Michael Oppenheimer: assessing climate challenges
As the numbers of “extreme weather events” mount around the world, so too has a growing awareness of the impact of climate change. In spite of detracting voices, most of the world’s leading scientists have identified global warming as a very real occurrence.
At the center of these studies is Michael Oppenheimer, island home owner and Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University. As he has for the last several years, usually just months after an annual international conference on climate change, Oppenheimer agreed to chat with The Block Island Times. In a telephone interview he reflected on the effects of climate change and attempts by scientists, governments and non-governmental entities to deal with them.
From his home in Manhattan, he said that much of the international momentum coming out of the most recent Conference of the Parties (COP19) on Climate Change, held in Warsaw in November, 2013, is a focus on preparation for COP-21, scheduled to take place in Paris in 2015.
“The big goal,” Oppenheimer said, “Will be to set a target of limiting temperature increase to less than two degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial averages in 1950, for which it is hoped there will be an agreement in Paris.” While the goal was embraced by the developed nations, Oppenheimer adds, “There was a strong level of concern expressed from developing nations about targets. They feel we should negotiate higher targets.”
The background and mechanisms of negotiations between nations and parties to limit fossil fuel emissions and contain global warming coincides with Oppenheimer’s own history of involvement in the field.
For two decades before joining the faculty at Princeton, Oppenheimer was chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Panel shares Nobel Prize with Gore
In the 1980s, he was among a small group of scientists who worked to initiate the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. Subsequently, as a long-time participant in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he was one of the lead authors of the Fourth Assessment Report who in 2007 shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
That report attributed much of the responsibility for the planet’s warming to human activity for increasing fossil fuel emissions. It reads in part, “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to observed increases in anthropomorphic greenhouse concentrations.”
Expanding upon the earlier conclusion that “most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations,” the 2007 assessment found “discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate changes including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.”
Oppenheimer doesn’t believe that resolutions will be found at the world’s environmental summits; rather he stresses more progress may come from “the large number of smaller and [sometimes] regional agreements” developed in smaller venues.
These views are further articulated in a paper entitled “Building Blocks for Global Climate Protection” that Oppenheimer co-authored with colleagues Richard B. Stewart and Bryce Rudyk, both of New York University. In it they present “an innovative strategy for global climate protection” that provides an alternative approach to negotiations between nations.
In search of mutual interests
Rather it “relies on a variety of smaller-scale transnational cooperative arrangements, involving not only states but sub-national jurisdictions, firms and NGOs, to undertake activities whose primary goal is … [achieving] greenhouse gas reductions …” This strategy seems to work by offering incentives “including economic self-interest, energy security, cleaner air and furtherance of international development.
An example of such a smaller-scale, bilateral arrangement is, as Oppenheimer points out, the one struck between the United States and China in September of 2013. At meetings of the Groups of 20 held in St. Petersburg, United States President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced an agreement to “seek to eliminate some of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases” through the instrument of the 1987 Montreal Protocol.
As reported in the Washington Post, the two leaders agreed to “phase out hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) — a class of chemicals commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners.”
Oppenheimer suspects China would like to “get in on the shale extraction technology,” while he notes, “We have an interest in China reducing its air pollution. There may be leverage there — areas of mutual interest.”
Starting with a first step
Taking a longer view, Oppenheimer says, “It’s too early to know whether things are changing [significantly.]” However he notes, “Though it’s corny, you know what they say, ‘A journey of a million miles starts with a first step.’” While acknowledging “the big picture is still grim,” he says there have been small gains.
For example, he is hopeful that we will make headway in the cleaner extraction of natural gas—”if we’re smart enough to contain the leaks of methane and water.” In some ways he attributes the high energy costs (“the energy crisis”) with “helping policy-makers seek the regulations [that have lead the automobile industry] to build more fuel-efficient cars” and in the expectation that regulations will be placed on new power plants to reduce emissions. However, Oppenheimer feels the United States “needs to be more aggressive on efficiency. Europe does better than we do.”
As to the extreme weather events that have devastated many parts of the world, Oppenheimer points out that in a warming planet, “as we get later into the century, they will become much more common.” He adds, “Certain kinds of extremes will continue to increase, most notably extreme heat and more extreme precipitation.”
Documenting the trend in its annual global analysis released at the end of 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2013 had tied with 2003 as the fourth hottest years on record since 1880. To date, the warmest recorded year was 2010, and nine of the ten warmest years were logged within the twenty-first century. The report read, “Only one year during the twentieth century —1998 — was warmer than 2013.”
An Associated Press account released shortly after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, opens, “Climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer stood along the Hudson River and watched his research come to life …” The report noted that “eight months earlier,” he had predicted that what was formerly a “once-in-a century” flooding in New York City “would soon happen every three to 20 years.”
“Knowing it could happen was very different from standing there and watching it happen,” Oppenheimer said. “You don’t really imagine what it looks like until you see it.”