As the planet heats up, so does the rhetoric on both sides of the climate-change debate. Former Vice President Al Gore has a new film out about the dangers of global warming. His film follows a New York magazine article asserting that “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”
The article went viral — but was its analysis accurate? To try to answer that question, International Business Times interviewed Michael Mann, the renowned climatologist who is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
Podcast subscribers can listen to the full discussion by clicking here. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion.
Sirota: What was your response to the New York magazine article’s assertion that climate change means large swaths of Earth could become uninhabitable?
Mann: There's a very important issue at the heart of this, which is the fine line between conveying the gravity of the threat, and the urgency of action, and portraying the problem as essentially unsolvable, as if we've gone past the point of no return and we are destined for a future of doom and gloom. I'm not sure the author really did that, but I think some of the critical nuance was lost in the article at times. It seemed to be doing that, but the author did explicitly state a disclaimer that he was describing a worst case scenario.
But in the overall framing of the story and the headline and everything else about it, that subtlety was lost. There's no problem, in my view, in portraying the urgency of action and the gravity of the situation, and the fact that not only could some really bad things happen, some really bad things are already happening. We're already committed to some amount of dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. On the other hand, you have other participants in the discussion, like an individual named Guy McPherson who's an ecologist, who has proclaimed that we only have 10 years left as a species, that climate change is going to eradicate us and all other living species.
If that were true, it would be one thing, but it's nonsense. It's based on a complete exaggeration and distortion of what the scientific evidence says, and I know that, because I work in this field and I study that evidence very closely, so it's nonsense and it actually leads us down the same path as climate change deniers like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, or President Donald Trump, who has proclaimed climate change to be a hoax. It actually leads us down the same path. If you say that there's nothing that we can do, that we're going to go off the cliff and there's no way we can stop that, then it actually leads to the same scenario of hopelessness and it favors those arguing against intervention, against taking action.
Sirota: There’s this idea out there that we could hit a so-called tipping point — that there could be a point of no return in which the climate starts changing in an exponential way, as opposed to a gradual way. One of the ideas that's out there is there will be this methane bomb where the tundra gets unfrozen and that results in a huge release of carbon emissions. Are these scenarios likely?
Mann: There isn't one tipping point, so to speak. There are potentially a number of them and I see them as mines out in a minefield, and we are stepping out onto this minefield. The farther we walk out into that minefield, the more likely it is that we encounter those mines, and that is the problem. We don't know exactly where these tipping points lie, but we know that they're out there, and so there is a very real worry for a worsening of climate change impacts.
That having been said, there is no evidence that Earth can experience a runaway greenhouse effect like Venus did, which literally evaporated its oceans. In terms of that sort of exponential scenario where it gets warmer and warmer, and the warmth feeds on itself, and literally creates a Venus-like climate here on Earth, there's just no scientific evidence that that can happen… There is quite a bit of evidence that these sorts of so-called feedback mechanisms can amplify the warming, and to a great extent, those feedback mechanisms are incorporated in the climate models.
When we talk about the projections of future climate change, based on the state-of-the-art climate model simulations, for example, as described in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a couple of years ago, to a great extent those feedback mechanisms are incorporated. But, there are some mechanisms which are uncertain, where we don't understand all of the processes well enough to ensure that we have those feedback mechanisms represented correctly. That is a cause for concern.
Sirota: What are some of them?
Mann: You mentioned one of them, methane feedbacks. In fact, there's a broader category that we call carbon cycle feedbacks. What that means is that the warming actually triggers some change that releases greenhouse gases that were already stored within the Earth's system, within the terrestrial biosphere, along the shelves of the ocean, in the permafrost of the arctic, and that carbon can be in the form of CO2, and it can be in the form of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 in fact, but it's less long-lived. It doesn't stay in the atmosphere for as long. It's a different animal, and one has to take into account those differences.
There's something that we call greenhouse warming potential, that is a way of trying to compare the impact of different greenhouse gases over different time horizons, but the bottom line is there is enough methane stored in the natural system, in the permafrost, along the shelves of the oceans, that if you were to literally mobilize all of it, release all of it into the atmosphere, then it's true, that could double the magnitude of the greenhouse warming we've already seen. But the science overwhelmingly doesn't support that scenario.
The science supports the scenario where we do mobilize some of that methane and that is an important feedback and it does worsen the warming, but it doesn't lead to an exponential runaway Venus-like Earth.
Sirota: To really address climate change and stop its worst effects, how many major changes do we have to make? In other words, how much societal upheaval will be necessary to address this issue?
Mann: To some extent, it harkens back to FDR's famous, "All we have to fear is fear itself." In this case, there is the potential for fear to become paralyzing, or at least the perception that that there's nothing we can do to stop this juggernaut. That can become paralyzing and that can actually feed an agenda of inaction, an agenda advanced by fossil fuel interests and the Koch brothers and others who have sought to pollute the public discourse over this issue.
So that sort of leads us to the question and what will it take? When the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire in the 1970s, that awakened the public and policymakers to the fact that we had an environmental catastrophe in our hands, in the form of polluted water and air. It led President Richard Nixon to actually found the EPA — the very EPA that the Trump administration is now trying to dismantle, was founded by Republican President Richard Nixon, and that's because of the public awareness and the public pressure that arose out of this galvanizing moment where a river caught on fire, that captured the attention and the horror of the American public.
It seems to me we've had all too many of those Cuyahoga River moments already when it comes to climate change. Whether we're talking about the Syrian uprising that has led to ISIS, which had at its root, as its root cause, an unprecedented drought. The worst drought on record in California, unprecedented floods, thousand year floods, dozens of them over the last two years here in the U.S., floods that shouldn't happen naturally more than once in a thousand years. Massive wildfires, and one can go on down the list. Superstorm Sandy, how could that not be a galvanizing moment for action? So why did these moments not lead to the sort of action that the burning of the Cuyahoga River led to?
I would point to back to this fact that at the time, global environmental issues were not nearly the partisan, political matter that they've become today. A Republican President, Richard Nixon, acted on this problem. George H.W. Bush established cap-and-trade to deal with ozone depletion. Ronald Reagan endorsed the Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons destroying the ozone layer, and on down the list. It's only, in my view, over the past decade or so where polluting interests like the Koch brothers have gained such a firm hold on the reins of power, or at least have gained control of one of the two parties, the Republican Party, the party that now controls all branches of federal government.
That has led to an environment where it's very difficult to have the sort of good faith debates about policy that we were once able to have, because instead, we have the Koch brothers working to install climate change deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists to every position of influence within the Trump administration, and so we have Scott Pruitt who's closely tied to the Koch brothers, who is now in control of the EPA. It's literally the fox now living in the henhouse, and running the henhouse.
Sirota: Is there any political compromise possible here? Is there a way for the fossil fuel industry to continue being as big and powerful and wealthy in a world that is seriously dealing with climate change?
Mann: The answer's clearly no. Fossil fuel interests, the ExxonMobils of the world, the Koch brothers, they all recognize that if we pursue this transition away from a fossil fuel driven world economy, towards renewable energy, they're going to lose out in terms of their bottom line. To them, their short-term financial interests appear to be far more important than the longer term interests of their children and grandchildren, in inheriting a livable planet…
In the past, I would say that market mechanisms for dealing with global environmental problems have actually worked quite well. Ozone depletion and acid rain being examples where industry worked with government and they got onboard, industry got onboard early enough that they could alter their business model, that they could evolve, that they didn't have to go extinct. What's happened is companies like ExxonMobil have really backed themselves into a corner, where they're allowing other more enlightened energy companies, that are starting to move in the direction of renewable energy to gain an advantage.
Now, ExxonMobil finds themselves way behind. They've got literally hundreds of millions of dollars in potentially stranded assets in fossil fuels that are already on their sheets, and which will be stranded assets if we pursue an aggressive action in decarbonizing our economy. Here's what I think is different, because the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, all these industries have fought regulation tooth and nail before, but in the end, the public interest was also represented in the political process.
What I think is different now is that the public interest is no longer represented in the political process. You have a firm control of our government now by politicians who are in the pocket of the Koch brothers and the polluting interests. Our Secretary of State is the former CEO of ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil wants to work with Russia to mine the largest remaining oil reserves on the planet. One might argue that that is the source of much of the political controversy that we're living through now with regard to Trump and Russia. Its fossil fuels and the exploitation of fossil fuels is literally driving our politics.
Sirota: In your opinion, what does a politics that addresses climate change look like in practice?
Mann: I don't think it takes too much imagination to try to envision what that looks like. It just requires us to go back six months, or nine months when the outlook looked very different. When we had a very successful Paris Accord, it looked like we were going to have a Democratic president who would seek to build on the progress that had been made by the Obama administration. Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction, and so you can't really divorce these questions from the political realities that we now face, because it's very easy to imagine a different course of history — a course that seemed more likely than the one we followed — where the Paris Accord was observed, was honored, in good faith, by the U.S.
We know that if the commitments made by the nearly 200 nations around the world that signed onto the Paris treaty, if those commitments are met, you can calculate the impact that they'll have on the climate, and it turns out they get us about halfway from where we would be headed, business as usual, warming of four to five degrees Celsius, seven to nine Fahrenheit by the end of the century, that would be really bad. The Paris agreement takes us about halfway from that seven to nine degree Fahrenheit warming, to the two degree Celsius, three and a half degree warming limit that many cite and is assumed within the context of Paris as the level of warming that we're seeking to avoid.
The Paris commitments get us about halfway there, so they don't solve the problem but they help bend the curve of global carbon emissions downward in a way where we can see getting onto that path.
Sirota: How much does the average person’s life have to change in a world that is seriously combating climate change?
Mann: It doesn't mean a dramatic change in lifestyle, because what it would mean is that we would be pursuing market mechanisms, whether it be a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, but some sort of price on carbon that would provide renewable energy with the level playing field that it needs to compete against fossil fuel energy. I mean, renewable energy is going to outcompete fossil fuel energy. It's just clear if you look at the trajectory that we're on. The problem is that if we just leave it to its own and we continue to allow fossil fuels to have this unfair advantage where we're providing subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, that we're not providing to the renewable energy industry, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.
We should be subsidizing the forms of energy that aren't degrading our environment, and yet we're doing the opposite right now. Of course, Trump is now doubling down on those policies of subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, and literally deincentivizing the renewable energy industry. If we could level that playing field, then renewable energy can compete on a timeline that keeps us below that dangerous level of warming. There are scientists like Mark Jacobson of Stanford who've done careful calculations that show that we can get there. The technology exists to get us on that path. It's simply a matter of willpower and political will.
Sirota: I’m the parent of young children, and they are starting to ask about environmental issues. How should we as parents talk to kids about climate change in a way that is honest about the situation, but doesn’t freak them out and make them hopeless?
Mann: I have an 11 year old daughter. I remember when I first read her "The Lorax" and she cried at the end of that story. It drove home the fact that we do have to be careful in our message. I think it's one the greatest children's books ever written… What Dr. Seuss manages to do there, I think in a brilliant way, is to convey the gravity of the threat to our environment, but it ends with a note of hope. The seed that's left behind. That's what we have to do. We have to convey the gravity of the situation, but the legitimate hopefulness. This gets back to the whole premise of our conversation here. False optimism is not helpful in my view. It's not defensible, and I would be betraying the covenant that I must abide by as a scientist.
I must be truthful to the science. So, fortunately what is true is that an objective assessment of the science does support the message that the threat is dire, and immediate, and the urgency is great, but there is still a path forward where we can prevent catastrophic climate change. Now, we have to avoid being too Pollyannaish, and being unobjectively Pollyannaish. Not only will some bad things happen, some bad things are happening. If you're a low-lying island nation in the Pacific that is now starting to become inundated by tides, and by the slowly encroaching ocean, and you don't have the sorts of resources we have here in the West, in the industrial world, to adapt and which give us resiliency in the face of these sorts of threats, that's bad.
These people are suffering and we can't dismiss that. We have to recognize that we have to own up to that. Dangerous climate change has already arrived for some people and for the people who are least able to cope with it. There's an ethical dimension to the conversation because of that. The ethical dimension because those least able to cope with it are suffering some of the worst consequences, and now here's the point. Those that had the least role in creating the problem, i.e. our children and our grandchildren, are likely to suffer the worst impacts.
It's important for them to understand that it's not their fault… I think children are some of our most important messengers because they carry their own moral authority and there is an effective connection that we have with our children, which makes their voices very powerful. As children begin to speak truth to the adults who are making the decisions that are going to determine our path, I think they have an opportunity to help move us in the right direction. They have to understand that there's a problem, because they have to help us solve this problem.