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How Conclusive Is Climate Change Research?

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How Conclusive Is Climate Change Research?


How Conclusive Is Climate Change Research?

How Conclusive Is Climate Change Research?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Stanford University biology professor Stephen Schneider worked alongside former Vice President Al Gore to research the significance of global warming. Host Alex Cohen talks with Schneider about the state of climate change research today.


This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. In the midst of an economy that's failing miserably, we sometimes forget there are other problems on the horizon, ones that could potentially threaten our existence. Climate change continues to be a serious issue. It's one former Vice President Al Gore is talking about today on Capitol Hill. I spoke earlier with Stephen Schneider, who researches global warming at Stanford University, who says much has changed in recent years and in recent weeks.

Dr. STEPHEN SCHNEIDER (Climatologist, Stanford University): The biggest progress that's taken place, if I can be so politically blunt, is the change of administrations from one that was hostile to the notion that there should be government control on private industries' emissions and one which believes that it has to listen to science first and politics second, and that taking care of the global commons is an important priority alongside of the economy.

And we now are historically closer to having world agreements on starting down the road of getting climate policy than we've ever been, and that's a result, I think, of the combination of nature cooperating with theory, because we've been talking about this for a long time. I first testified to the Senate why energy and climate policy were the same to Ribicoff and Muskie in 1979. What's taken us so long?

First hearing Al Gore ever had in '81, which I also was at with the number of other colleagues, we were arguing the same thing. It took a long time because it was theoretical then. Now, it's happening, damages are occurring, people's attention is poised on fixing the problem. And at the same time, we have an administration that's actually willing to do it.

COHEN: So you mentioned there's this change in attitude in Washington. What about action? What specifically do you think President Obama needs to do now?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Well, I think he needs to do a lot of things. We first have to realize that we've got in the pipeline climate change, and we're committed to a few more degrees of warming, kind of, no matter what we do, so we have to have an adaptation strategy. How are we going to protect coast lines against intensified hurricanes? How we're going to deal with the increased fires in the West? What are we going to do with melting glaziers?

We've got to do that regardless of climate policy. To try to control emissions, we have to deal adaptation. The second thing is we have to use our energy more efficiently. We need building codes. So what we're going to have to do is to nationalize the kind of California activities where everybody has to participate and it's not just a random lottery of states values. Then finally, we have to help the brilliant American industry to be able to invent our way out of the problem through cheaper solar machines and better grids for wind machines. And we need incentives. We'll need loan guarantees.

I mean, if we can spend almost a trillion dollars bailing out some greedy people who messed up in an under-regulated environment, how about spending a tenth that much trying to produce green jobs, and at the same time, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help the environment.

COHEN: How do you think our current economic situation is going to affect efforts to curb global warming?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Of course, Alex, you're right that at a time of physical stress, people do not want to spend extra money that they think people need to go out and consume and so forth. So that'll put pressure on reducing the rate at which we're controlling pollutants. But at the same time, if you want to solve the problem in the long run, you can't continue to support the rape and scrape industries, which really don't have a long-term sustainable future because of environmental side effects.

The second thing that we need to do is we need to protect the environment, and if we don't have green tech, we're going to have very serious environmental problems, even worse than we already do. And number three, there's the problem of defending the lines of supply of imported oil, and therefore, the more we can produce domestically with green tech, the better off we are.

COHEN: That term you used, rape and scrape, what do you mean by that?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Mountaintop removal in coal areas, logging into primary forests. We used to build our economy by moving logs around in diesel trucks. That's not how we do it much any more. We build the economy by moving electrons around in the microchips of computers. We get a lot more gross domestic product for that per unit of energy than we do with the old way of doing things, like in the Victorian industrial revolution. However, there are people whose jobs depend upon doing it the old way, and they want to preserve that in perpetuity even though it's not great for the economy, and it's certainly not good for the environment.

So we'll have to find fair ways to have job retraining, to have compensation, to have tax breaks for industries that go into those areas that used to produce products which we now know are polluting. And all of that will require a vision to see this as not simply an energy problem, not simply an environmental problem, not simply a security problem, but a problem that cuts across the social needs of the society.

COHEN: As we look ahead to the future, what is the latest in terms of what we can know about how temperatures might rise because of climate change in the future?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: We don't know whether they're going to warm up another three degrees or another 10 this century. Three degrees more is not a good thing, but 10 is utterly catastrophic. That's a difference between an ice age and our current warm period happening not in 5,000 years, like nature, but in a hundred, which would be devastating. Species would go instinct. We'd have problems with food and water. So we sure don't want the high end, and none of us can rule it out, better than a 10 percent chance.

So we really need to do research and try to pin that down. Another thing that's critical is - so what is the long-term prospect for our cities and our ports? How much is the sea level going to rise? What are our coast lines going to look like? Well, that depends upon how fast Greenland and parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet melt. That's a big unknown.

COHEN: There was a piece appearing in the New York Times this week that described new research that basically found even if we curb emissions now, climate change will likely continue until at least the year 3000. Do you feel like there is any solution? Can we ever go back?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: We should not think about the fact that we're going to be pristine and back what we were like before the industrial revolution. I think we have to have a different notion. We have used the industrial revolution to get rich. We've improved our quality of life. Now, those very techniques are reducing the quality of life through environmental side effects. Let's try to prevent it from getting a lot worse.

So while we can't stop a few degrees of warming on top of where we already are, we can stop the 10 degrees. My notion is do as much as you can, as fast as you can, as fairly as you can, and as cost effectively as you can, and don't get hung up on the numbers because three degrees is a lot better than six, and 10 degrees is dramatically worse than any other numbers.

So let's approach what we can realistically do and set up the adaptation funds to try to deal with that, which we're already stuck with because we didn't have the foresight way back when to anticipate these problems.

COHEN: Stanford University's Stephen Schneider is part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That group was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with former Vice President Al Gore.

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