Copenhagen: Insights from Lamont Scientists on the World Climate Summit

December 14, 2009

The following are selected posts from a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty.

You Can Ignore Polar Bears, But Not People

As the Copenhagen summit prepared to open, we asked geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter to talk about the prospects. While at sea, Mutter investigates the workings of deep ocean floors; on land, he directs the Earth Institute’s Ph.D. in Sustainable Development  and works to focus science on humanitarian causes. Among other things, he pinpointed who suffered most from Hurricane Katrina, and has championed development of bamboo bikes for cheap transport. Journalist Kim Martineau spoke with him in his office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.



Susan Vincent, a teacher at The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem collects white perch minnows at Piermont Marsh

Let’s say the impossible happens: a climate deal gets signed in Copenhagen. Is the world ready to meet a CO2 target—any target?
Probably not; we need to make big investments in technology. The lifestyle changes that we have made to feel better about ourselves don’t amount to much.  I’m not sure driving silent, ugly cars is going to help in the way people think they will. If you were to switch from a Hummer to a Prius that might do some good, but if you’re switching from a moderately efficient car to a Prius, that probably won’t make a lot of difference.  It is the single action bias, the idea that if you do one thing, that will be enough and remove obligations to do other, more effective, things.  I heard recently that the idea of buying carbon offsets for air travel has had the opposite effect, [and increased] air travel.  The serious actions that need to be taken are likely to be far more than the sum of individual actions.

How can scientists better communicate the risks of climate change?
We lost that chance. In the early days, scientists, who are normally associated with rational people, got associated with fringe environmentalists without intending to. Then along came Al Gore, a Democrat who lost the election for president. Climate change became a partisan issue.  We could have used a Carl Sagan of climate, a serious spokesman for science.

Who will be hardest hit by climate change?
Most of the large temperature changes will happen at the poles—where no one lives. The next largest will be the temperate zones, home to wealthy countries with manufacturing and service-based economies. But our wealth will permit us to cope.  It will not be pleasant, but at least we will be able to manage.  The real irony is that temperature change will be smallest in the tropics and subtropics, but because these areas are poor, densely populated and dependent on agriculture, they will suffer most. If you’re on the edge of survival you can’t take small change[s].

What would you most like to see happen at Copenhagen?
A serious discussion about adaptation: What we are going to do for [low-lying islands like] the Maldives and climate change refugees? Normally, refugees are people who have been displaced by somebody else—persecuted. One of the obligations we have to refugees is to repatriate them to where they came from. But if where they came from is under water? We don’t have language to describe the international community’s obligation for people persecuted by climate.

What will it take to get people to act?
If people see countries going under water, the spread of conflict in the drylands of Africa, with implications beyond, and people displaced from their homes, we will do something. We’re altruistic as a species. It calls on our core beliefs.  We can ignore polar bears and still go to heaven, but we can’t ignore people.

The climate may still be warming while we wait for our humanitarian impulses to kick in. Will it be too late?
It will certainly be too late for some people. Hopefully not too many, before we take actions at the correct scale.




Almost No One Is Being Completely Unreasonable


Peter deMenocal is a marine geologist who studies sea-bottom sediments for clues to past climates. Among other things, he has found evidence that previous civilizations suffered and fell during sudden climate swings. He teaches an undergraduate class in basic earth sciences at Columbia University. As the Copenhagen summit headed for its second week, journalist Kim Martineau met with him in his office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

You’ve been teaching a climate-science class at Columbia for seven years now. Do 18-year olds view global warming any differently now than they used to?
Yes. The shift has gone from wanting to hear about the evidence for climate change to wanting to hear about solutions. During the Bush years the class had a number of climate skeptics who used the same talking points as the conservatives. It was a more hostile crowd, which was fun actually. Those people have largely disappeared. I’m not sure where they went.

People get pretty emotional about climate change and what our country should do. How do you get past the emotions?
I try to find out what’s bothering them. Of course, that changes as the talking points of the skeptics changes. At one point it was “There is no global warming.” In the ‘90s, the argument against global warming disappeared, so the debate shifted to “The earth is warming, but it’s not our fault.” So then you talk to them about the difference between solar forcing and human forcing. If people start getting emotional, you look for common ground. Almost no one is completely unreasonable.

The climate scientists whose private emails were recently hacked and put on the web for the world to read might disagree. What do the emails tell us about the current psychology of climate skeptics?
This is someone who wanted to tank the discussions at Copenhagen.  It’s such an obvious indication of intent, in my opinion. It shows how empty their intellectual quiver is right now.

Will the emails get in the way of a climate treaty?
No. India announced [last week] they will reduce emissions by 20 percent. Why would India, a developing nation, do that? Why would China propose emission cuts so early in the process?

What worries you most about climate change?
Sea level rise, because of the sheer amount of infrastructure at risk. One meter rise is enough to put New York City’s airports underwater.

Some travelers might like the idea of bypassing JFK on their next visit to New York. How do you make the threat of climate change real for people?
The best example is the Montreal Protocol—the treaty that led to limits on chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]. Scientists discovered that these chemicals, once used as refrigerants and solvents, were depleting the ozone layer. Globally, people became concerned that reduced ozone levels would lead to increased cancer rates. Public opinion formed like a tidal wave, and the fear factor led to rapid policy action.  There is no direct human health hazard from the carbon dioxide. However, rising levels do acidify the oceans, [and] phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, grow less well in [those] conditions. Less phytoplankton means fewer fish. We get 20% of our food from the ocean.

Do you have a favorite book about climate change?
Sustainable Energy–Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay. It focuses on solutions. I think the doom-and-gloom media coverage of global warming has desensitized people to the real dangers associated with climate change. We can accomplish more if we start thinking about solutions.


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