Educational Forum: Bill McKibben On Global Climate Change

Uploaded by MSLawdotedu on 18.12.2010

Hello and welcome to MSL's educational forum
this program is produced by the massachusetts school of law and the american college of
history and legal studies
today we will be discussing the topic of global climate change with bill mckibben
the founder of and the million letter march some people have
a hard time understanding the science behind global climate change because scientists aren't
always the best communicators
in fact
sometimes they can be downright dull
thus one of the main goals of the today's show is to communicate in layman's terms some of
the basic facts behind climate change
and how those facts are likely to affect us all in the coming decades some of those who
either deny the facts of global climate change or seek to downplay the significance
of those facts will say that sea level rise around the world has not happened very fast
or has increased only incrementally
this picture of a waterfall
of melt water flowing from one of greenland's glaciers provides graphic evidence of how
incremental sea level rise could turn into catastrophic
sea level rise
as the glaciers melt because of warming temperatures they break off from the main glaciers and
flow into the sea
raising sea levels everywhere
as long as this flow is slow
we don't have much to worry about
this picture shows that the volume of water flowing to the base of the greenland ice sheet
in some cases the ice is over a mile thick is about the same as the amount that falls
over niagara falls every day
when this warm water arrives at the base of the ice sheet
it acts as a lubricant causing the ice sheet to move inexorably toward the sea
though scientists disagree about the timing most say that if this trend continues it is
inevitable that a huge volume of water in the form of an ice sheet will flow into the
raising global sea levels by up to twenty feet and more
this means many cities on coast lines will be underwater within the next hundred years
at the latest this next slide bears out what a lot of global warming skeptics have said
about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere
and trends over extensive periods
the graph at the bottom
shows that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as measured by ice core tubes and
deep ocean sedements
have varied significantly over the past four hundred thousand years
because of the greenhouse effect the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere
the warmer the earth gets
unfortunately the reading from mauna loa
in two thousand and five over here in blue at the right hand side of the slide puts
carbon dioxide levels at approximately three hundred and eighty parts per million
and this is the
highest level ever recorded or at least the highest level recorded in more than six hundred
and fifty thousand years this means that we are now living in what scientists call the
anthropogenic era
the era dominated by humans
when the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities has changed the very nature
of our planet most ominously the red lettering at the top right-hand side of this slide
shows what the intergovernmental panel on climate change calls the
high emissions scenario or the business as usual
this scenario envisions that humans will either do nothing's to slow the release of
carbon dioxide
or the releases will actually increase in the short term
if we do nothing
c02 levels will reach one thousand parts per million within the next ninety years
and changes to the earth
will be more than catastrophic for most humans and other creatures the planet will be essentially
unlivable regrettably we are now continuing on the business as usual path
united states china and india
the three largest emitters
continue to emit as much or more C02 as we have for years
and it looks like we do not have the political will to change
this next slide
demonstrates what is likely to happen to the northeast and specifically new hampshire's
climate if we do nothing
or if we make only slight changes in our behaviors
continuing on the business as usual path will mean C02 levels will reach one thousand
parts-per-million and this will mean that new hampshire's climate will be more like that
experienced by residents of south carolina when we get to the end of this century
under this scenario we will have close to twenty days
over one hundred degrees fahrenheit in the summer
and temperatures will not be cold enough in the winter
to have snow or ice
while this might not be a bad idea for some people seeking to have a winter home where
they live so they don't have to buy in the south land
it will mean millions of climate change refugees will stream north to more temperate climates
because those who live near the equator now
will not be able to survive there
humans and other species will inevitably have to contend for an ever decreasing pie of freshwater
food and other things essential for life
I'm here with bill mckibben today and uh... bill as i told you one of the main reasons i
got involved in environmental law and these issues that we'll talk about today is
because of your book
published in 1988 I believe end of nature
can you tell me something about why you got involved in that
back that that long ago
yeah it was a long time ago twenty one years ago i think that the end of nature came out
in nineteen eighty nine
and i was a young man
in my late twenties
um I had been a uh
staff writer at the new yorker magazine
and had moved
left new york and
moved to the wilderness uh...
upstate new york the adirondack mountains the one big
wilderness in the american east
uh... a place of great
splendor and beauty
and fallen deeply in love with it
was spending almost all my time outdoors in it
at the same time i was reading
the early
papers on climate change
and understanding that this wildness that was so attractive to me
and luring me in so deeply
uh... was disappearing
that it was getting harder and harder to say that even a place where there really were
essentially no people
I lived miles from my nearest neighbor
uh... was wild any more because we were managing to change the temperature and
hence the flora and the fauna
I remember reading
someplace saying
uh... i can walk half an hour from my house and
come to a place where no man stands from one year to a next
and there consequently politics are not
for politics are but the cigar smoke of a man
i could walk
five minutes from my house
and come to places where i'm not sure anybody but me had ever stood
and yet
those places were already changing
okay what sorts of changes were you seeing
well I in in those days in the late eighties you know
we we were still very much within uh...
the margins of error
so who knew exactly what we were attributing to
climate change and what we weren't at the time it was more philosophical almost
but we knew what was coming
the science
uh... that science has changed remarkably little since the late nineteen eighties
uh we still are expecting about the same
magnitude of temperature increase the only thing is it's coming more quickly now
to now
in places like here
it's far
it's very easy to see
in everyday life the kind of changes
actually look out the uh... window here in Middlebury VT. at this point what
the end of february two thousand and ten and there's really very little snow on the ground
a sort of better indicator since snow storms come and go and things probably
is to look down at the lake uh... lake champlain
we have good records on ice cover on lake champlain that date back
uh... more than a quarter millennium
one of the longest stretches like that in the record I think in all of the
in all of the twentieth century
there were only
uh prior to
nineteen eighty or something there were only
four or five years in which the lake didn't freeze stem to stern
uh... all the way
I think there have been seventeen of those years since nineteen eighty
winter's definitely getting shorter and less intense here
the other thing that we're seeing at this latitude
you know all across new england the mid-atlantic
is a dramatic increase in heavy precipitation
uh... warm air
holds more water vapor than cold
and hence we get more drought in those arid areas where that water's evaporating
but once it's up in the air it's going to come down
and so around here we get real gully washers uh...
my town
rip ton up in the mountains had what we think were the two
largest storms ever rainstorms ever
uh... summer before last about six weeks apart
they managed to wash out our roads we were cut off for
days from
the rest of the world the governor had to fly in in a helicopter
uh... you know and this is in a town with
mostly intact forest you know that should be able to survive normal rainfall but this isn't
normal rainfall this is something new
and in some sense artificial
they used to refer to those as a hundred year floods because they'd occur only that frequently right uh...
engineers are having a
much more difficult time because the hundred year storm the hundred-year flood
seems to be coming in a lot of places every couple of years
and that's
testing design parameters already
for a lot of things
bridges of roads of
uh... sewer systems of whatever
right I've read recently i think in perhaps your most recent uh... uh...
submission to the uh... new york review of books uh... and i think you've said it
before basically you can't bargain with the science that being chemistry and physics can you explain a
a little about what you mean I guess first physics we're deeply engaged in the uh
political process right
around climate change and i've been running this big group and organizing
and that's important that political work is important
but too often politicians think
that this phenomenon climate change is sort of like
dealing with health care or something it's one more problem
to grapple with and
compromise over and whatever
that kind of compromise probably makes sense when we're dealing with something like healthcare
or you know
uh... the problem is that
in this case
the contest is not between democrats and republicans it's not between liberals and conservatives
it's not between china and the u_s_
it's between human beings on the one hand
and physics and chemistry on the other
that's a very hard
because uh... physics and
chemistry don't actually bargain
they don't yield we now know
that if you put
a certain quantity of carbon in the atmosphere it produces
uh... a certain increase in temperature
and it does it wether
you want it to or not
that was actually one of my countrymen uh... Svante Arrhenius i think it was really the turn
of the last century when he determined
how much carbon would equal how much increase in temperature that's right but that's been borne
out over the years correct the great swedish chemist Arrhenius was really one of the first
to deal with this
um... and his sort of back of the envelope calculations are
relatively close to what
we now expect charles keeling who started measuring carbon dioxide levels on mauna loa
mauna loa in the late nineteen fifties and within a few years it was very obvious that there was a
increase now in fact accelerating increase in
the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere
and how has that corresponded to the change in temperature what you said that uh... Arrhenius'
calculations back-of the envelope calculations
had been borne out over time specifically i mean what what does it mean what we have
we've so far raised temperature about one degree just under one degree celsius about one point
three degrees fahrenheit
globally averaged
uh... and that's about what we expect we expect we're gonna if we don't get things under control
very quickly
unfortunately we're gonna see another
three four five degrees in the course of this century
very very warm indeed
since we're already seeing and this is the part we didn't anticipate twenty years ago
we're seeing larger responses from the natural world than we would've expected with merely
a degree increase
the melting of the arctic in the summer of two thousand and seven
was an ominous sign it happened well ahead of schedule
it should give us
great pause uh...
there are a number of other physical features that are displaying the same kind of flux
rapid melt of glaciers rapid acidification of oceans being
two prominent examples okay and i think uh... as uh... the the movement of of wildlife toward
the poles yes
everything responds to these kind of temperature changes and so we're seeing
new migration patterns
new forest
the emergence
and decline of forests in different areas
great swaths of forests across the interior west of the united states and canada
dying from
beetles and things that are no longer kept in check by cold weather I I think they're
uh... suggesting now that there's a possibility that places like the amazon could wind up
as savannah land instead at some point that's correct because of the changes we don't know exactly
what schedule it's on but that that's definitely a danger and if that happens well you know
one of the world's great
uh... pumps
is is really the world's great pump is
brought to a halt
plus sink as well right because the the trees there and in other great forests around the world they basically topical
forests are less of a sink
than temperate ones
because they're warm um... there's biological activity there all year round
and so the soil microbes in the soil and things continue to
uh... uh...
produce carbon
and one of the problems we have is that as we warm the planet temperate forests are becoming
in essence more semi tropical with each passing year
and that period of of microbial activity and things stretches longer and
become less effective as sinks
I see and uh... doctor james hansen is somebody that i know you put a lot of faith in i just
recently finished his book storms of my grandchildren
another one of the reasons that i got involved in this is i think i told you um... i had
a son six years ago my first child and i realized that things were changing
as you did with end of nature
um... hansen has said that uh... it
if we don't stick to that number three fifty in the organize that the organization that
you're director of and also founder then we risk potentially catastrophic climate change over
time hansen's calculations um...
were made
on these numbers were made
in the wake of that rapid
arctic ice melt
his team at nasa in january of two thousand eight
put out a paper saying
that unless
we were able to bring CO2 concentrations below three hundred and
fifty parts per million
we'd have how did they put it
we couldn't have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed
and to which life on earth is adapted
that's strong language it's stronger still when you realize we're already well above
three-fifty at about three hundred and ninety parts-per-million now
and rising two parts per million per year
okay that two parts per million per year obviously we're now looking at potentially within
this century getting to four fifty what would that mean well before this you within
about twenty five years
right so by the mid-century
we're looking at those significant changes by earlier than that yeah
I mean we're already seeing
large scale changes
uh... we don't have to wait
twenty five years to see 'em we'll just see a lot more of them
and uh you know name your
name your measuring stick things are getting
progressively worse uh...
it's very hard to do agriculture when you lack dependable rainfall
we're seeing rapid spread of mosquito born disease mosquitoes like the warmer wetter
world that we're creating
uh... we're seeing
very rapid acidification of oceans with
potentially catastrophic consequences for corels
small mollusks other things at
the base of the marine food chain
on and on and on
i know one of the the most I guess threatening things that that hansen and others talk
about is the uh... the melting and possible release of of methane from these
hydrates clathrates in the ocean and in the frozen north the tundra that's correct
uh... and it makes a good point
about why we want to intervene quickly
to deal with all of this
at the moment
temperature increase is being driven by
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mostly
CO2 is an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel combustion
um... and you get a lot of it
as it accumulates it raises the temperature
but it's not the only gas that
does that there are other things that go into the atmosphere that can also perform this
greenhouse function
one of them is methane
natural gas
we now face
the very real danger
that is carbon raises
the temperature of the planet
the temperature of the planet goes up permafrost in the arctic begins to melt
stored beneath that permafrost are large quantities of methane CH4
if that melts and that
methane begins to spew into the atmosphere
then at a certain point
there'll be nothing we can do to slow down this reaction
uh... you know even if at that point
congress decided to park every car and turn off every power plant
there already would have been enough carbon in the atmosphere to really initiate
uh... melting of the north
and with it this release
of methane gas
uh... that's one of the
real fault lines we want to try to avoid
I guess onto congress because your book has been compared to rachel carson's
silent spring I believable on the book jacket the end of nature was compared to silent spring
and obviously that sparked a significant environmental movement which resulted in environmental
laws like the endangered species act and uh... national environmental policy act
uh…a number of other key environmental laws were passed at that time
how do you account for for the i guess the difference in reaction because one of things
that i've noticed is it seems that there's almost like people have blinders on and rather than you know
moving for those kind of changes it's been they've been reluctant this is a lot harder
you know when you were banning d_d_t_
it was one
in a class of
chemicals it wasn't at the
heart of
anything there were substitutes that you could find so on and so forth
fossil fuel is the most important economic force in the world and has been for a hundred and
fifty years
and so
doing anything that
that threatens that
meets with enormous resistance from vested interests
this is the most profitable business in the world
exxon made more money each of the last three years than any company in the history of money
it also meets great resistance in a sense from the inertia of all of our lives
we're used to doing things certain ways
we don't want to be
forced to do them differently wether by edict or by by the rising price of
fossil fuel
uh and hence it's been
and will be
very much harder to make the kind of progress we need to make
that's why we need to build large movements and that's much of what
my work's been about in the last
few years
and getting back to
uh... from what i understand I think it was in october was it of uh... of last year
two thousand and nine when you sparked that uh... that huge movement around the world yeah
church bells ringing three hundred and fifty times and that kind of thing sure
it actually
we'd begun
well we began here at middlebury college two years
almost three years before that
uh... myself and six undergraduates
did a uh...
project we called step it up
across america
and organized
climate change rallies on the same day in the spring of two thousand and seven
in all fifty states
they were successful
hillary clinton and barack obama changed their climate change policies within a few days
of those
but we understood after that and after watching the arctic melt
that we needed to work on a
jim hansen's nasa team really provided the number three fifty that became the
base of our work
and we decided to take that
uh somewhat obscure scientific data point
and see if we could make it a rallying cry around the world to try to help drive the
we were pretty successful in a sense
on the twenty fourth of october in two thousand and nine
we managed to coordinate fifty two hundred simultaneous rallies in a hundred and eighty-one
uh... c_n_n_ called it
the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history
foreign policy said it was the largest coordinated global rally of
any kind
it was very beautiful
very powerful it showed among other things that
environmentalists are not rich white people they're mostly black and poor
and brown and young 'cause that's what most of the world is
and going into copenhagen
the big climate summit in december of two thousand and nine
it gave us some
pretty good momentum
we'd managed to convince eventually about a hundred and twenty national governments
to adopt this three hundred and fifty target which is pretty remarkable
um... they were the wrong hundred and twenty
the biggest most powerful
countries in the world
the u_s_ and
china really chief among them
weren't yet ready to deal with what
that science meant in the kind of cuts in emissions and things
that we require
so copenhagen in many ways ended in failure
but as far as movements go
we finally have one a big global movement and uh...
we continue to press forward at
i know that uh... your your most recent piece for the new york times review of books talks
copenhagen and how there was a lot of disappointment among environmentalists and
activists and it gets back to that point i guess about china and india
and and one of the reasons that a lot of the people in the united states bristle
at the idea of how we should reduce our emissions while
develop quote-unquote developing countries like china and india aren't doing the same thing
I mean how do you
suggest you getting past that I know you must have dealt with that issue well it's very useful just to try to think
about well let's take china
uh... china last year
passed the u_s_ as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world
there are four times as many
people in china
as there are in the u_s_
so per capita basis we still remain far and away the champion
in fact i mean i suppose you could say that
china could
solve it's CO2 problem just by dividing into four countries
each one
would be the same size as the u_s_ but only emit a quarter as much carbon
problem solved you know
it's also worth remembering that the residence time of a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere
is about a hundred years on average we've been pouring
CO2 into the atmosphere for more than a century
the chinese really for a little more than a decade in significant amounts
hence it'll be
forty years or so before
uh... china passes us
even given its bigger population
as the major source of
the warming that we see around us
uh... so it's ridiculous to scapegoat china or to demand that they move on exactly the
same schedule we do they're not historically responsible
and they are using
their fossil fuel to
pull hundreds of millions of people
out of very dire poverty
and there's a reason for them to be doing
what they're doing
not a reason like we need
yet a larger McMansion
yet another jacuzzi or whatever the heck it is that
we're expending that energy on
that said
clearly china india and the rest of the developing world are going to have to
figure out
other ways to develop and we're gonna have to help make that happen
that cooperation is essential now
because this year
growth in their carbon emissions will overwhelm anything we can do close to home
unless we're able to bring them under control soon
interestingly i think uh... the same article you you may have pointed out or I know that others have
pointed out the chinese are doing a lot to uh to build wind and and solar installations
in addition to putting up a new coal-fired power plant
quite too often
um... so i mean they're moving in that direction indeed they are I think it's pretty clear that the chinese
have made a strategic bet that
this is going to be the most important
new economic innovation of our century
and they're putting serious resources behind it
getting out ahead in the race to be the kind of center of cleantech and greentech while
we cling to coal-fired power plants and
things like that
uh... i don't think it's clear yet whether the chinese have decided
that this is
really how they're gonna power their economy or whether it's going to be a kind of
supplement to a basically coal-fired china
and that's an important question
we won't know the answer to for a while
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couple of my students actually had questions for you I told you earlier that I'm teaching
environmental law for the first time this semester and one of them is related directly to that point and that is
you know if we are employing as many people as we are in the carbon industry
how do we get off of that while still maintaining a strong and vibrant economy
we're not employing that many people in the carbon industry you know coal-mining has
been so automated that it
shrunk to you know uh...
very small number of people
uh... most of the fossil fuel that we use comes from other places
so the people that we're employing tend to be
saudi arabians
you know
uh... about whom i think we should
not worry too much right about their economic
future would be my advice
we're able we stand the prospect of creating
large numbers of new jobs as we make a real significant energy transition
uh... which is very good news it's one of the
few things you can think of that might drive the economy
going forward in a really powerful way
uh... it represents a large part of our economy and that transition
will create lots and lots of opportunities
as you suggested it's it seems like a lot of the the coal mining that's going on these
days is whether it's mountaintop removal or something else is heavily automated
are those jobs in whether it's solar or wind are they labor intensive so that we'd actually wind up
employing more people or well sure I mean think about it I mean what's job one
it's taking our existing housing stock
and building stock
and making it far more efficient
stuffing the walls with insulation
putting solar panels on the top
you know on and on and on
you're unlikely to
ship your house to china in order to get it insulated
right that's work that has to be done here close to home
uh... by its nature
uh... creating work
uh i'd much rather be spending our national resources on that
than just handing them over in a check every
month to
the princes of saudi arabia
and actually probably fostering foreign wars at the same time right
or promoting them
um there's a disparity that i think troubles a lot of people who look at this issue between
some scientists say and what others say um specifically the intergovernmental panel on
climate change the u_n_ body
that has issued I believe four reports now the assessment reports
over time and between what they say and what people like uh... dr hansen and also a james
lovelock the english uh... scientists
have said
um how do you account for that i know that the IPCC has well the IPCC which has been a very
moment in the history of science you know is quite remarkable that we've been
able to diagnose and understand a problem this large this quickly
but by its nature it's a conservative operation
it's required to reach absolute consensus on everything national governments can
block consensus on
controversial points it tends
everything tends toward minimizing the danger that we're in
that said if you sit and read the IPCC reports you realize what
danger we're in
but lovelock and hansen and
and much of the more recent science since the last IPCC report has said is
look you've got the basic
thing right it's just happening much faster now than than
we used to think
and so we need to step up even more our response
ok I know that there's a picture actually in the new york times review of books of a
uh... of a river
running through a greenland yes and some of the most dramatic pictures have been those
showing um the huge amounts of water that are cascading yes over the side
and i guess according to people like doctor hansen lubricating the ice sheet in places
like greenland and antarctica and that's that's right there's a couple of things that are going on kurt one
is um
yes there's
melt on the surface as temperatures warm melt on the surface of those great ice sheets
uh... in greenland we can see
that water pouring down
through what are called moulins right these uh...
rivers that and some of them very large that run to the bottoms of the ice sheet
they do lubricate
its slide
at least as dangerous
particularly in the antarctic
appears to be the effect of warmer seawater
eating away
from underneath
the leading edge of these glaciers through places that there kind of pinned to the rock
beginning in fact more than beginning to be eaten away
uh... and that's hastening
the slide of those glaciers into the sea
uh... there's serious volumes of
ice uh... above that rock greenland alone i think has about enough ice to raise sea level
twenty feet around the world
far more than that obviously in the antarctic
uh…so we don't want this to happen
hm hm right there are those obviously such as the IPCC who would suggest that that's one of those
things I think they use terms like
very likely or or most likely or something like that but others like hansen who would suggest
uh... they've been hearing what like
earthquakes which really is the ice cracking yes in greenland and those are happening
far more frequently now we have these
uh interesting satellite
that's through gravity
able to figure out the mass of greenland or the antarctic is and how it's changing
and much more quickly than people had expected
it seems to be
uh... its mass seems to be to dwindling
there's clearly a lot of melt going on
um there are others who would suggest that uh...
actually lovelock has been suggested that it's it's perhaps a better idea to uh...
seek the nuclear option
um... whereas others would disagree with him and say that you know we we can't go nuclear
and there are at least five or six reasons why that's not a good solution to our problem
however he says that trying to get
solar and wind and other renewable sources online quickly enough
is not going to be possible why why would you disagree with him on on nuclear i think the
problem with
new nuclear power
is all about the cost
uh... it's remarkably expensive
I mean really remarkably expensive such that nobody ever does it unless government subsidizes
it heavily
uh... if governments are going subsidize it heavily most of the econometric modeling i've
indicates that there's more bang for the buck elsewhere
uh... that some of the large-scale renewables and things are now
have reached a
point where
kilowatt hour
per kilowatt hour they're cheaper than doing that nuclear work
we don't have a lot of money to waste we better
spend what we have as carefully as we can
right ok to put up a new nuclear plant I actually visited uh seabrook
down in hew hampshire recently and
uh... they suggested the number might be as close as somewhere around thirty billion for
each plant that's probably a little high but the uh
uh... uh...
finland has just been
has the
newest one going up in uh the
developed world at the moment and it's coming in
fifty percent over budget
and fifty percent behind schedule um they're
very complicated
i think that
that the future of
energy generation
on this planet
lies much more easily with what engineers call distributed generation
lots and lots of small
all over the landscape
and not the central station model that we've been operating under for the last hundred years
the logic of renewable energy
is different than the logic of fossil energy
fossil energy was very concentrated
very rich in BTUs
found in a few places
easy to transport
made sense to burn it centrally in large quantities
the son or the wind are ubiquitous
they're everywhere but they're also diffuse
there's not that much of them anywhere
so you need to figure out
how to make your generation diffuse as well
i have solar panels all over my roof
here in vermont
in the summer
i'm a utility i'm
producing more power than i can burn we're
firing down
the uh…grid
you know my neighbor is cooling his
beer before the red sox game
with the sunlight that falls on my shingles
um that's a much more useful way of
i think of thinking about power for many reasons I mean one it lets you get these climate friendly
technologies online easily
two it's much less vulnerable to disruption of any kind you know including
the kinds that we all worry about now
uh... you know
if a um
terrorist decided that he wished to go after my
solar panel
i suppose theoreticaly he could climb up on a roof with a hammer and smash it
but if he did it wouldn't
you know send
deadly solar particles drifting out across the countryside it would be a problem for
me that that would be about it right okay
i know that uh... most recently the boston globe has covered this and I'm sure it's been covered by other
media outlets as well uh... the yankee nuclear power plant down in southern vermont
which is snow leaking I guess tritium into the potentially into the groundwater I understand they
say that I think it's into the connecticut river now I think it's pretty clear yeah uh huh
so i mean obviously that's another concern well i mean if you if you're going to have
nuclear power plants
your you have to run them
safely and clearly it's a clown college that's running the one in vermont yankee you know
right big pieces of the thing keep falling off the side uh huh... uh you know they
they apparently testified to the state
that there were no underground pipes
uh... there only to have to come back this year and say not only are there underground
pipes but sorry they're leaking
large quantities of tritium
into the connecticut river I mean you know
these guys are not
competent to run uh... you know popeye's fried chicken much less nuclear power
station you know
uh... so that's of course there's that whole other set of problems but
in the abstract you could conquer those the one that you don't seem able to conquer is
uh... uh... the cost issue
right I mean it's just like burning ten dollar bills to generate electricity
there's also the the issue with uh... how they become
decrepit over time from what I understand that yankee power was uh... was commissioned in what nineteen
seventy eight yeah it's at the end of its
project you know
original life span
uh hm right so it's either a question of trying to retrofit those which would be almost as expensive as coming
up with new ones right yeah I don't know the economics of retrofitting
right I don't know how expensive it is
and you mentioned earlier about the uh the
diffuse nature of the renewable sources yes including solar and wind uh…as you suggested you
have solar panels yes I know a lot of people complain my sister's has had solar panels in her house
in california for the last twenty years but that obviously you know you have regular sunlight and what not
for somebody who lives in vermont or northern new england like many of us do is is it
practical or
well you get i mean the biggest um I think the country in the world with the most installed photovoltaic capacity
is germany
germany's well to the north of
us I think munich is to the north of like calgary i mean it's very far north
right it doesn't get
I mean it's wagnerian it its
you know
uh... weather
right it's wispy foggy cold
dismal a lot of the time
but there's enough sunlight to do
good things with solar power
mm hm it's not as
good as it is in reno
but but from what I understand over the course of time actually fairly recent time the way we're looking right now places like reno
are going to be uninhabitable because of the heat
well there's that
there have also been others who have suggested though that you might be able to do this on
a large scale
is that something that that you envision as possibly places like is south dakota wind or yeah
you can do concentrated solar power or concentrated wind
i think that some of that's over sold
expensive building lines
and the loss of power as you move electrons across them means that there's
even if the wind resource is twice as good in north dakota as it is in vermont
you might well be better off
doing it in vermont
for vermont consumption uh... you know
right and in general you know i think there's a lot to be said for building
energy systems with
local money and
local people um...
i think that's in the end probably a better architecture for this
recent work from the institute of local self-reliance
makes it clear that that
pretty much every state in the union could generate the power it needs within its borders mm hmm
of course then you run into the local politics issue which one of the things that
cape wind project has run up against absolutely is people like you know senator kennedy when he was alive and
others saying
i don't want that you know
basically decaying my landscape when I look out on not in view of my deck yes the nimby problem right yes
uh... yeah well
sooner or later we're gonna have to make choices
and some of those choices have an ethical and moral
dimension to them
uh... in all these things
i think we should shut down the power plant at vermont yankee
but also i think that
because it's it's so unsafe and egregious
but at least we're taking the risk ourselves for that we get the power and we're
taking the risk
if we shut it down
then we're transferring the risk
you know we'll probably end up using coal-fired power from
someplace instead
uh... or we might if we don't plan carefully
in which case we would be transferring the risk to some bangladeshi
peasant uh...
who's not even getting any power out of the deal you know
right uh... the same with you know the sort of wind things and whatever in the best of all possible
we wouldn't
mar your view with a windmill
but this is not the best of all possible worlds
and hence we better come up with some new
aesthetics among other things we better learn to understand that the sight of a windmill
in the distance is kinda pretty mm hmm right
and happily i think that it is I have spent enough time in
denmark and
norway and places to get a sense of just how beautiful it can be mm hm
right and the the noise issue is not something that people have to worry about 'cause I also know they
complain about that
and possible harm to bird populations depends well you know bird populations are any large tower but uh...
does some trouble but
does these things now move very slowly because they're so big but
you know
your brighter
class of bird
won't be
too bothered I don't think
the real issue is
if we don't get climate change under control very quickly we're gonna lose
you know an enormous number of species birds among them
mm hmm right i know that the species that have lost has been a concern
among people like E.O. Wilson from harvard and uh... obviously I believe some projections
have it that uh... by the mid-century we could lose as many as twenty percent of all
the species on earth is that something that's
realistic in your view who knows exactly
what the number will be but clearly
this is uh... you know we're entering a
period of major extinction
mm hmm uh... comparable to the
big asteroid strikes we've had in the past
this time the asteroid is us
right anthropogenic
climate change right I think it's been referred to as possibly the sixth great extinction
um... I
you also mentioned i think environmental justice clearly is is a big part of this and that
your your heavy weather in copenhagen piece in the new york review of books talks a little bit
about that
when i did a show on the uh... the arctic climate impact assessment uh... i had uh...
james mccarthy from harvard paul epstein paul epstein correct
and both of them pointed out that i mean that's obviously a concern going forward
I mean even if we're not concerned about our own little part of the world because we feel
like we're secure
those people like you mentioned like from bangladesh and and other places will be streaming across
borders because either they'll you know drought they won't be able to to grow the crops or
they'll be flooded out
I mean is that is that something that uh... you know should turn a lot of peoples
heads on this issue
jeez even the pentagon's begun to worry about the security implications of rapid climate
change I mean we're talking major destabilization
right there are estimates as high as seven hundred million climate refugees by mid century
um that's
I mean it's hard to imagine a world
safe and secure in any way with that
kind of flux underway
um um and it's entirely possible we live where we live because
it's the right
set of conditions to allow us to do that and if those conditions change then we'll have to
move with it and it'll be a tough
thing to do in a world as divided by political lines as ours is uh uh...
we talked a little bit
uh... earlier about uh... the show that you appeared on the colbert report and uh... as
as i suggested I mean in some cases any
public relations is good public relations but i know that that was a difficult interview
for you well happily it went very well it was scary going in but it when very well
and we had a good time and
and it helped a lot with our 350
campaign right I know he was screaming at some point uh... we're all gonna die and he challenged you why don't
we have three forty nine yeah yeah or something
it was all it was all fun right
and it but it did have a positive yes on the
absolutely I mean this you know
look uh...
there's no question that it's mostly young people that are driving this movement around the
world mm hm right and
you know so we communicate in all kinds of new ways whether it's
or whether it's twitter
um... you know
these are the
the ways that we
ways that we work mm hm
do you feel that that uh... that the young people that you work with an obviously that that
has to be what drives it wether it's college campuses or high school students or whatever
are they as committed
as as they were at the time of uh... the vietnam war whatever I now you mentioned that's
a different story
i was like
nine or something right
when the vietnam war was going on so i really don't know how committed people were right
but uh... uh... the crew i work with is committed as it's possible to be
uh... you know we have
hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of
fantastic organizers all over the world
you know across
in places you wouldn't expect you know turning out
tens of thousands of people for
demonstrations in ethiopia
burundi and
you know vera cruz and
hundreds of
actions across china
across india
big demonstrations in places like china where it's not always easy to do that
mm hmm right uh... incredibly committed
uh... it's wonderful to see
onto the deniers
i know that they they they still exist out there and unfortunately what i found was
that in my environmental law class I
I let them know up front that you know you guys are gonna know the way i feel about this
issue uh... i want you to share your views because obviously it's an academic exercise
so another one of the questions that I got from one of my students was that
uh…she had seen something a quote somewhere saying the obama administration considers
the IPCC the gold standard and then she went on to say well how do you then account
for all of these emails that have gone back and forth where I guess people who were you know
stating stuff you and your students are
lawyers right
and uh...
and so
the analogy in my mind
is uh...
is to any big trial but let's take
for ease of
common reference sat the o_j_ simpson trial
look everybody knew that
the guy was guilty
so his legal defense had difficult problems
but they had a great
one great asset
which was that there was an
enormous record 0:48:47.359,0:48:48.000 with which
to wish to dig into
when I wrote the end of nature
twenty-some years ago
the science was still thin i mean there wasn't
that much of it
okay right yeah
and hence it was
harder rather than easier to be a denier of
this sort of thing
now with a three thousand page IPCC report
okay uh... there's bound to be
a mistake or two
in there and indeed they found a couple the date for which glaciers will
finally melt in the central himalaya
uh... things like that uh
and so
people who don't want to take action on this often at the behest or in the pay of
big fossil fuel industry
um um wave their arms and shout
say oh this proves that there's
nothing here
in fact really to the contrary the fact that you can go through that record
as expensive as it is and find three or four mistakes to any rational
uh view would bolster
not weaken claim for it's authority um mm
but that maybe is the point the rational person
yeah well there are deep vested interests that don't want to change
but none of us want to change either
um and or not many of us
and hence we're all happy
to find some thing that
could cause us to
doubt or delay or put it off as it's not our problem or
you know we'd better wait a few years or whatever if you were a politician
you'd probably we feel the same way to 'cause it's you know an uncomfortable
thing to deal with
that's why we have to keep building movements to keep putting some pressure on from the
other side
'cause the incentive for delay will always be there
um hmm of course the problem with politicians sometimes to is that they work in either two or six year
life cycles and it's not something
for them to look out twenty or fifty years in the future is is it is hard for them to get their arms around
it is hard
and in an odd way it's probably why
the chinese have
uh gotten ahead of us in their governmental commitment to green energy
these guys for better or for worse think that they're going to be running the country china
fifty years hence being so they better start
thinking about what's
going to be there
uh... you know
i don't happen to like that system
I'd much rather
be changing people up
right from time to time
back to the deniers and uh... several of my students again have have posed questions
to you and uh... another one of them is uh... actually one of the people filming us
today has the same basic question and that is well
what temperature should the earth be and
their the issue is for at least one of them was you know we've had times like what was
the uh... the maunder minimum and times when we got a lot warm little ice age and
then there's no
there's no
correct answer to this question right i mean theoretically the world could deal with
all kinds of different temperatures
the more interesting question is what what temperature should it be to support the
kind of human civilization that we have at the moment
temperature's been very stable for the ten thousand years of human civilization
it's varied by well less than a degree centigrade
globally averaged
uh... it's because carbon
levels in the atmosphere have been remarkably stable
two hundred and seventy-five parts per million
plus or minus a little bit until the beginning of the industrial revolution
um so while theoretically
you know if you were arriving fresh on this earth
you know if it was three degrees warmer you just would
settle it differently or whatever that's not really a big option right now
we really need the sea level to be more or less where it is at the moment
because all of our most of our big cities
are built along the sea right
uh... those that aren't
are often in the tropics
built high enough up the side of the mountains that they used to be resistant to malaria mosquitoes
couldn't over winter there 'cause it got cold enough
that's no longer true
um um you know these kind of changes are
unbelievably unsettling
unbelievably expensive to deal with if we can deal with them at all
some of them we may not be able to deal with at all the most recent data on say
crop production
uh... indicates that we could easily see yields fall
thirty to fifty percent or more as the century
comes to a close simply because
our main crops evolved as we did to deal with certain temperatures corn and rice and wheat
there's a certain point at which you can't keep growing it gets too hot one needn't worry
for the earth itself
the basic underlying ball of rock
uh... should be
uh... but one should worry
about human civilization
this is the only civilization scale challenge with the possible exception of
large-scale nuclear war that we've
and one should also
save a
tear or two for the rest of
d_n_a_ that we're likely to take down with us
uh... in the process
uh you know we were born into a very beautiful intricate world
with deep communion with
species of all kinds on all sides and
we're wiping a lot of them out
right I know the other point i guess is that one of the responses that I had for the for the person
who suggested well there are all these times there are climate fluctuations throughout time
i know that there was a milankovitch cycle that basically
the earth tilts and wobbles yeah we know why ice ages come and go uh the milankovitch cycles
are very persuasive
the changes
in eccentricity of the earths
orbit and tilt and wobble are
you know cause
changes in the amount of solar insolation
and hence over a long time
uh... the advance and retreat of ice sheets and things like that
uh but we're
doing this now
and we're doing it on an even larger scale we're taking the temperature if we don't
get things under control soon
way higher than it's been for a very long time
very I mean by very long time i don't mean like in human history i mean
way way before human history
and if you think about the enterprise that we're conducting it shouldn't come as a huge surprise
i mean what we're doing is taking
are burning all that fossil fuel
we're taking
hundreds of millions of years worth of biology all those old ferns and dinosaurs and algae
and within the space of a couple hundred years releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere
the wonder would be if it didn't cause enormous change
um hm the milankovitch cycles are are borne out
by uh... ice core samples and that kind of thing that people I guess ocean sediments
as well and tree rings but i guess the the most reliable indicator of that is the is
the ice core samples because they've gone back what six hundred and fifty thousand years
or something yeah they've got some very long ice core cycles now
um hm and is that the kind of thing that uh... I guess what i've told people in response to
their questions like that is well you can show that there have been these changes because of the
earths either proximity or distance away from the sun
but you can't show the levels of carbon dioxide that are in the atmosphere because that's never
really yeah we're off the charts
yeah right how do you uh... see this going forward I mean obviously you're going to remain committed
to and organizing these things we'll see the next few years in many ways will tell
the tale
uh…if we're not able to get real control of
this problem pretty soon then our odds of really slowing it down diminish dramatically
it's going to be a hundred year fight
in the best of cases right
but we better win some pretty big victories in the next few years or that hundred year
fight is going to be a rout
right so i mean how i mean that
it it seems like to me when i look at it i
begin to get very cynical
and you know i can understand remaining committed
but if you know just convincing one representative
go to and look at the pictures from around the world uh hm
of a very large movement
you begin to see what's possible
uh... and now you know
i mean yeah it's easy to be cynical
and it's possible we'll lose
but it's possible we won't to if people
do what needs to be done come join us at
big global day of work all over the planet
to be starting to
put some of these systems like solar panels and things into place
partly to help more to sort of
show our leaders
look we're getting to work time for you to do the same thing
your work is to sit in the senate and pass legislation so do it
uh hm the the
incremental changes at the senate in the house and and legislation in general have made over
the course of time things like uh... uh... higher fuel efficiency standards um... granting
tax incentives to those companies that actually do engage in these kind of uh
things i mean have they have they been
meaning fed-up meaningful at all it hasn't been meaningful action yet
uh... the meaningful action will come the day that we attach a price to carbon
uh... so far we haven't done that
right and I mean it seems like it's an incremental step that won't change in cap and
trade rather than accepting the idea that we need a carbon tax we need the cap
somehow or another
the best i think the most likely plan is what we're now calling cap and dividend
um that in affect puts a tax on carbon but then takes that money and
funnels it directly back to
basically lets them own the sky instead of exxon mobil
uh... that's a good plan
and it has some
political legs maybe we'll see
excellent bill it's been thank you guys very much talking to you
though a few skeptics also known as global warming deniers
continue to dispute the essential facts behind global climate change
a worldwide scientific consensus has acknowledged the depth and breadth of the problem
usually further investigation into the deniers backgrounds reveals that they have accepted money
from major multinational energy conglomerates
despite the lobbyists' money the dire consequences awaiting humanity if we continue to do nothing
will be unlike anything we have experienced before
as one scientist has said and I'm quoting
global climate change is like a runaway train
bearing down on the planet
if you choose to ignore it at your own peril at least take action for your children and
and write a letter to your representatives in washington
thank you very much for coming and thank you for watching the most recent version msl's educational