IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Greenhouse gases are building up faster than we had ever expected. A new report says carbon dioxide, CO2 levels, are rising in the atmosphere faster than anyone had predicted. And to make matters worse, carbon sinks - the places in the environment that remove the gas from the atmosphere, like the ocean - they're not doing their jobs as well as they used to either.
And that's just one of the headlines about global warming making news this week recently. This hour, we're going to catch up with that story and others, including the view that we should forget about the Kyodo Treaty, it's not going to work, let's move on to the next stage.
Also last week came an admonishment to stop trying to nail down just how fast global warming is occurring. It seems we'll never get a better handle on it and we have now, says the report, and to wait and try to refine the exact rate is a waste of precious time. Unfortunately, it seems - uncertainty it seems is part of the picture that we're going to have to live with. That's the message of the report out last week in the journal Science. And joining me now to talk about it are my guests.
Gerard Roe. He is associate professor in the department of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. He's co-author of that Science paper. He joins us from KXOT in Seattle. Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Roe.
Dr. GERARD ROE (Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle): The pleasure (unintelligible).
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Christopher Field is the director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Science. He's also a professor of biology at Stanford. His paper on last week's proceedings of the National Academy of Science warned about higher than expected CO2 levels. He joins us from Stanford. Thanks to you for being with us today, Dr. Field.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER FIELD (Director, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Science): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: Let me begin with you first, Dr. Field, as long as I have you there. Your paper last week, I mentioned it, pointed out to the accelerating levels of CO2. Why is it rising faster than we expected?
Dr. FIELD: We try to understand why the concentration of CO2, the main greenhouse gas released by human activities, has risen more rapidly from 2000 to 2006 than any other period. During the observation of record, it rose 30 percent faster than during the '90s. And we concluded that there were three important factors. The first is that economic growth was very rapid after 2000 and there's a strong relationship between economic activity and CO2 emissions.
The second is that something we call the carbon intensity of economic activity. This is how much carbon is required to make a dollar of goods or services -it's a number that's gone down progressively over the last several decades -has stopped improving. Basically, we've seen a stalling out or even an increase in the carbon intensity of the world economy.
And the third factor that's contributing to the rapid rising atmospheric CO2 is that some of the sinks, the processes that essentially provide a huge subsidy for human actions, have begun to erode. And in particular, we're seeing less efficiency of the sinks in the ocean that remove a fraction of the CO2 emitted from human activities.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's first talk about the sinks, in other words, the ocean is a good place to suck up the CO2, but it's not doing it as much as it used to.
Dr. FIELD: In general, over the last 50 years or so, about 40 percent of the carbon that's being emitted from fossil fuel combustion and clearing of forest has remained in the atmosphere, and the other 60 percent approximately has been stored in the oceans or in soils and plants, essentially as a huge free subsidy, an ecosystem service from nature.
What we've seen is that over that period, there's been a gradual decrease in the fraction of the CO2 that's been taken up by the oceans. And in particular what's happening is that near Antarctica, an increase in wind speeds has brought - it's basically pushed the low CO2 water at the surface ocean out of the way and brought higher CO2 water up the surface, meaning that that water is already full of CO2 and can't take up as much.
FLATOW: But wait, isn't that a good thing for the oceans? Because haven't we learned that when CO2 is absorbed, the ocean gets more acidic. I mean, it might be good for the oceans but bad for us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. FIELD: Well, basically, what we're seeing is that this partitioning of the carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans are shifting, so that more of it is staying in the oceans. It's the part that's in the atmosphere that's driving the warming, but as you say it's the part that's in the oceans that's driving acidification.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me bring in Dr. Roe into the discussion. You've talked about - talking about climate sensitivity, tell us what that means.
Dr. ROE: Yeah. It's a standard measure of climate change that's been used for about actually over 100 years to compare different estimates of the effect. And what it is is, in essence, it's a thought experiment in which you double the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wait for the time the system to adjust, and then estimate what the ultimate warming will be.
And so a climate with a high sensitivity is one which has a large warming in response to those greenhouse gases and the climate system with a low sensitivity would be one with a weak warming.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you found that in any model of our climate, there's a lot of uncertainty. That's troubling…
Dr. ROE: Yes.
Flatow: …it's troubling for people, isn't it?
Dr. ROE: Well, when people do this experiment, what they find is that some warming is a certainty. Exactly how much warming is less certain and the rather odd result is that despite exponential increases in computing power and large increases in the number of people studying the problem for the last 30 years, that range of uncertainty has proven to be a remarkably persistent and stubborn number. In other words, that uncertainty has not been going down.
FLATOW: So the more we try to pin down a number of, any number, or the amount of CO2 or global warming, the harder it gets because we're just never going to get any closer to it. And that's a fallacy to think that we could make it a better number.
Dr. ROE: This is one source of uncertainty in the problem and the scientists like to slice and dice up the problem into tractable pieces that they can then deal with. This is the uncertainty which has to do with what the ultimate warming would be for a prescribed concentration of carbon dioxide.
And the reason that it's uncertain is because the climate system is an amplifier, because of internal processes like clouds and snow and sea ice and water vapor, the system amplifies the response to greenhouse gases alone by a factor of between two and four.
And so for the selfsame reason that the real climate system is an amplifier. Models of the climate system amplify small uncertainties in our equations which describe those processes. So the idea that sensitivity and uncertainty are essentially inextricable, they'd fit sides of the same coin.
FLATOW: So if we cannot make up a model of our climate - I mean, one that's we can feel certain about - how do we study what's happening and what to do about it?
Dr. ROE: Well, something that's really, really important to emphasize is that some uncertainty is a very, very different statement from saying ignorance. And we know a great deal. The standard numbers from the IPCC - our work is entirely consistent with those, and that shows that there is a two in three chance of a warming between 2 and 4.5 degrees centigrade, the gas is 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit, with one in three chance of being outside that. Our work is entirely consistent with the wide range of studies. Everything in the system screams at us that those are very reasonable numbers. What we have is we put forward a simple explanation for why that range is what it is and why it's proving so hard to reduce that range.
FLATOW: Were talking about the latest news in climate change. And how it's one thing to describe what is happening in our atmosphere and the uncertainty about it, it's another thing to decide what we can do about it. There's the Kyoto Treaty that's been around and been talked about a lot. Some people think the Kyodo Treaty should be scrapped. Should we just move on and do something different, perhaps better?
Joining me now to talk more about that are my next guests.
Steve Rayner is the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization and the director of the James Martin Institute at University of Oxford in England. He's also a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Thanks for joining us tonight, Dr. Rayner.
Dr. STEVE RAYNER (James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization; Director, University of Oxford; Member, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution): Good afternoon, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Dr. Eileen Claussen is president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): My pleasure.
FLATOW: Let's talk about what do about these things. Dr. Rayner, you believe that we should scrap the Kyoto Treaty. You've written about it and say that it - give us a thumbnail sketch of why should we go on to something different.
Dr. RAYNER: Well, I think it's been a popular point of view in Europe over the past few years that Kyoto hasn't been delivering the goods. And the reason why it hasn't been delivering the goods is simply being attributable to the non-participation of the U.S. and particularly the intransigents of the administration on admitting the realities of the issue.
But I think, unfortunately, that underestimates the extent to which Kyoto actually has a fundamentally flawed architecture. The initial target it set for the industrialized nations were very low indeed. They were in the area of about 5 percent and they were very rapidly watered down by subsequent negotiations.
The treaty hasn't managed to engage the Unites States, which is the world's largest emitter, neither has it really outlined any kind of strategy for engaging the fastest growing emitters, China and India. It relies on creating essentially a global cap and trade market to force up the price of fossil fuels.
But if we look at what's happened in Europe, with the history of the European Emissions Trading System, which is the one place in the world where we have a well-developed legally binding trading system, we've seen the carbon price collapse twice already. And I think it's going to be a very long time before we see the emergence of a raised price for carbon-based technologies. That is really going to drive the amount of technological change that we need to have happen if we're going to fulfill the goals of a 60 to 80 percent emissions reduction by the middle of the century, which is what climate scientists are telling us that we need.
Dr. RAYNER: It also, I think, fails in another very important respect, which is the - it thoroughly inadequately addresses the problem with adaptation. And I think that adaptation for many years was almost a taboo subject. Because if one wanted to talk about adaptation and adaptation policies up until about three or four years ago, the idea was that, in a sense, this was defeated and it was essentially giving permission for people to carry on in the bad behavior of emitting carbon dioxide and therefore that we shouldn't discuss it.
Unfortunately, I think, you know - well, fortunately now, people are recognizing that we have a commitment to global warming which is inescapable, and that we have to move in the direction not simply of trying to displace that carbon-emitting energy technology but also to adapt to the climate change to which the atmospheric system is irrevocably committed already.
FLATOW: All right, we have - Dr. Rayner.
Dr. RAYNER: But we're not - but not nearly enough investment into that.
FLATOW: All right. I have to ask you to stay with us, hang in, because we have to take a short break. We'll come back. Talk lots more about the global warming news out these last few days. Stay with us. We'll be right back. Don't go away.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about climate change and global warming with the latest news.
My guests: Christopher Field, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Science and professor of biology at Stanford; Gerard Roe, associate professor in the department of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle; Steve Rayner, James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization, University of Oxford in England; and Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Also taking your questions in "Second Life" at the Science School.
Eileen Claussen, how do you react to this? The fact that Steve Rayner says that the cap and trade system is not going to work, we should scrap Kyoto, and move on to something else.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: Well, I'm not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. I do think, however, that the baby has to grow up. And we can learn from the mistakes that were made when that treaty was first negotiated. I think there's much value in having a framework with emission targets. And I think that works for developed countries.
Steve mentioned the fact that the U.S. was not a part of that, that's true. But I think that's going to change in the next year, year and a half. So I think we will see the U.S. and other developed countries with the mission targets. I think the major developing countries, like China and India, are not likely to take on emission targets, but they can take on binding policies and measures. And I think that's a good first step for them.
FLATOW: You don't think that if the U.S. signed on to something like a treaty, maybe if not Kyoto, something coming up that's going to be happening later this year, that they would sign also - they would follow us?
Dr. RAYNER: I do think they'll follow. But I don't think they're going to follow in exactly the same way. I mean, if you're growing at the rate of China and you don't have very good data, I think it is very difficult for you to set an emission target. But the Chinese have some, actually, quite ambitious policies in place - renewable energy targets, energy intensity targets - and I think they could sign on those in a biding treaty. And that's a very good first step for them.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Professor Rayner, you mentioned in your talk about - in your Nature article about scrapping Kyoto. You go down the list of things to do. You mention this briefly and that was to put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing. I mean, treat this as a war, basically.
Dr. RAYNER: Well, I'm not necessarily saying treat it as a war. I'd certainly wouldn't want to say that we are at war with the climate or at war with nature or anything of that sort. I think what we're proposing is that, as I mentioned earlier, it's all very well to use a cap and trade system to drive the price of carbon up. But at the moment, the technologies that we would want to bring on, such as wind, solar PV are so expensive that we would have to drive that price up a whole way above what is likely to be politically acceptable to our populations, to voters, before we actually reach a price with those alternative technologies will come in.
If we're looking at a solar PV, which is probably the most expensive, we'd be in a carbon price of around $140 a ton. If you want wind, you can bring wind in at about $37 a ton, more or less. But you can see that you need a much higher per carbon price than anything that's currently on the horizon or emerging from the European Trading System.
So we believe we've got to bring those prices down. And the way we think we do that is to make - for society to make a strategic decision along the lines of the investment we made and things like the Martian plan, the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program - a strategic decision to say society needs to make really serious investments in bringing those technologies that already exist down in price.
And we believe that it's not unreasonable to expect the developed countries to be spending at least as in much on the energy R&D and deployment for those technologies as we currently spend on military R&D. You know, in the case of the United States, that's around about $80 billion a year. Current R&D on energy in the United States is more in the region of about $4 billion a year. So there's the huge gap.
FLATOW: Right. Christopher Field, one of the technologies, if you'd like to call it, is - that we've heard, you know, that every developing country uses, one of the products they use is cement production. I've heard recently, we heard recently, that the process of making cement contributes to global warming and everybody needs them, every country uses a lot of - certainly, the developing countries, too, use a lot of cement. Is this really a source of greenhouse gases?
Dr. FIELD: It is a source of greenhouses gasses and it's an important one. Cement manufacturing accounts for something like 4 percent of global emissions. Basically, the way you make portland cement is you take a rock and you cook the carbon dioxide out of it. And the fact that we've seen rapid increases in construction, especially in China, has contributed. But 4 percent is not a big number. The big numbers are the fossil fuel emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas. And part of the reason we've seen such rapid increases recently is that a lot of the growth in India and in China has been powered on coal-fired power plants, which are the most carbon intensive of all the fossil energy sources.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So would we be well to invest our money, our R&D money, as Steve Rayner says, in finding cleaner ways of making or producing that coal power because they're not stopping making the plants, are they?
Dr. FIELD: That's exactly right. I completely agree with Dr. Rayner that what we need to be doing in the future is finding ways to enable economic growth to occur and energy to be available with power sources that are either low emitting or non-emitting. And I think that there are wonderful opportunities out there, but there are gigantic challenges in moving them from what's mostly laboratory-scale applications to truly industrial, truly global-scale applications.
FLATOW: Hmm. Eileen Claussen, any comment?
Dr. CLAUSSEN: Yeah. I mean, I think the highest priority is to deal with coal. About 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal, about 80 percent of China. China's building a new coal-fired power plant every 10 days. So if we don't deal with coal, I don't think any of the other things we're going to deal with. I mean, I agree that we need to invest in solar and wind and so on, but the speed with which those would become sort of a large percentage of our electricity needs is very slow. So yes, we should invest there but if we don't handle coal on a global basis, we're literally cooked.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Here's a question from Still Garpree(ph) in "Second Life." He says if we had a bold initiative to break U.S. dependence on carbon-based fuels - I guess like Dr. Rayner is saying, invest a lot of money - and he says similar to Kennedy's challenge to get to the moon, what would the economic benefits be related to the U.S. innovation? What would the U.S. get out of this in sweep, you know? Eileen, I guess since we have that 50 percent coal economy, we could get a lot of benefits out of this.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: I think we would get an enormous benefit out of it. First of all, the whole world is going to need the technologies that are developed. So it is certainly in the interest of the U.S. to be out there out front developing those technologies because the market is a world market.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go to the phones, to John(ph) in Port Huron, Michigan. Hi, John.
JOHN (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there.
JOHN: How you doing? Thanks for taking my call.
JOHN: You know, the comment about the alternative energy being too much, costing too much? Well, we always - the oil comes up to $200 a barrel, and then we'll see how expensive it is.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: I mean…
FLATOW: Good Question. We now have oil topping out of the hundred dollars, almost $100 a barrel, it's up in the 90s…
FLATOW: Isn't that expensive enough to spur these alternative energy sources. Dr. Rayner?
Dr. RAYNER: Well, that's not, of course, in the U.K. When I moved back to the U.K. about five years ago, I was shocked to see how much I had to pay for a gallon of gas and I have to say that people in the U.S. still are paying a good deal less than in Europe. And yet we're not seeing a stimulation for the alternative technologies to be developed and brought to market in Europe that you would expect just from the increase of the carbon - of the oil price alone. And that's exactly point, that without the public investment and the R&D to bring down the cost of the alternatives, we're not going to get the reduction in CO2 emissions that we need.
Let me just say something else about the strategy of going for technology because I think Eileen Claussen is right, the emphasize is very important to bring India and China into any emissions reduction program. And it seems to be that the way that we bring India or China are in - is precisely on the issue of technology. If we can help them to develop and have available alternative means of generating the energy that they need for their development, but without emitting the greenhouse gasses, then that's going to be very attractive to them.
China has enormous public health problems from air pollution due to coal combustion. They would like to be able to deal with those. And it's not just a one-sided thing either. It's not just about the industrialized world handing technologies over to people in the less industrialized world.
China could produce, according to a recent survey, as much electricity each year from wind alone of the entire electric consumption of the United States. If China made the decision to develop wind turbines on that scale, given the low manufacturing cost and all else, China could very rapidly become the supplier of very inexpensive wind turbine technology to the whole world.
So there are - I think that the attraction of going the technology R&D route is that it actually does provide a way of bringing the countries that at the moment of being left out of the emissions reduction program into the fold. When you…
FLATOW: Well, the U.S. Department of Energy has said the same thing about America. That if we - they cited three states - Texas, Kansas and North Dakota, I think, as three states where it's windy enough to supply enough electricity to power the whole United States with wind energy. So you just need the will, the way and the resources and leadership.
Dr. RAYNER: Well, I think - at the present moment, I'm afraid it's also cost. And that's why we need to bring the cost down.
FLATOW: Well, if the technology is already there to build this, as you say, what kind of cost are we talking about?
Dr. RAYNER: Well, as I say, at the present moment, to make wind competitive with coal, you would need to have a carbon price of $40 a ton.
Dr. RAYNER: So, you'd have to make - you still have to push up the cost of your coal-fired power a good deal higher.
FLATOW: But how many cents per kilowatt hour is that?
Dr. RAYNER: Pardon me?
FLATOW: We talk about cents per kilowatt hour, you know. Wind energy is now down to 5, 6 cents per kilowatt hour generating, or even lower.
Dr. RAYNER: Mm-hmm.
FLATOW: And our…
Dr. RAYNER: Well, that's the most competitive of the 10(ph) alternative technologies. You have to recognize that solar PV is several times higher than that.
FLATOW: Dr. Field, did you want to jump in there?
Dr. FIELD: Well, I'll just going to say two things.
Dr. FIELD: Here's a way to think about the issue with the oil price signal. The Stone Age didn't end because they ran out of stone.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. FIELD: And the fossil age isn't going to end because we ran out of fossil fuel. There is abundant coal out there.
Dr. FIELD: And the price signal is going to have to be a carbon-based signal, not an oil-based signal. So, we really need to figure out some way to get the signal on all carbon-based fossil fuels and avoid a situation where a rapidly rising oil price drives more and more consumers to coal, because that makes the climate problem even worse.
Dr. FIELD: On the wind issue, the challenge we face with wind isn't so much making an efficient turbine, it's figuring out how to integrate efficient turbines into a global energy grid. And in particular, what you do about the fact that the wind doesn't blow all the time. That's a major challenge that represents issues for the grid, for energy storage, and for integration of all the parts of the energy system.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But you don't think it's an insoluble problem?
Dr. FIELD: It's not an insoluble problem but it needs aggressive investment. Basically, we have a wide set of technologies - wind, photovoltaics, biomass, all provide very attractive laboratory and small-scale industrial opportunities that are, in some cases, beginning to come up to a significant part of the energy system. But we need significant amounts of research and significant amounts of deployment experience in order to bring them up to the truly industrial massive scale that we need to offset the fossil fuels.
FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
It seems to me that the States, at least the States - the United States - are taking the initiatives in many ways. Now, let me first talk about the wind, for example - Texas. Texas has been compared to Denmark. Denmark is a huge oil producer across the pond. Texas is a huge oil producer in the States. Denmark gets 20 - let's say 20, 25 percent of its energy from wind power. Texas, now, says it's going to get 15 to 25 percent of its energy from wind power in the future.
T. Boone Pickens, the Texas billionaire, says he's going to finance the investment of all these wind turbines out in the panhandle. And he's going to finance sending in those power lines to pull out the electricity.
So is the States seemed to be taking up where, you know, large countries are not? At least, United States and - well, Texas may be bigger than some of the countries in Europe.
But it seems, Eileen, that states want to take action and actually want to make their own deals.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: I think there's no question about that. Look at California, which has the most aggressive program in the U.S. It has cap on emissions for the whole series of subsidiary policies. California is now working with nine other states in the west to develop a cap and trade system. You've got states in the northeast with one. You've got, like, 23 or 24 states with renewable portfolio standards. So, you have an enormous amount of activity at the state level.
And that's really moving the Congress. I mean, we've had now, for the first time, a global warming cap and trade bill emerge from the subcommittee in the Senate. It's the Lieberman-Warner bill.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: It's a centrist bill that has bipartisan support. And I think there's a very good chance that it will, at least, get out of committee before the end of the year.
FLATOW: Do - and in fact, there was an effort that was announced this past Monday, the International Carbon Action Partnership. I'm sure that's what you must be talking about. How much legal authority the states have to decide -well, if the federal government is not going to cap and trade, we'll do it ourselves?
Dr. CLAUSSEN: They can do some things. I mean, Europe, right now, cannot buy credits from the U.S. U.S. states could buy credits from Europe. So, there are some things that the states can do. But I think what ICAP, the International Climate Action Partnership, is really doing is trying to push the Congress to do something. So we actually have a national program here in the U.S. within the next, actually, one to three years.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones. Get a quick a phone call and if we can. Quickly, Gary(ph) in Minneapolis.
GARY (Caller): Hi, Ira.
GARY: This is a great discussion. The question I have is concerning the coal-fired power plants in, you know, one every ten days in China just scares me to death. But isn't there a technology available today to remove some of those, or at least, a large part of those from those carbon - those coal-fired power plants?
Dr. RAYNER: Sorry. Are you talking about removing the power plants or removing…
FLATOW: No, removing the CO2 from…
FLATOW: …from the coal.
Dr. RAYNER: Sure. I mean, there is already the carbon capture and storage technology, which you can actually use in conjunction with - actually at the point of generation of the electricity where you're burning the coal. And you can take the carbon dioxide out of the gasses and then dispose of them by injection, for example, in spent oil wells. And clearly, if we're going to continue to burn coal, we're going to have to make a lot more use of carbon-capture-and-storage-type technology.
FLATOW: People are fearful, though, that it's, you know - it may escape from the ground and cause these giant CO2 bubbles that might kill people.
Dr. RAYNER: Well, I think, you know, there's all these sort of concerns at any technological system. It's going to be imperfect.
Dr. RAYNER: But I think we've seen - we know from the petroleum production industry and the gas - natural gas industry that we've got pretty good expertise these days into how to handle these kinds of technologies for getting oil and gas out of the ground. And, really, what we're doing - talking about is turning around and putting it back in again.
FLATOW: All right. Hang on.
Dr. RAYNER: I mean, it's been there for millions of years, slight (unintelligible) of CO2, which is any in case, the heavy gas will stay down there.
FLATOW: All right, let me take - I have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more about the global climate change, what to do about it, get some more of your ideas. Don't go away.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about climate with my guests: Christopher Field of Stanford, Gerard Roe of University of Washington, Steve Rayner of Oxford and Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
We were talking about carbon trading and we're talking about sequestering carbon dioxide underground in oil wells. And I - just to take - Christopher Field wanted to jump in there…
Dr. FIELD: I'm just going to…
FLATOW: and say something about…
Dr. FIELD: Thanks, Ira.
Dr. FIELD: The point I wanted to make is that even though there are lots of laboratory-scale simulations and there are demonstration projects on natural gas plants, we don't have any big coal-fired power plants that do carbon capture and storage now. And it's really important to remember that going from no plants to being able to build a plant per week is a huge industrial scale-up activity.
One way to think about this is that capturing and storing 10 percent of the carbon dioxide that's released now represents an industrial infrastructure, the same size as the current oil and gas infrastructure.
Dr. FIELD: It's a massive problem and that's why investment now and a commitment to scaling it up is so important.
FLATOW: Well, that's why when we hear about talking about making these infrastructure investments. Why not just make an infrastructure in the electrical grid at the same time? If you're talking about moving electricity around for wind technology and you need to move the grid to where the electricity is being made, out of those plains - windy plain states, same kind of infrastructure you'd have, as you say, investment you'd have to make in sequestering oil - carbon dioxide.
Dr. FIELD: That's exactly right. And part of the reason this is needs to be on Manhattan scale effort is that we're going to need every one of the technologies that's under consideration. That's going to be wind, solar, carbon capturing and sequestration, we need a lot of progress and efficiency and we need progress and conservation.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dr. Roe, you've been sitting there and listening. I know this is not part of your bailiwick exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. ROE: It's very interesting to listen to. One of the slightly sobering things is that what's being contemplated on a practical basis are actually just baby steps compared to what is actually needed from a climate's perspective. And it's a very hard task in front us even under the most optimistic of scenarios, which involves stabilization of carbon dioxide levels at about twice what they were pre-industrial levels. We are still playing a very uncomfortable game of Russian roulette with the climate system, and there is a significant likelihood of seeing some very large changes no matter what we do.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So that's what's…
Dr. RAYNER: And Ira, if I can come in at this point.
FLATOW: Yes, Dr. Rayner. Yes.
Dr. RAYNER: I think that's the exactly why the other - one of the other things that we emphasized - Gwyn Prins, my co-author, and myself in the paper Nature last week, we emphasized the importance of making significant progress on investing and adaptation.
Dr. RAYNER: Adaptation is consistently being the poor cousin. We talk about reducing carbon emissions and so on and it's terribly important. We talk about that. But we have to recognize that we are not going to stop climate change dead in its tracks.
Dr. RAYNER: It's going to happen.
Dr. RAYNER: And there are large populations of poor people in developing countries who are going to be the first people to suffer from the - those impacts. There's also potentially huge economic loses for the more industrialized countries. There's a lot of talk - there's been a lot of talk about climate change leading to increased hurricane intensity, and therefore driving up the damage cost from hurricanes.
Actually, the biggest factor in driving up the damage cost from hurricanes has been the propensity that we have as human beings to put expensive infrastructure like luxury hotels, airports, roads, et cetera, in stupid places like coastal zones and flood planes. And so, both from the point of view of saving lives in the less-industrialized world where people are living, for example, in the Ganges delta and are very susceptible to sea level rise and storm events, and also from a purely selfish point of view of protecting our own economic investments, we really need to be looking seriously at adaptation.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Not to mention the ocean rising…
Dr. ROE: What's interesting…
FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. I'm sorry.
Dr. ROE: What's interesting to me is that the debate has shifted away from is there a problem towards what to do about it. I think that's a very, very healthy aspect of the public conversation right now.
Scientists' job is to characterize a problem as well as it can and that includes the best estimates, that includes non-certainty and that estimates and that includes, if possible, a statement about how much better we are likely to be able to do.
And then society's job is to take over with that information to make choices about what to do with that.
FLATOW: You know, I talked to - I talked to climate scientists a lot on the air, off the air, and in symposia, and some of them come over to me and they say, you know, the situation is a lot worse than we scientists want to tell you about. We are more - we were more fearful than we'd like to know or led on to know because we don't want to create panic of any sort. You know…
Dr. ROE: I think from the economic perspective it's…
Dr. FIELD: Ira…
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Dr. ROE: It's really hard to know what to deal with - how to deal with the small chances of some very large changes. And one of the very best things that I think climate science can do is to characterize that uncertainty curve. Because adaptation markets' tools work very well once they are confident about what the risk curve actually is. If they don't know that risk curve, then they don't know what to do. So one of our services as climate scientists is to supply as good a characterization as we can possibly do about what that risk curve is.
FLATOW: Dr. Field, did you want to jump in there.
Dr. FIELD: Ira, the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC - that recently shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore - has been incredibly important in bringing the opinions of the scientific community to the general public on this issue. But it's important to remember that the process under which the IPCC works makes it intrinsically very conservative.
So I don't think that there's a tendency for scientists to want to withhold how dangerous the climate situation is, but I think it's important to remember that our most reliable and important communication vehicle is one that is intrinsically oriented toward providing a conservative assessment and the important thing that people need to understand is that there is a measurable risk of much worse damages than those that are characterized in the sort of mainstream component of the IPCC.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think the people in this country understand that risk yet?
Dr. CLAUSSEN: If I can jump in there.
Dr. FIELDS: It's been…
FLATOW: Yeah, Eileen, go ahead.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: I think they're beginning to get it. They're beginning to get it in part because of hurricane Katrina, they are beginning to get it because of the wildfires in California, they're beginning to get it because they see changes in their backyards with, you know, when things bloom and when birds come by. But I don't think they understand how important it is that we mount a really serious effort both to adapt and to mitigate, because both of them are crucial and the kind of investment we're seeing in both is pitiful.
FLATOW: Well, you know, everybody in the northeast part of the United States this fall has commented everybody about the wacky change of season - the fall colors that didn't happen this year. I mean, they're weeks behind. They're just happening now about, I think, in my experience - about three weeks behind schedule where they used to be. So I think you're right. I think people are beginning to notice. I think people are seeing those photos from NASA and NOAA of the North Pole, the polar cap shrinking. They watch them on the Web, those animations.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: Yeah.
Dr. RAYNER: But, Ira, let me say something here, which is that, you know, I take climate change as a very serious threat and have been for more than 20 years. But I think we also need to be very cautious about using bad arguments in favor of good causes. The claim - the idea that Katrina can be traced to climate change, the idea that the wildfires in California can be attributed to climate change is actually scientifically, I think, a very dodgy basis upon which to make the argument. There are sufficiently good really sound…
Dr. ROE: It's total rubbish, is another way of saying.
Dr. RAYNER: …arguments without being opportunistic. And I think we should stick to the sound ones.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: Let me just (unintelligible). I mean, I'm not saying that they were caused by climate change, but I think that the public perception of climate change is - has been changed by those events.
Dr. ROE: I absolutely think that's right, if I could just make a quick comment. It is also I think very important to acknowledge that there is uncertainty and it's actually is a no brainer. Of course, there's uncertainty. It's a complicated messy system and in many other walks of life, people are very comfortable acknowledging this uncertainty - in stock markets or in house prices or in forecasting the weather, for example - that's a bit of a dangerous analogy - but they still make choices based on uncertain information ultimately to the tune of trillions of dollars. And if the fundamental nature of the beast is some uncertainty is part and parcel of it, we just have to get used to that and deal with that.
FLATOW: We deal with that with the stock market, don't we? We deal with that.
Dr. ROE: We do.
FLATOW: All the time with - in the financial world. We don't know what the interest rates are going to be, we…
Dr. ROE: And fundamentally, climate change - it's a big complicated messy system. It's the same game of how do you deal with uncertain information and make effective choices based on that uncertain information.
Dr. RAYNER: And I think Gerard's highlighting a really interesting question here, which is for my point of view - as somebody who's been looking at this issue since the mid-1980s - the science were sufficiently robust by 1990, in my view, for us to have been making some sensible initial policy, taking some sensible initial policy actions. And yet, climate science has been held to not just a gold, but a platinum standard of proof that politicians do not normally apply to a whole range of decisions.
Dr. RAYNER: Such as economic policy, decisions to invade Middle Eastern countries and so and so forth. We have to ask ourselves why it is that climate is being held about - that climate change science has been held to an extraordinarily high platinum…
FLATOW: All right. Well, that's a whole another argument that we could spend another hour, but we've run out of time. And I agree with you about holding it to a different standard.
Let me thank my guests, Christopher Field, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Science; Gerard Roe, professor in the department of earth and space sciences at University of Washington; Steve Rayner of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; and Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Thank you all for taking time to be with us.
Dr. CLAUSSEN: Thank you.
Dr. ROE: Thank you, Ira.
Dr. RAYNER: You're welcome.
Dr. FIELD: Pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.