by Kristen Minogue
Nov 10, 2009
Americans would need to return to the energy usage levels of the 1870s – a time without cars, airplanes or electricity – to reduce carbon emissions to levels targeted by industrialized nations for 2050. And that means investing in zero-emissions renewable energy and new technologies.
Those are among the challenges that emerged at the Climate Change Symposium, the first conference of its kind at Northwestern University. Launched by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the conference invited six leading experts to campus to give an update on the global warming threat.
Scientists once again laid out the evidence behind the problem and said that emissions reductions are esssential to avert major coastal flooding and inland drought, scientists said. Then policy experts turned to the politics and economics of doing something about it.
Climate scientist Elisabeth Moyer of the University of Chicago said much of the world seems to be divided into two groups: People who believe climate change isn’t a problem and that addressing it would be horribly expensive, or people who believe it’s an enormous problem with a cheap fix. Moyer said she belongs to a third group.
“It is a terrible problem, and it’s going to be really hard,” she said.
Before any real changes can occur, world leaders must formulate a game plan, something they had hoped to accomplish at Copenhagen this December. But in order to accomplish that they have to get past the firewall dividing rich and poor nations.
The developed nations are demanding that developing nations share the burden of cutting back carbon emissions. But most of the developing nations worry that reducing their emissions – which are generally mere fractions of what Americans emit per person– will hurt their turn at economic growth. They want the richer industrialized countries to help finance the adaptation process. As a result, negotiations stall, said Michele Betsill, a political scientist from Colorado State University, who spoke at the conference.
It doesn’t help that two countries with among the largest total carbon emissions – China and India – still fall under the category of developing nations, although the U.S. has by far the largest per capita emissions.
“It looks increasingly unlikely that the international community will actually succeed in getting a new treaty” in Copenhagen, Betsill said.
The international community has been relying on the Kyoto Protocol to guide them through climate change since 1997. The agreement dictated that industrialized countries reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions 5.2 percent by 2012. But the U.S. refused to ratify the protocol.
And, with the Kyoto agreement set to expire in just over two years, the world is now looking to the Copenhagen conference to at least set the framework for a new agreement. Betsill said many have abandoned hope of any finalized treaty emerging from Copenhagen.
Besides the repeated head-butting of international politics, other problems include the glacial pace of international negotiations and the United States’ history of lagging behind.
Meanwhile the physical how-to of reducing carbon emissions presents another obstacle.
The average American emits roughly 20 tons of CO2 per year. That adds up to emissions from the equivalent of about 2,000 gallons of gas a year, or 40,000 miles driven in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon.
In order to avoid disastrous consequences of global warming, scientists say the developed world has to cut emissions by 80 percent. Policymakers have been touting renewables as the solution to the problem for years.
But Moyer said only one renewable has a chance of saving the climate and allowing the entire globe to have a high standard of living – solar power. Power sources such as wind and geothermal would address only a fraction of the demand. Solar energy costs double or even quadruple that of electricity from coal-powered plants, however, though the cost of sequestering carbon will add to the future price of power from coal.
NASA researcher Gavin Schmidt said hope remains if scientists and policymakers can learn to talk to each other, especially as models start focusing less on purely scientific processes and more on practical solutions. For instance, what would happen if the world adopted simple conservation practices to reduce gas emissions by 30 percent in sectors such as transportation and industry?
“We need to talk, and we should be able to talk much more clearly if we actually pay attention what each of the others are saying,” said Schmidt, who works at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.
Policymakers and politics aren’t the only problems. Public skepticism is growing over the reality of climate change, recent polls show. Blame the weather, said Brad Sageman, conference moderator and chair of Northwestern’s planetary sciences department.
“Many people don’t understand what climate means,” Sageman said after the conference. “They think it means weather. And if you look at the weather over the last year, it’s been pretty cool.”
However, extreme temperatures on both ends of the spectrum occur all over the world, while the global average surface temperature has been rising. The more accurate measurements look at what’s happening over the long term. And the long-term patterns and the levels of CO2 point unequivocally to global warming.