By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, Americablog, and Naked Capitalism. . Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. A version of this interview first appeared at DownWithTyranny.
One of my hats is as a climate interpreter to the interested lay person. I have something of a science background and can read the papers “in the original.” Another hat is as an occasional interviewer for Virtually Speaking. This month the two hats merged on the same head, and I got to interview the “Hockey Stick graph” climate scientist, Dr. Michael Mann.
For this interview I focused on the basics:
▪ Can humans burn more carbon, create more emissions, and still stay below the IPCC’s “safe” +2°C warming target?
▪ Is the IPCC’s +2°C warming target truly “safe” at all?
▪ We’re already experiencing warming of about +1°C above the pre-industrial level. Even if we stop now, how much more is “in the pipeline,” guaranteed and unavoidable?
▪ How do we defeat the Big Money ogre that stands in our way?
And my personal favorite:
▪ Will the answer to global warming come from the “free market”?
The always-defended, sacred “free market” — as close to a religion as you’ll find in modern thought. I’ll have more about the nonexistent “free market” (you read that right) shortly. For now I want to present what Dr. Mann has to say. He was surprisingly plain-spoken, understands the urgency, and says so. I found the interview fascinating, and I hope you do as well.
Just one added comment. Virtually Speaking is broadcast with a studio audience in Second Life. A number of questions came in during the broadcast, some of which are worth repeating. All answers are mine. I hope you find these helpful. Again, I just want to put the basics in your brain — no reason to learn more than needed. Once you master the main ideas, the subject is not hard at all to follow.
[QUESTION] What level of CO2 is reasonable?
[ANSWER] Most still think that 350 ppm (parts per million) CO2 is what’s needed to keep us at the upper end of Holocene (era of civilized human culture) temperatures. For contrast, the ice ages averaged about 180 ppm CO2 at the bottom, and pre-industrial (pre-1750) concentrations were about 280 ppm CO2. Pre-industrial temperatures were at the bottom of the Holocene (post–ice age) temperature range, so there’s some headroom above that 280 ppm number. How much exactly? No one knows.
It looks like we’re headed for a IPCC-“safe” 450 ppm CO2 unless we stop. Not safe, in my opinion, nor in Dr. Mann’s. For starters, this “450 ppm” measures CO2 only, not other GHGs like methane and nitrous oxide. The effective ppm in “CO2 equivalent” with those other added GHGs is higher if only CO2 is at 450.
It’s thought that the original ice sheet formations of 35 million years ago, which gave us modern Antarctic, Greenland and Arctic ice, occurred in a cooling environment that crossed roughly below CO2 concentrations in the range of 550-400 ppm or so.
First, that’s a wide range. Second, that’s no indication of what will happen going the other direction, where the warming tipping points are. Hansen writes, correctly IMO, that real climate sensitivity depends on (a) the starting point (i.e., how near we are to tipping points), and (b) the direction (effect of warming of X amount is not necessarily correlated to the effect of cooling of that same amount).
Nevertheless, the massive uncertainty, plus the world-historical consequences, gives most of us pause. I personally worry that 450 ppm CO2 is ultimately a death sentence for civilized humans. Back to life as hunter-gatherers for our third- or fourth-generation descendants. And if worldwide social chaos takes over before we stop, the process could run to conclusion, which, the old IPCC A1FI scenario says, tops out at +7°C warming.
[Q] (What’s the ppm) for a 90% chance (of staying below 2°C warming)?
Dr. Mann says 405 ppm CO2 (just above where we are now), assuming we start removing, or failing to add, cooling coal-generated air particles. In other words, we have no carbon headroom for a 90% chance of “success” as defined by the IPCC, say a number of studies. (IPCC is silent, at least in the material I read, on the 90% chance itself. Their Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers of 2013 discusses only the 33%, 50% and 66% chances. The underlying chapters may be more detailed, but I’m not sure of that.)
[Q] Why are we asking him political questions? … I like him, and I more-or-less agree with him, but his opinions on politics and economics are not educated opinions. (And this also applies to Hansen, who I am fairly sure is just wrong on important political matters.)
First, he’s actually good on the politics, better than most. But second, I wanted to get his thoughts regarding next steps. For me the key, core messages are — Stop Now … Zero Carbon “Budget” … Free Market Solutions Won’t Work. He surprised me in agreeing with the third point, and I hope he carries that message to the public going forward. He was already mainly on board on the first two, but I wanted to hear him say so for the record, since I hadn’t encountered his public comment on this.
My suspicion is that, in interviews, most people of Dr. Mann’s stature and skill aren’t often asked real bottom-line questions. I tried to stay with core issues for that reason.
[Q] But, look, you don’t consult a political scientist on the physics of climate change, the reverse ought also be true.
But these things aren’t rocket science. I have a good physics background (two years in a top-end Physics program), but not a degree in it. Yet I’m perfectly “consultable” on the physics. No reason that Michael Mann and James Hansen wouldn’t be consultable on the politics. People like these can be very reliable sources (and voices) on political solutions. In fact, we really need them to address the politics, since that’s where the action is. His voice and Hansen’s, giving strong accurate advice, are worth a thousand of mine.
For another example of political writing by a scientist, look at the work of Dr. Naomi Oreskes, another frequent visitor to Virtually Speaking broadcasts. If I recall correctly, her background is in geology, yet her book comparing the tobacco denial war with the climate denial war is as good as there is — Merchants of Doubt.
[Q] The political system also has to change to reinstate progressive tax on income and add one on capital. … we’re fucked, we’re so fucked.
Not yet. Popular middle-class rebellion hasn’t kicked in, and it will. We have one more shot, unless the public is too apathetic for too long a time. But once property values — or water tables in the Colorado River basin, or insurance and development rates in South Florida, or … you name it — collapse, a whole lot of people could turn Depression-era urgent and “Government, save us” angry. Even so-called Tea Party voters will beg for government intervention. At that point, things get interesting.
That wake-up moment, still in the future, represents real opportunity, if it happens soon enough. Our job is to teach into it, teach ahead of it — show what a real solution looks like before that moment is co-opted by the carbon-captured media and lost.
[Q] Interesting and informative.
Thanks. That was the goal!
For more of my own climate writing, go here. As I said, I’ll write again on climate and the “free market” soon. Also, on climate and the NRDC (click through to the PDF, then search on “natural gas”). They and their first cousin, the EDF, badly need a comeuppance. They certainly need an outing. I’m hearing that between them, these two well-funded groups are why Democrats are so hugely methane-fueled these days.
Guess who else is hugely methane-fueled? Exxon. Interesting confluence of interests, yes?