It was in the summer of 1988, in the midst of epic heat and drought, that James Hansen, of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, brought awareness of human-made climate change to a national audience with his widely reported congressional testimony. “Climate disruption is real, we’re causing it, and it’s happening now,” he said. A quarter of a century later, 98% of the world’s climatologists agree. It is a message that has been reiterated by speakers from all along the political spectrum and around the world, most recently at the climate solutions conference hosted by the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. January 28-30th.
Hansen’s lecture was probably the most eagerly anticipated, and he received a standing ovation more for the fearlessness of his scientific leadership than for the talk itself. Climate researchers have been slow to acknowledge the conservatism of their projections – they have a fear of overestimating the sensitivity of the climate system to rising atmospheric concentrations of green house gasses. Year after year, the data on the speed of climate change, glacier melting, sea level rise, and positive feedbacks demonstrate that Earth’s climate system is being destabilized much faster than the consensus projections produced by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and is being endorsed by sponsoring governments, including our own. So Hansen, a self-described small-government political conservative, is celebrated because he has been fearlessly out ahead of his peers in recognizing what is now beyond any scientifically meaningful dispute. Climate change is real. We’re causing it. It’s happening now, and it’s moving fast.
This basic message was reinforced very effectively in Richard Alley’s opening keynote, which reviewed the basic science reported in the recently released IPCC Fifth Assessment, Part I. To those who happily rely on the science that is essential to their way of life but dismiss the science they find inconvenient, Alley had a deft answer: the basic science of climate change is not only much older than the theory of relativity GPS relies on and the quantum mechanics in our cell phones, it is fundamental to how our infrared air defense system works. That system can only distinguish the thermal signature of aircraft engines from background heat on the basis of models of thermal capture by atmospheric greenhouse gases. Alley hosted the recent PBS miniseries, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual”, and he put on quite a show debunking myths, explaining why the present trajectory of emissions will be extremely costly, but also expressing optimism that we can fix this.
There were a couple of references at this conference to the massively funded industry of denial and obfuscation, modeled on the tobacco industry’s methods for keeping doubt about the dangers of tobacco alive as long as possible. The role of the fossil fuel industry in bankrolling denial is well documented, and the sharply contrasting position of large insurers is also well documented. Industries whose business models depend on accurately projecting risk and climate-related losses and governments and that must similarly anticipate and prepare for disasters have no choice but to rely on the scientific consensus. The industry and government representatives at this conference explained how they are doing just that.
Tony Slater, First Assistant Secretary of the Australian Government’s Water Reform Division, explained how the nationalization and refinement of Australia’s water management system has enabled his country to endure an 80% decline in water availability and keep 80% of its farmers afloat. In a country where summer temperatures are now reaching 125 to 129 degrees and melting water bottles, this was an encouraging success story. Jennifer Jurado, Director of the Broward County, Florida, Natural Resources Planning & Management Division, gave a very strong presentation about flooding and water availability problems in south Florida and the threat to groundwater posed by sea level rise. In an era in which so much decision-making seems to be focused on short-term quarterly profits or the next election cycle, it was encouraging to learn that Jurado and the south Florida water district are basing their 50 year water management planning on scientifically respectable projections of a 9 to 14 foot rise in ocean levels (The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are now, the oceans were 30 meters higher, but it would take more than 50 years for a change of that magnitude to play itself out).
The other speakers I found most compelling had similarly encouraging stories of mitigation and adaptation efforts. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at the Central European University, described the “tremendous behavior change in Europe,” where one-third of the residents of Vienna commute by bicycle and new buildings are designed for nearly zero emissions. John Gummer, Lord Deben, Chair of the UK Climate Change Committee, gave a sparkling standup lecture without notes on the role of his committee of economists and climatologists in setting the annual carbon budgets that are moving the UK toward 40% carbon reductions by 2030. “Why would you insure your home against less than a 1% chance of fire, but not insure your civilization against a 95% chance of climate catastrophe?” he quipped. A conservative, he insisted that climate action is “central to the battle for humanity” and “social justice is at the heart.” According to him, “we can only solve global problems with global solutions,” and that requires cooperation. He advised the scientists to “Be cheerful about it! … We are lucky to live at a turning point in history, and I am happy to play my part in it.”
It was easy to come away from this conference with the impression that the US is remarkably polarized with regard to climate policy by current world standards, but Robert Inglis, a former Member of Congress from South Carolina and current Executive Director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, had some useful advice on how to overcome this polarization. Begin by showing respect for the divergent world views of those you need to bring together, he advised. He and Hansen both suggested paths to a universal carbon tax that opponents of big government could accept, and he offered the inspiring story of the Georgia Green Tea Coalition. Who would have thought the (Green) Sierra Club could persuade the Georgia Tea Party to join them and win a vote to let Georgia homeowners install solar panels and be paid by Georgia Power for the electricity they don’t use?
A lot of progress toward climate change mitigation and adaptation comes with co-benefits, and this conference reinforced my view that participating in that progress offers ways to feel more in control of the circumstances of one’s own life
Curren is the professor and chair of the department of philosophy at the University of Rochester.