Climate change is one of the most contentious issues in American politics. How Americans generally perceive it has ramifications not only for what can be expected as public policy for the short term, but what the broader future has in store for this country. Michael E. Mann, a bestselling author who is a climatologist at Penn State University, stands one of America's foremost public figures insofar as global warming-related issues are concerned. On this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried,' he addresses the public perception of climate change, explains what this entails for the years ahead, and more. Mann's website: http://www.michaelmann.net/ SEE more episodes HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
COTTO: Climate change. Global warming. People call it different things but it is one of the most controversial issues in American politics. The public perception of climate change is something which cannot be understated in its diversity and its ramifications for the future. Michael E Mann is a professor at Penn State University. He is one of our society’s most well-known voices on climate-related issues. On this week’s episode of Cotto/Gottfried he addresses how people view climate change, what the nature of their perception is, and what might happen going forward in terms of how this issue is addressed by society. I’m your cohost, Joseph Ford Cotto, editor in chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. My cohost Paul Gottfried head of our editorial board will not be joining us.
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COTTO: When most Americans think about climate change, they probably are somewhat skeptical but at the same time it seems to me now more than in the past they believe that humans have some effect on global warming. In a nutshell, what is your perception of how most Americans view climate change as a concept, without getting into the nitty gritty?
MANN: Sure. Well, I think this last summer, the summer of 2018, and certainly folks out in California witnessed this in vivid display — the summer of 2018 was really where the impacts of climate change became so obvious to most Americans that I think it’s left little doubt that something is happening. It’s unusual. It’s pretty clear. It’s due to the impact of human beings on our environment, and the real questions that are left to debate is what do we do about it. But I think most of the recent polling I think shows that an overwhelming majority Americans now recognize that climate change is real and human caused, and we’re sort of getting past this worn-out debate about whether climate change is real, and hopefully moving on to a more worthy debate about what to do about it.
COTTO: It seems to me that if you look at, say, what’s been done to the O-Zone layer, there’s no question that the rays of the sun filter down to the earth now more than in the past and that produces warming. But then there’s also the possibility of natural warming trends. Do you think that the warming that we’re experiencing is a combination of the two, or is that inaccurate?
MANN: Yeah, no. In fact, natural factors have actually been pushing us in the opposite direction. So, that has been a familiar refrain particularly among contrarian politicians who don’t really want to lay blame to human beings for climate change and so they’ll say something like, “maybe we’re contributing to it, but we don’t know how much of it might be due to natural causes.” Well, actually we do. Because we have very good estimates over the last hundred years and even further back than that of natural factors like volcanic eruptions, small but measurable changes in the brightness of the sun. We can document that through modern satellite records but in fact we have sunspot records that go back even further, and we have certain chemical isotopes in ice cores that tell us something about the sun’s past activity. So, we can actually document how these natural factors have changed in the past. And if you look over the last century and a half when we have widespread thermometer measurements and we know the planet has warmed up substantially over that timeframe, we can look at what these natural factors should have done. We can take them, we can feed them into models of earth’s climate, and what the models tell us is that the natural factors should have, if anything, led to a slight cooling over the last half century. And that’s because we’ve had a number of big volcanic eruptions. Solar output — the brightness of the sun has been flat or even slightly declined in recent decades. So, if you just feed the natural factors into the models, they actually predict that the earth should have cooled, and indeed it’s only when we add the human impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations from fossil fuel burning that we are able to reproduce the warming that we’ve actually seen. So, when somebody asks you, “what percent of the warming is due to human activity?”, it turns out the correct answer is actually more than a hundred percent. I’m being a bit glib, what I mean by that is that natural factors if anything were pushing us in the opposite direction, and we overcame what should have been a small, natural cooling trend to warm as much as we did.
COTTO: It seems to me that in order to really address the human cause of global warming overpopulation has to be looked at. I think I’m one of the last few public proponents of population stabilization but now a lot of folks don’t want to touch that on either side of the political spectrum — it’s not one or the other. Do you think that addressing the human factors behind global warming will ultimately lead to people looking at how many people there are and whether or not the number of people in the world now is projected to be the world in the future is good for the environment?
MANN: Yeah, and there are some larger questions there about how many people can we sustainably feed and provide freshwater and space for on a finite planet. And that’s a larger discussion that we need to have. But if we look specifically at the issue of climate change and more specifically at the issue of carbon emissions — because it’s our carbon emissions that are causing this increase in the greenhouse effect and the warming of the planet — then there are ways to sort of think about those emissions as a product of different terms. There’s actually a formula called the Kaya Identity that was put forward a couple decades ago as a way to sort of think about our carbon emissions and think about the different factors that contribute to them. And so, the first term in that relationship is population. All else being equal, more people burning more carbon for energy are going to produce more carbon pollution. But all things aren’t equal. It also depends on what sort of lifestyles those people are living. And so there are other factors that come in terms of the rate of economic growth per person, and how much economic growth is based on the burning of fossil fuels — how much carbon do we have to burn to generate a unit of wealth, say. So, when you look at these different terms what you see is that, yeah population is important, and we’re at about seven and a half billion. Demographers think we’ll probably hit nine billion by the middle of this century. Some of the projections have population flattening out by the middle of the century at nine billion. Though some demographers argue that we may see further increases. And so, it’s not a precise science and there’s some uncertainty there, but the real concern isn’t so much the number of people on the planet right now, as the number of people who are living a carbon-intensive lifestyle. Which is to say if all of China and India and the south American countries and Africa, if the rest of the world were to sort of follow suit and basically follow a path of fossil fuel intensive economic growth, and live western lifestyles, if we had seven and a half billion people on the planet living an American lifestyle, well then we would indeed see carbon emissions balloon well beyond the current trajectory. So, what it comes down to is not just how many people, but what sort of lifestyle are they living. We burn about a hundred times as much carbon per person in the United States as somebody in the developing world — somebody in Africa, someone in developing nation — and so those people, there are lots of people in India, in Africa and other places who are not yet living the sort of carbon intensive lifestyle. Here in the United States we burn on average each American about twenty tons of carbon pollution a year. That’s the weight of two large African elephants. That’s the weight of all the carbon pollution that each of us on average produces. If everybody in the world were doing that, well then, we would see a very dramatic growth in carbon emissions, and it would be very difficult to see stabilizing carbon dioxide levels below the levels of dangerous warming of the planet. And so that’s really what we have to — it isn’t just the number of people. It is what sort of lifestyles people are living, and in the end if we can transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, then it’s possible for people to live western lifestyles without producing the sorts of carbon emissions that we currently are. And that’s why there’s so much emphasis on moving away from the burning of fossil fuels towards renewable energy and policies that incentivize that here in the US and in the rest of the world.
COTTO: If you look at India and China, two countries that are really developing, I think the last thing on their minds is controlling pollution. Also, overpopulation is an issue in those places too, but I think they’re so driven to advance economically on the world stage that they are extremely unlikely to make any substantive changes to how they deal with the environment. Although in time that might well change. What are your thoughts on that?
MANN: Yeah, so actually there’s a bit of a surprise when you look at China. China sort of has some unique circumstances because they have seen such devastating environmental pollution in massively populated cities like Beijing. And the healthcare costs are ballooning because the government pay for, pays the health costs. And anything that impairs the health of their people takes a toll on their economy. And right now, because of the widespread pollution in places like Beijing, the government is paying huge amounts of money to deal with all the health problems that that’s created. And that has been a real incentive to them to move away from sort of polluting activities. For example, in the case of coal burning. When you burn coal, you generate other pollutants that impair air quality and impair the health of the people breathing that air. And so, China is sort of cognizant of the very real cost of these polluting activities. And because of that, they’ve decided to move dramatically away from the burning of coal. They are now decommissioning coal-fired power plants. They are investing more on solar energy technology than any other country on the planet. So, China is actually moving pretty dramatically in a direction away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy at a time when the United States ironically is sort of backing off from their commitments at the national level. We have a president of course who has threatened to pull out of the Paris accord, and has done pretty much everything he can to roll back of the sort of progress that was made under the previous administration. So, the United States is sort of at the national level moving in the wrong direction. Of course, congressional Republicans have sort of abetted the president, they have enabled those policies. Although now we will have a divided government, so we may see something new with this new Congress. But what is also true is that if you look at states like California under Jerry Brown’s leadership now with Gavin Newsom the incoming governor who’s also very committed to continuing the policies begun under Jerry Brown, California has taken a real leadership role. In fact, worldwide, California is the fifth largest economy in the world and they’ve taken a leadership role in tackling the carbon problem and the climate change problem. And the other West Coast states have joined in with them. The New England states along with New Jersey and New York and Maryland have banded together to create consortiums to support price on carbon and incentives for renewable energy. And because of all that progress at the state level and at the local level and what companies are doing, the current projections are that the US will likely meet its obligations under the Paris accord even in the absence of any support from the current president. So, there’s a little bit of good news there but obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to not just meet our Paris obligations but what the science tells us, is we’ve got to exceed those obligations if we’re going to avoid truly dangerous planetary warming.
COTTO: We mentioned America and China, and India is definitely another country worth looking at. Also, I forgot to bring up Brazil and South Africa. Both of those places I don’t think the environment is a concern at all, especially Brazil. But since South Africa has so much investment from China I don’t see global warming as anything on the radar. Politicians there or the business interests who are controlling them. Do you have any thoughts on how global warming will play out or issues related to global warming how they’ll play out in relative to South Africa and Brazil?
MANN: Brazil just had an election and they voted in somebody who’s likely to sort of move in the wrong direction on climate. So, that’s a real concern. In South Africa — every country in the world has committed to meet their obligations, the obligations they made under the Paris accord with one exception now, that’s the United States with Donald Trump who’s threatened to try pull out of the Paris accord. So, even these other countries you mention, every other country in the world has signed on to the Paris accord and have made substantial commitments to moving away from fossil fuels, lowering their carbon emissions. The devil’s in the details. And of course, there’s the issue of are they actually going to meet their obligations. And there are efforts now to sort of document what’s happening and to see who is and who is not currently on a trajectory to meet their obligations. Some countries are and other countries aren’t. But the fact nonetheless remains that Paris really did bring together all of the countries in the world in this international agreement that makes substantial cuts in our carbon emissions. If every country in the world makes good on their Paris commitments, then it doesn’t solve the problem but it gets to about half way to the cuts in carbon emissions that we will need if we are going to avert a warming of two degrees Celsius, which is often pointed to as the level of dangerous interference with our climate — dangerous interference with the global climate. So, we’re not yet there. Paris gets us to about halfway there. It starts to bend that curve downward, but we’ve got to bring that curve down. The other side of that peak we’ve got to bring it down to zero. And so that’s the real challenge is to bring the nations of the world together. The next major climate conference to make commitments that actually go beyond the Paris commitments.
COTTO: Looking at fossil fuels. You brought them up before, and you really can’t have a conversation about climate change without addressing them. In the United States how do you think most people view the concept of fossil fuels? I think most people know what they are, but at the same time they’re seen by most people as something of a necessary evil. You also were talking about getting away from fossil fuels during the years ahead. So, how do you think most people view fossil fuels as well as the respective alternatives to them?
MANN: Well, you know it’s interesting because there’s a fair amount of polling on that now. And when you poll the American people and you ask them, “do you favor moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy?”, there’s overwhelming support. You get something upwards of eighty, eighty-five percent support. And very few things poll that high in politics today. And I think it’s just that people get it at a very basic level. Fossil fuels — it’s this dirty stuff. It’s oil. It’s natural gas — coal. I think at an almost instinctual level people get that. That this is dirty stuff. It played a role. We helped grow the economy of this nation through cheap access to fossil fuel energy and just like there was the age of waling — we used to get our energy from burning whale oil, we found something better. Something better came along and that was fossil fuels. Well, people get it. Something better has come along now and that’s renewable energy. And again, people instinctually get there’s all this energy that comes down from the sun. There’s all this energy that is available as the wind blows. Why not tap into that natural energy? And there’s overwhelming support for that. There’s overwhelming support for policies that incentivize renewable energy. We’re already heading in that direction. The age of fossil fuels is ending. There’s a famous saying, “the Stone Age didn’t end for want of stones.” It didn’t end because we ran out of stones, it ended because we developed better technology. Well that’s true here. The fossil fuel age won’t end for want of fossil fuels. It won’t end because we literally burned all of the available reserves. It will end because something better has come along and the economy is naturally, the economic incentives are to develop this amazing alternative sources of energy like wind and solar and geothermal. And California, by the way, is leading the nation in that regard. California is already seeing a dramatic increase in the use of renewable energy and also tremendous achievements with energy conservation moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. California sort of setting an example for the rest of the nation really that you can continue to grow the economy, and California has seen tremendous economic growth in recent years, while decarbonizing your economy, because California’s doing that as well.
COTTO: I think that a big part of the appeal of fossil fuels is that they’re cheaper then renewable sources of energy. Although fossil fuels are finite so even in the best case scenario for them they won’t be around forever. Do you think that on an economic level the United States could feasibly convert to renewable sources of energy by and large over the next twenty years? Would that be something financially that’s doable?
MANN: Yeah, in fact there’s a plan to do just that. A colleague of mine at Stanford University, Mark Jacobson has helped launch this project called the climate solutions project. It’s got some celebrities like Mark Ruffalo who are involved in this effort to sort of bring awareness to this effort, and they’ve put out plans in each one of the fifty states. And every state’s different in terms of a natural resources they have, and how and the relative abundance of solar versus wind verses geothermal. And so, they take into account the specific circumstances of each state. But there’s a plan in every single one of the fifty states to get us to a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050. So, it takes some decades to get there, but there’s a clear path forward to getting us to a hundred percent renewable energy. Getting off fossil fuels entirely in the power generation sector. So, it isn’t just theoretical. An actual plan out there and it’s backed up by peer-reviewed scientific research. So, it’s rigorous, and it makes a compelling case that we can do it. It’s just a matter of having the right incentives in place. The right financial incentives, the right economic incentives. A price on carbon, incentives for renewable energy, subsidies for renewable energy, taking away the existing subsidies for fossil fuel Energy. There are lots of ways we can do this. We can try to level the market — level the playing field in the energy market so that renewable energy can compete fairly against fossil fuel energy taking into account the fact that one of these sources, renewable energy is not doing the harm to the planet that the other, fossil fuel energy, is.
COTTO: You mentioned that most Americans, an overwhelming majority want to get away from fossil fuels for obvious reasons. But a program of a tax on carbon or cap and trade is very much unpopular. Most people wouldn’t want to see their energy costs soar heating their houses, or in the south using air conditioning in the summer. Do you think there’s a way other than taxation that renewable energy could be incentivized if fossil fuels phased out over the decades to come?
MANN: Yeah, well there are a variety of plans that are out there that fall different sort of points along the sort of political spectrum. For example, conservatives don’t like taxation in general, can be brought to support something like a revenue neutral carbon tax where you might introduce a tax — as my friend Bob Engles conservative Republican who has promoted this plan, the way he puts it, “we tax those things we want less of, carbon pollution; and we don’t tax the things we want more of.” And he would say “that’s employment, so lower the income tax to offset any increase in taxation from a carbon tax,” and so it’s what we call revenue neutral — people don’t feel a net increase in the total taxation. We’re just using taxes as incentives to move us away from certain types of activities towards others. But there’s no net increase in overall taxation. Another popular approach — it’s advocated by Citizens Climate Lobby, which is sort of a bipartisan coalition of people who want climate action and have advocated for a fee and dividend approach. So, the money that you raise goes partly back to the people. So, people actually get some money in their pocket, and at the same time you’re decreasing carbon pollution. And that means that industry bears some of that cost obviously in the process.
So, there’s a — in my view — a really worthy debate that we can have about how we go about solving this problem. And there is a role for people on all sides of the political spectrum when it comes to deciding how we want to go about solving this problem. What we can’t continue to debate is whether the problem exists. We have to get past that, and I’m hopeful that with the new leadership, Democratic leadership in the House of representatives we might see a more-sane conversation about climate change in the upcoming years.
COTTO: Last question: what is the biggest misconception that you have found which Americans have about climate change overall? Any aspect of it that you think most people view in a mistaken fashion.
MANN: I would say probably the biggest mistake is that people think that this is some far off, distant problem — that it’s something that maybe impacts polar bears, maybe only decades from now, when in fact we’re seeing the impacts of climate change play out now in real time on our television screens in our newspaper headlines. And that again was in vivid display this summer in California where we saw unprecedented heat and drought come together and give us unprecedented wildfires. The two worst wildfires in California history happened within the last year, and it’s not a coincidence. And we saw that all play out in real time, the disaster that was these wildfires. The mud slides that occurred earlier in the year that were due in part to the destabilization of the soils from the previous round of wildfires and then the heavy rains that came — of course you would expect heavier rainfall in the warmer planet with more moisture in the atmosphere. So, we’re seeing these things, we’re seeing the damages of climate change and the toll they take play out in real time. In California it’s the wildfires and drought and heat. Back east we saw the wettest summer on record. Within the last year and a half, we’ve seen the two worst flooding events — in Houston and then in North Carolina associated with tropical storms or hurricanes rather — Florence and Harvey had very large amounts of moisture available because of the warm oceans and the warm atmosphere, and they were able to turn that into record flooding. Puerto Rico of course the devastation of Puerto Rico by a monster storm and the fact that we’ve seen the strongest storms on record now within the last few years. This is no longer some far-off distant problem. It’s a problem that we’re dealing with now on a regular basis where we live in our daily lives. And I think that’s what’s really come home for people. In the summer that we had, the extreme summer of 2018 followed by the devastating storm season that we had. And now even today now there’s a wildfire is still breaking out in California, which is indicative of the fact that California is now dealing not with a fire season anymore, which used to be the summer, but a perpetual fire season. You can have wildfires in California pretty much anytime now. So, that’s what people have to understand. This isn’t a far-off distance problem. It’s about the here and now and the challenges we’re dealing with already.
COTTO: That was an excellent discussion. Thank you very much for joining us Michael, and thank you for tuning in everyone. See you next week.