congress is going to, you know, they're not thinking. You heard the congressmen when I brought it up. He said that's an option. Well, is it something that's on their radar screen or they just either all cap or no cap?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Well, this is definitely on their radar screen. There are several bills in Washington that are - have been proposed and are being considered, and a number of those have in them a cap, a real cap on emissions that allow for carbon trading, different limitations on that carbon trading. And I think it remains to be seen what comes out.

From my point of view, the question is not whether we're going to have climate legislation in the United States; I think we're clearly going to. Whether that legislation is going to be meaningful. And meaningful legislation will have a real cap on emissions that requires a decrease in emissions over time and that will have the flexibility that we need to allow for carbon trading. And there are some bills that do that now.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the track record that cap-and-trade has. It's had a pretty good track record with acid rain. It worked with acid rain...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Sure. When we had...

FLATOW: ...did it not?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: We had a cap-and-trade system put in place with the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments for acid rain that involved a cap on sulfur oxide emissions over time and trading among power plants. At the time it was put in place, there was a lot of criticism - it wasn't going to work, it will be too expensive. We met the targets ahead of time, at about one-third the cost. And because we had that trading, there were all sorts of incentives for power plants to figure out cheap ways of lowering their sulfur oxide emissions, and it turned out to be much less expensive than had been originally predicted.

We also did trading, some limited trading in lowering CFC emissions for the stratospheric ozone depletion process problem, and there was some trading in lowering lead in gasoline as well. So we've had some experience with it each time we've done this work quite well.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones - 1-800-989-8255. Phil in Frederick, Maryland. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Yeah, hi. I guess my question as a homeowner is or a taxpayer is, I'm assuming all these corporations that are going to be doing these caps-and-trades, country to country or whatever, but how are the rest of us going to understand, actually, this cap-and-trade is leading to a valid result...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Did we lose Phil?

PHIL: ...records of all cap and trade, if that makes any sense. And also, are taxpayers or corporations rather getting sort of a subsidy from this?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Okay, let me try to answer those questions sequentially. Hello, Phil, incidentally. The way you would apply the cap is just upstream, a high upstream in the process as possible so we wouldn't be applying the cap to individuals. We would be applying the cap to power plants to or build manufacturers, to refineries and so forth.

The way you make sure it's actually making a difference, it turns out that for most of the greenhouse gas emissions, which is carbon dioxide, it's a no-brainer. How much gasoline you use, how much coal you use, how much natural gas you use immediately tells us how much CO2 gets into the atmosphere because we know the carbon content of those fuels. So if we simply monitor how much fuel is being used, if we can demonstrate that those fuel numbers are going down, we know we're making a difference.

And typically, in a cap-and-trade system, the government plays a fairly light role - it applies the cap and allows the marketplace to do most of the work, but a very, very important role for the government is enforcement. The government has to make sure that the companies that have the allowances that they'd have the caps meet those caps. And we've done this is the past, for example, the sulfur oxide emissions and it's worked, worked quite well.

Your second question, which, excuse me for a second, what was the second question?

FLATOW: I think he's gone, so we're...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: He's gone. Did you remember what's the second question?

FLATOW: No, no. I think your answer is...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Okay. Basically, it was.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Lots of questions. Let's to go Vivian in Suffolk County, Long Island. Hi, Vivian.

VIVIAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, how are you? Go ahead.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Hi, Vivian.

VIVIAN: This is a terrific show. I always listen to you. I'm a legislator at Suffolk County, and in the year 2000, I sponsored legislation to limit the CO2 emission from our power plants here. And I became very interested in the cap-and-trade. And a few years ago, I read an article in The Economist - talking about how far ahead the European countries are in this marketplace, recently, the United States. How much of a game of catch-up will we be playing here in the United States, entering this marketplace?

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Well, the catch-up is going to be on emissions, I mean, where the Europeans are making progress. The other thing that I would talk about in terms of catch-up, which relates to what Representative Gordon was talking about just a few minutes ago, there has to - competitiveness, it's because the Europeans have this carbon market in place and they've been worrying about it. They're getting way ahead of us in terms of development of news industries, like wind energy, solarvoltaic energies, and those types of technologies. And that's really where the catch up is going to be. There's a low carbon economy coming. Ultimately, the United States is going to have to be part of that low carbon economy. And the longer it takes us to start dealing with this problem, the further we're going to get behind in developing these technologies, and if we wait long enough, we're going to be an importer of those technologies rather than an exporter.

FLATOW: Vivienne, did you say you're a legislator in Albany?

VIVIENNE: No, in Suffolk County, I'm a county legislator.

FLATOW: Do you think that people like you, locally, are going to be out front in these things instead of waiting for the federal government to do something?

VIVIENNE: Well, actually, my legislation was way out front within the year 2000. But unfortunately we do need a nationwide push in order to have a serious impact.

But I think that in some ways because so many of us have been out front, we've helped to push the federal government to step up to the plate. But until somebody like Al Gore really came out and let the public know how important it is, we don't have the, you know, the media and the public awareness.

So what Al Gore has done is really to not jumpstart - because it has started on grassroots - but he's really created a much wider platform of understanding and knowledge.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: No argument there. What you said about it in terms of pushing the federal government is incredibly on the mark. And we need a federal policy. But it's really important to - for folks to know that in the Northeast we have the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in the Northeast and a trading system between the power plants.

In California, they've capped the emissions. So the states are now way out in front of the federal government and they are forcing the federal government to do something.

FLATOW: Thank you...

VIVIENNE: Isn't that a shame?

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, I think it's a shame but on the other hand it's great. The states are making it happen.

FLATOW: Well, you may have - you may have diversified. We have every - if you look on the Internet, and just about every day there's another county or company installing wind turbines all over the country, which you're getting, it appears, is a decentralized system, you know, of energy. And maybe that's better for brownouts and blackouts eventually and things like that.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, I would agree that a decentralized system might be good for us to have, but absent a federal policy on climate, we're not going to get the kind of cuts in emissions we need to have. That's my belief.

FLATOW: All right, Vivienne. Thanks and good luck to you.

VIVIENNE: Thank you. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: You're welcome. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to - let's go down the block, go to Fred in Delaware, Ohio. Hi, Fred.

FRED (Caller): Hi. Thanks, guys. Here's a question. I hope it's relevant. Instead of putting a band-aid on the whole situation, why don't we focus energies and finance and resources on actually creating new or perfecting new non-polluting energy - wind, sun, solar, geothermal, etc., etc.?

FLATOW: Well, that's what Al Gore said, sure. Before Congress, he said let's put a cap, take the money and create alternative energy.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, the question is, clearly we need new technologies. Wind, solar - we need to implement those technologies as well. So the question is how best can you get those technologies developed and implemented? One approach is like the Manhattan Project approach. Let the government take a whole pot of money and throw it at some technology and hope it develops.

There are a lot of problems with that. I don't know that anybody is smart enough to know which technology is going to be the best technology, and I wonder if everybody thinks that the folks in Washington had a big pot of money they would spend it in a rational way.

Another way to do it is to let the marketplace figure out the best technologies. The amount of money in the marketplace is so much larger than the government has. If you do a cap-and-trade system, what happens is the marketplace is energized to develop those technologies because there's a profit to be made by making those technologies work.

And that, in my mind, is the best way to get those technologies developed. There's no argument we need the technologies, but the question is how best to do it.

FLATOW: We're talking about energy this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm talking with Bill Chameides, who is chief scientist at the Environmental Defense in New York.

If we do adopt a cap-and-trade, on the other side of the planet, we have India, we have China, which doesn't have a cap-and-trade system. Can we have enough credits possible in the whole country to overcome the amount of pollution that they're going to be putting in to the air?

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Good point. It's a global problem. We've got to have global cooperation. If all of the developed countries cut their emissions to zero, we still couldn't do what we need to do. So we've got to get all the countries involved.

The question is how best to get those countries involved. In the final analysis, the United States is the larger emitter of greenhouse gases and historically the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from us is much larger than anybody else.

So I think it's somewhat disingenuous of us to say we need to do something about this but we're not going to do anything until you guys do something. I think it's much more likely and rational for us to come up with a policy that we can live with and then go to the rest of the world and ask them to join us. And that's what a lot of people think we need to do.

FLATOW: Chuck in Birmingham, Michigan. Hi.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for putting me on. I had a question. I thought, you know, I've been thinking about the fact that you talk about having the people at the top do it, but what about the people at the bottom? What about us folks who drive our cars and what have you - what about a cap-and-trade system...

FLATOW: Yeah.

CHUCK: ...so people could say, well, I'll trade you and you pay me some money. So I'll drive my car slower, or I'll buy a...

FLATOW: Or I'll get a hybrid or something. Yeah. Exactly.

CHUCK: ...or I'll use less gas or in some way measure - I mean I imagine there'll be people out there inventing ways to reduce their emissions on their cars.

FLATOW: Absolutely. Chuck, I'm on with you on this.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, it's a great idea. And the fact is in a cap-and-trade system everybody has the opportunity to figure out a clever way to lower their emissions, going beyond what they have - normally have to do, and they can try to sell it. So if you guys - suppose a whole bunch of you can figure out some clever way to lower emissions; you can bundle all of that as a credit and go to a power company and say - if you can validate that it actually exists and register that as an offset...

FLATOW: But that's where - well, that's where the federal government could step in and say if you drive, if you buy - you know, they already give you a credit for let's say a hybrid car; they say if you drive that X number of miles, you've eliminated X number of tons of emissions.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, without getting into the specifics...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: ...of what would be a valid offset or not.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Let's me just say that in principle, the great thing about a cap-and-trade system is that individuals now get to play in the marketplace. And if you've got a clever idea and you can agree, the regulators agree that it works, you can actually make money doing it.

FLATOW: So you just have to be innovative.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Right. So you make money but you also help save the planet, incidentally.

FLATOW: So it sounds like - almost like the stock market. You know, it's open society. You can cap, you can trade...

Dr. CHAMEIDES: That's right.

FLATOW: You can buy. You can sell.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: What ends up happening is carbon becomes a commodity, just like anything else, just like selling a TV set. And if you can build a better TV set, you're going to make more money.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're going to stay on with Bill for a little bit longer. A lot of folks have stuff to say. It's an interesting topic. What would be the first - before - I've got about 30 seconds before the break, maybe it's unfair to ask you.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Now it's only 20 seconds.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll just go to the break. We're going to come back and talk lots more about cap and trade, your ideas of how this might work. Maybe you've got something innovative you want to come up with that allows you as citizens - we'd all like to get in on this.

This is a great idea if you could save money. Imagine coming - like turning your odometer backwards. Imagine money coming in your direction like you feed the grid if you have solar energy on your house; maybe we can get some money back for cap and trade.

Stay with us. We're talking with Bill Chameides, chief scientist at Environmental Defense in New York. 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

I'm Ira Flatow talking with Bill Chameides, who is chief scientist in Environmental Defense in New York, here talking about capping and trading of credits for carbon dioxide reductions. And a lot of our listeners have their thinking capping on today...

Dr. CHAMEIDES: They certainly do.

FLATOW: We certainly have some interesting questions. Let's go to them because they're better than me. Let's go to Scott in Sacramento. Hi, Scott.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Hello, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

SCOTT: Hi. My question was: Is there any significant opposition to the cap-and-trade system?

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, I don't want to tell you about that, but I think that there's some folks who favor a - what we call a carbon tax. That you would simply place a tax on emissions rather than cap emissions and allow for trading. And my feeling about a tax is there are varieties of disadvantages, one of them being it's a political non-starter in Washington.

But the problem with the tax is it doesn't guarantee what the emissions will be. There's no environmental certainty. And given the seriousness of the climate problem, I think the number one thing we need to know is that emissions are going to go down the amount we need to have them go down, so I would not favor tax for a variety of reasons, including that reason.

SCOTT: Okay. Thank you for taking my question.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Let's stay in California and this time go to San Jose. Hi, Bill. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BILL (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. My question is related to net metering through PG&E. I'm a photovoltaic generator. I have solar cells on my property and I generated about three times what I use in order to offset my carbon from car driving. And - but at the same time I get no benefit directly from PG&E for that. Basically they take the electricity and basically get the offsets without any value.

If you want to drive - if this were to be driven down to the individual basis and there was a value in generating excess what you use on your own property, it would be a huge windfall for the California - in California the legislature doesn't allow PG&E or doesn't require PG&E to pay in excess if they receive free electricity from generators.

So if you were to reverse that, the state of California could very quickly be -have all the offsets you could imagine from individual generators, the small photovoltaic generators that generated - that could be generating in excess. Additionally, that would significantly improve the financial recovery rate or return rate on photovoltaic, bringing down the effective cost of photovoltaics for the individual generator, for a - even for a business generator, commercial generator.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: So what you're saying is basically when you send electricity back to the grid, you're not getting paid for it.

FLATOW: Your meter doesn't turn background.

BILL: The meter turns background and I get a credit but it means nothing.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, it means...

BILL: It means there's no financial benefit. There's no benefit.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: No, you're getting a benefit because you're paying less for your electricity. I think that the way you established that, it depends on -ultimately for an offset to work, someone has to own the credit and the regulatory system has to decide that. And there are some advantages to having the power company own the credit. There are some advantages to having the individual own the credit. And that's something that can be discussed. But I agree with you that the way you want to set up the incentives is to give people the right kind of market and monetary signal to encourage them to lower their emissions.

CONAN: Thanks for calling, Bill. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Columbus. Mason in Columbus. Hi, Mason.

MASON (Caller): Yes. I'm calling - we're talking about CO2 as a warming gas but actually it was left off of Gore's graph, but the water dwarfs CO2 as a warming gas. And also, if you look at the science behind it, actually this, our contribution in CO2 is miniscule compared to the volcanoes, animal metabolism, rotting plants and the amount that's released from the ocean when it's warmed by the sun.

Dr. CHAMEIDES: Well, sure, let me just go through that. The science on this stuff has been established long, long time ago. Let me take the second one first. There are natural sources of carbon dioxide and there are human sources of carbon dioxide like burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide has increased by about 35 percent over the last 100-plus years. And the question is, where does that extra carbon dioxide come from? And we have a signature for that carbon dioxide which relates to carbon isotopes. It's like a fingerprint. And it tells us to a scientific certainty that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from burning fossil fuels primarily. So it doesn't come from volcanoes. It doesn't come from the ocean. There are natural cycles that are turning carbon dioxide over in the atmosphere but they're not changing the concentration.

The question is, where is the increase coming from, and the increase, which is what we care about, which is causing global warming, is coming from burning fossil fuels from human activities.

Now the other question has to do with water vapor. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The concentration of water vapor is determined by the temperature. The warmer the temperature, the more water vapor there is in the atmosphere. Emissions of water vapor from human activities has no impact whatsoever on water vapor concentrations, but there is a perverse cycle in the atmosphere.

We put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It warms the atmosphere. We have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which warms the atmosphere even more, which leads to more water vapor and more warming. The only way we can control that process is to lower or eliminate out CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, for example.

So the fact that water vapor is an important greenhouse gas does not change the fact that our emissions of carbon dioxide are causing the warming.

FLATOW: Okay, Mason, thanks for calling.

MASON: But what about the impact of the sun, which to me is - I don't see how we can take that out of the equation, which seems to be dropped out of this equation, and it's a very complicated, but it's the magnetism - if you watch sun spots and correlate that with - it correlates much better with...

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Let me - what's your name again?

MASON: Mason.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Mason, good point. Let me just say that we as scientists have been working on this problem for decades, and we have used observations to sort of try to understand and eliminate every possible cause of this warming besides greenhouse gas emissions.

In the case of the sun, for example, very likely, changes in the sun or changes in sun spots have caused the climate to change. We have monitored, for example, the solar output for the last 20-plus years from satellites. The solar output simply has not changed, net change, over the last 20 years. It does not - it could not have caused the warming.

We have looked a sun-spot changes and we know that that change could not have caused global warming. There has not been a consistent change in sun-spot number. So all of these hypotheses that you've put forward are interesting hypotheses, but you know, we scientists have actually thought about this for a long time, we've thought about these hypotheses. And I'm hear to talk about the solutions to global warming because as a scientist, I've spent 30 years worrying about it, and I've eliminated those hypotheses.

FLATOW: Well, Bill, I want to thank you for going through that with us and taking time to be with us today. Bill Chameides.

Mr. CHAMEIDES: Thank you so much. It was a great pleasure. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Chief scientist at Environmental Defense in New York, talking with us about global warming.

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