The Block Island Times

Oppenheimer on climate change and extreme weather

By Gloria S. Redlich | Jan 25, 2013

As he has done from time to time, geoscientist and part-time island resident Michael Oppenheimer recently spoke to the Block Island Times — catching us up on international efforts to slow global warming. Several days into 2013, he spoke with us by phone discussing the work of international conferences, the significance of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, and his sense of what must be done to cap global emissions and mitigate the effects of such catastrophic storms in the future.

Steeped in scientific data that attributes global warming to human activity — a position that has not been wholeheartedly embraced across the political spectrum (especially in the United States) — Oppenheimer continues to be driven by an underlying faith in mankind’s possibilities. He stresses that the science has been validated by “every academy of science in every country of the world.”

With global emissions rising to an all-time high in 2011, and anticipated to rise when assessed for 2012, the scientific community continues to push politicians and citizens alike to recognize the looming global crisis. Oppenheimer hopes that reasonable people will eventually set reasonable goals to curb emissions.

Our conversation took place a month after the United Nation’s forum in Doha, Qatar, which had a more modest agenda than those of preceding years. One of its most significant outcomes was moving toward a forum in which all countries are treated alike, discontinuing distinctions between developed and developing countries.

Though a long-term member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Oppenheimer, who is the Alfred G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, no longer attends large international conferences regularly. The climate summits, he says, “do not necessarily accomplish much in real terms, but they do keep the discussion going.”

Away from the world stage

He suggests more gets done in smaller venues and out of the limelight of the world stage. “We are now in an era that we’ve broken through the unfortunate restrictions in [the Kyoto Protocol],” an international agreement adopted in 1997 that went into force in 2005; it bound only developed nations to commit to curbing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) because they were then responsible for their highest levels.

“At the time, [developing] countries were only small emitters,” says Oppenheimer. “Now, China is a much larger emitter, as are Brazil and India.” Today the developing world emits more than the rich countries. It has been suggested that some of the rise in China’s emissions is attributable to the outsourcing of American manufacturing to China.

According to Oppenheimer, the 2011 conference in Durban, South Africa, codifed that developing nations must also commit to emission reductions.

A confluence of interests

He notes China’s “use of oil and coal is so great they have to import [some] from other nations, but they want to decrease their dependence on them.” One of the steps they’ve taken to do so is developing a market in renewable energy, especially in photo-voltaic cells.

He believes that China will support measures to curb climate change, for a number of reasons, mostly economic — to help its own manufacturing markets — rather than necessarily from altruism. This may be true for other nations as well. With solar technology in China and bio-fuels in Brazil, Oppenheimer explains where there is “a confluence of interests — a convergence of national economic self-interest” with efforts to fight climate change, there’s “an opportunity to elevate change.”

Of the recent Doha conference target to cap global temperature rise at two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), he says, “We will try to achieve it, but it’s unlikely given the political reality. What we need to do is anticipate the increasing risks.”

In terms of keeping their commitments to financially help developing nations to control emissions, major countries, especially Canada, the United States and Australia have tended to run behind the European Union, which Oppenheimer says “has maintained a fundamental commitment. There is political leadership there, though people are not certain why.”

Extreme weather

The world’s attention has been drawn to a number of “extreme weather events” in recent years, such as floods in Thailand, droughts in Africa, India and the United States, sea ice melting in the Arctic Circle at previously unanticipated rates and more severe hurricanes and typhoons striking Southeast Asia and the U.S.

Though there remain some hold-outs, a “consensus” seems to be developing among the scientific, business and political communities that these events are not attributable to regular cycles of climate changes, but are rather direct evidence of predictions made by the scientific community.

Among these huge weather events was Hurricane Sandy, which struck the eastern seaboard of the United States last October. Though Oppenheimer and fellow scientists have anticipated increasingly more storms of a destructive nature, the extent of Sandy’s damage still surprised him. The storm’s effect upon infrastructure in areas such as Long Island and lower Manhattan, where Oppenheimer lives, exceeded even what he’d expected.

Much of the damage from Sandy was “absolutely attributable to high sea levels; we see this both in Long Island and on Block Island,” he says. With the oceans warming and rising, “We will see more of these extreme events. Perhaps not in a month or two, but it will happen again. There will be damages: loss of property and loss of life.”

Not all that grim

Still, he says, “things are not all grim.” Progress may come in a series of complex ways. Even without a binding treaty obligation, emissions in the U.S. peaked in 2006 and are “now on their way down.”

Rough estimates are that the U.S. has reduced greenhouse gasses by 10 percent since 2007. This is partly a result of higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles

However, Oppenheimer says, “If the world’s emissions increase; if we haven’t stopped emitting much too much, it will be a storm moving in the wrong direction.” There are “things we can do better. In reality we have to.”

Much of what has to be done “is up to our politicians, and we must wait to see how well they will do.” Oppenheimer applauds several politicians for their reactions to Hurricane Sandy.

“[N.Y.] Governor Cuomo , [N.J.] Gov. Christie and [NYC] Mayor Bloomberg all did very well. They seemed to understand what we needed to do. They did very well to keep us focused and we have to continue to keep the politicians focused. It is yet to be seen how we’ll do.”

Oppenheimer believes we have to prepare our infrastructure and our cities for the risks of extreme damages from extreme weather.

He commended President Barack Obama for using executive orders to enact regulations on air standards.

“Given the gridlock he’s faced, I’d say he’s used about as much of his authority as he can,” Oppenheimer says. He gives the President a B+, but points out that during his first term he missed an opportunity to show more leadership on the climate issue.

Reached after the inaugural speech, in which Obama stressed the need to address climate change, Oppenheimer said: “I was surprised and gratified to hear the President’s remarks. He always understood the gravity of the issue. Now he sees the need and the opportunity for his personal leadership to make a difference. Let’s hope he is able to follow through.”

(In addition to the interview with Dr. Oppenheimer, sources for this report included online editions of The Guardian and The New York Times, as well a taped interview of Oppenheimer with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour.)

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