Interview: Straight talk about climate change.
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Interview: Straight talk about climate change.
Jerry Mahlman on dealing with your grandkids' problem.
Posted: April 2006
Radio: Humanity has been on an energy "binge"
Renown climate scientist Jerry Mahlman is perhaps best known for
the "hockey stick, " a term he coined to describe a chart of
temperature changes over the last 1,000 years. Formerly the head of
NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, he's now a senior
researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Mahlman has spent much of his life modeling how Earth's atmosphere
responds to the steady buildup of greenhouse gases. In 2007, he'll be
a senior editor of the assessment from theIntergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change of the latest science and consequesnces of Earth's
warming climate. Mahlman spoke with Earth & Sky's Jorge Salazar about
what a warmer world could really mean to you and me.
Salazar: People are becoming more aware of global warming. Can't we
just adjust our lifestyles a little and stop it from happening?
Mahlman: There's a colossal misperception that if you bike to work
once a week and recycle your garbage, then global warming will be
fixed up. The problem is that, even if everyone did that, the attempt
to stop global warming would fail by a factor of, oh, roughly of 100,
from what we really need to be doing.
For example, I was in Al Gore's office when he was vice-president.
And he asked me the question, "If we could hold the emissions of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere constant, would global warming go
And I said, "If you were to hold the emissions constant, you would
get up to eight times the carbon dioxide, or CO2, that there was
before the Industrial Revolution. You would still be in a heck of a
Carbon dioxide results from burning fossil fuels, whether it's coal,
oil, natural gas, or even more exotic forms. And so we have this
problem that our population is increasing. Our demand for fossil
fuels is increasing. You just look at the United States, and the SUV-
Hummer phenomenon, all happening witlessly within the context of a
problem that was identified very clearly and quantifiably more than
25 years ago. In 1979, the National Academy of Sciences essentially
laid out why global warming is a problem*.
So this isn't a new thing.
That early knowledge about global warming has been backed up by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In that backing up, there
have been now three assessment reports presented to the world.
Another one is coming up. In fact, I'm the senior review editor for
the final draft of that report to the world that will come in 2007.
So all of this information has been put out there. The National
Academy of Sciences and others have written many, many things about
this. And, essentially, the governments of the world are choosing to
do nothing. The largest offenders are the United States of America
and Australia. Both are highly technical countries that have many
gifts and much money and are not choosing to address the problem in
any way whatsoever. That's where we are.
I'll tell you one of the horrifying facts of global warming, and why
it is so inexorable. Suppose that you and I wanted - along with all
the rest of the people in the world - to cut down on CO2 emissions so
that they would be small enough to let us guarantee that the
concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere next year, and the
decade after, and the decade after, would not go up any more.
What would be your guess as to how much we would have to reduce our
per capita consumption of fossil fuels to meet that goal? This is an
intuitive question for you.
"The system is hard-wired to produce more and more carbon dioxide,
and to a degree other greenhouse gases, all of which are going into
Salazar: Well, what you've described sounds pretty serious. It's
almost something like a war on carbon emissions, and I'd imagine war
rationing to be, say, 50 percent of my consumption.
Mahlman: Well, it turns out that every person in the world would have
to do that, only twice as good as that. You'd have to cut it by 75
That's a horrific number if you think about everything that you do:
whether it's talking on the telephone, or diving our cars, or heating
or cooling our homes. Think of everything that's manufactured, energy
used to extract metals, for example. So the answer is 75 percent, if
the entire world were going to participate.
Salazar: So what does a 75 percent cut in personal emissions look
Mahlman: You would have to have a radical change in your lifestyle.
In other words, we're not taking the problem seriously, and if we
did, we would have a huge challenge making a dent into the problem.
The system is hard-wired to produce more and more carbon dioxide, and
to a degree other greenhouse gases, all of which are going into the
We need to be talking about what we're going to do to arrest global
warming - to keep it from happening, to keep it from warming - now.
That's the problem.
In fact, it's worse than I talk about, because suppose that we're
able to produce the miracle - the absolute miracle - of reducing 75%
in our emissions globally. Guess what? Over the next hundred years,
the Earth would warm up another degree Fahrenheit, even though we
produced that miraculous result.
"There are enormous intergeneration equity issues that are going on
here, right now."
So what we're really doing now is deferring all of the problem to the
generations that follow us. And they will not have much access to
fossil fuels, because we'll have used up most of them. They'll get
all of the garbage, in terms of the increased warming of the planet.
There are enormous intergeneration equity issues that are going on
here, right now. We get all of this dirt-cheap fossil fuel. We burn
it all up, we screw up the planet with greenhouse gases, warm up the
planet, warm up the ocean, and therefore have many manifestations
that are negative. And nobody's really talking about it.
The IPCC reports tell it all, and they consistently get ignored. The
reason they get ignored - and this is not warm and fuzzy to talk
about - is that it's really hard to do something about it in a
relatively short period of time, say over the next three decades.
It's really, really hard.
Salazar: So how do we start talking about global warming?
Mahlman: It's very easy to focus on what regular people can do, but
on the other hand, regular people don't have their hands on the
buttons that have to be pushed in order to change the way that we
produce goods and services for all humans on Earth. That's the
You've go to be able to begin to say, "What are the proactive actions
that you take?"
And the point is, that nobody's taking that seriously.
We've been on an energy binge. The binge will continue because of the
momentum. It's huge.
Now part of the problem is that when you start to put together
education programs, there's a barrier. Because the things that we
scientists are saying are so intolerable that there's actually
incentives to ignore what we're saying. I'm presenting the basic
facts in a way that are almost never reported in the media. And yet,
you read the IPCC report. And there it is in its stark form.
*Climate Research Board (1979) Carbon Dioxide and Climate: Scientific
Assessment, Washington, D.C., National Academy of Sciences, 22
pages.Copyright �1996-2006 Byrd and Block Communications Inc. All
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