Richard Alley: Challenges, Choices and Climate Change
Interview by Mary Hoff
Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State University, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a lead author for the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To him, science is an operators’ manual for Planet Earth: It tells us how things work, what can go wrong and what we might to do to fix them when they do. And the science he is doing tells him human actions may push the planet’s climate control systems out of whack. That’s why, several years ago, Alley decided to take on a new role as host of “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” a PBS mini-series that offers a user-friendly look at climate change science and possible solutions. In this interview, simultaneously published online by Momentum magazine and Forbes.com, Alley shares his thoughts on the state of Earth’s climate, the implications, and what tools we might have to shift the trajectory, should we choose to do so.
What are you seeing in the ice – what is it telling you?
Ice cores give us two pieces of the climate story. One, they confirm that our understanding of climate is actually pretty good. Climate changes for a lot of reasons, but CO2 is a big one. The ice records of climate change confirm really what is fundamental physics. If we raise CO2, it has a warming influence. Is CO2 a greenhouse gas? Well, yes. Does more of it have a warming influence? Yes. Is there any real question about that? No. How quickly is CO2 rising? Very. There is nothing in the ice core record for almost 800,000 years—which is as far back as the ice core record goes—that has been as high as this. So the basic picture is that our energy system, which is good for us, is also pushing the climate pretty hard through CO2.
What are the consequences?
We’ve changed climate a bit, something like a degree. That clearly has winners and losers. If you are a relatively wealthy person in a relatively cold place, a little bit of climate change doesn’t cost you a lot and it might even help you a bit. If you are a poor person in a hot place, making it hotter doesn’t do much good for you. So the impacts are mostly hitting poor people in hot places. If you run this into the future over the next decades, our best estimates are that the winners will become fewer and the losers become more, and the losing spreads toward wealthy people and cold places as well.
From the scientist’s perspective, is there anything we can do to shift our trajectory?
The good news is that there are a lot of things that we can do. They fall under three broad categories: mitigation, adaptation, and the innovation that makes mitigation and adaptation easier.
Mitigation is, how do we slow the change down? And typically that means, how do we slow the emission of CO2 from fossil fuels to the atmosphere? How do we keep trees on the landscape? How do we use alternative fuels rather than fossil fuels? How do we increase efficiency so we’re using less fossil fuel, or how do we get the CO2 from the fossil fuel and put it back into the ground?
Adaptation is recognizing that climate change is coming and is going to cause different sorts of issues for different people in different places. You start figuring out now how to deal with those as best as possible. If you’re in a place expecting more rainfall, you might start to look at zoning that will move people out of the floodplains, or raise the levees. If you are in a place that’s looking at drought, you might start thinking of ways to recharge the aquifer so people can water their crops.
Innovation may be the most interesting part of the equation. We are paying a lot for energy and swimming in this vast sea of available energy that we’re not using – the wind, the sun, the tides, the waves, geothermal. The total amount of energy out there dwarfs anything we vaguely conceive of using. So if we innovate in terms of being more efficient and finding better ways to use these, then potentially you need less adaptation, mitigation gets really cheap and you’re happy doing it.
Adaptation, mitigation and innovation all cost money. How can a company justify something that would put it at a competitive disadvantage?
Well, either we all spend a little bit now and incorporate it into the normal cost of doing business (as we did with other humanitarian issues, such as child labor laws) or be forced to spend much more in the years ahead,
The analogy I use is the ship and the iceberg. You can see the iceberg way out there. And you say, OK, I can turn just a little bit now and avoid a problem, or wait until I’m really, really close and see if I can make a really hard turn. In 30 years it’s going to be a lot more expensive to deal with global climate change than it is now. If we start now, we can let existing infrastructure like coal-fired power plants operate until they are ready for retirement at the same time we work on bringing more sustainable options in to replace them.
So, with the iceberg still a ways off, what can we start doing today to ensure that we avoid it?
If you read the economics literature, a lot of it says you should make the cost of the fossil fuels reflect their real cost. My electric bill is lower than it ought to be: I’m only paying part of the cost—that for which I am invoiced. It’s my neighbors—both far and near—that are paying the rest of the bill in terms of acid rain (damage to crops and lakes and forests; need to repaint their home), mercury poisoning (contaminating fish in their favorite fishing hole), increased home insurance premiums, and all the myriad costs associated with climate change.
And government: Government incentives and disincentives can have a huge effect on consumer and corporate behavior. When governments throw support behind something, it can really make a difference. Look at the railroads, the canals, the interstate system, GPS, for example. Similarly, what they decide to tax can also have a huge impact. Suppose, for example, society decided to turn that ship by implementing a small carbon tax and then raising it over time, and using the money to reduce other taxes, as some economists have suggested. You could be sure that that would immediately bring about a big shift in corporate behavior.
Good science and economics show that if we make decisions with climate change innovation in mind and we price fossil fuels so they are paying more of their full fare, we will end up wealthier as a world than if we ignore climate change.
What should we do?
I try not to tell anybody what to do. The moment I as a climate scientist say, this is what we know, this is what you should do, that’s the moment where a lot of people say, you are interested in controlling my life or electing your candidate or taking away my pickup truck, you are not a scientist, I will not listen to you. I can show you what is, what is likely to be, and what you can do if you would like to and what possible implications of those choices are. I cannot tell you what to do.
What I recommend is that science should have a seat at the table. When I drop in on policy makers now, many want to argue about relatively peripheral issues that have somehow become distracting flash points in the climate change debate. I believe that the more interesting—and definitely more useful—discussion is, given what we know about the science and about economics and energy and fossil fuel supplies, and about jobs and values and what have you, what is a good way forward?
How can we move into that conversation?
That’s why I’m talking with you. That’s why I’ve been working on this TV project. Most policy makers today did not learn climate science in high school. Most policy makers today learned their climate science after they became policy makers, from someone who may have been promoting specific policies. My belief now is that we actually have to go back and say, this is what we know. This is what it might mean to you. These are the things you can do if you decide to do something about it. Thank you.
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Last modified on January 23, 2012