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Mr. Robock says coal burning must end now and fracking is not a good transitional form of energy production. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced May 6, 2014.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself with Alan Robock. We’re discussing climate science, global warming, climate-change crisis. And Alan now joins me get in the studio.
Thanks for joining me.
ALAN ROBOCK, LEAD AUTHOR, INTERNATIONAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE: Thank you for having me.
JAY: So, quickly, one more time, Alan Robock is a distinguished professor of meteorology in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. And if you want to see more of his bio, it will be under the video player, or watch–you really should watch the rest of this series, ’cause this final segment will make way more sense that way.
So let’s go back to talking big-picture again. The American political elite, the American corporate elite, they’re very well informed, they are very well educated on the whole, and there are some exceptions, but on the whole they’re quite sophisticated people. They see these scientific reports. And there’s next to nothing going on. And, like, President Obama makes in his state of the union, like, one sentence about climate change, and yes, through executive orders a couple of small things happening. But he has a big bully pulpit. He could be rallying the country for a new, green America and this is the future and it’s urgent and we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that, which we heard some of in the campaign in ’08, but, like, next to nothing since he was elected. But not just about President Obama. You would think that the corporate elite of America would see that, you know, we’d better get serious about this, ’cause, you know, even though there’s winners and losers, in the long run if we don’t do something, you know, even corporate elite may be losers. Where is this discourse?
ROBOCK: I guess you’d have to ask the corporate elite why they do what they do. I don’t know. I can’t read their minds. But a lot of us are disappointed that Obama didn’t do this big push for green energy after he was elected rather than do the health care thing. It would have saved the world and produced jobs. And I think he could have done that. That’s when he had all those people behind him. He could’ve gotten a lot done then. But he didn’t. He chose to put all of his eggs in the basket of doing health care.
JAY: But do you think that’s because, you know, capitalism as we know it can’t deal with this, at least not until it’s at such a terrible state that, yes, even then the corporate elite will say, okay, even we’re being affected now? You know, as you were saying in the earlier segments, there’s going to be winners and losers out of this, and mostly the elite figure they’re going to be on the side of winners, so there’s no big rush here, we’ll deal with it, you know, ten years, 20 years, or whatever.
ROBOCK: The U.S. is different from other countries. I gave a talk about global warming at Total, the biggest French oil company, in December, and they said, we’ve never tried to confuse people about global warming. Our company’s policy is global warming is real and it’s a problem. We’ve tested capturing carbon dioxide, pumping it underground. We know how much that’s going to cost. All we need is a signal from the world how much to add to the cost of our doing business and we’ll do it. So they aren’t resisting and they aren’t trying to confuse people about the science. Exxon, on the other hand, is. So I don’t know why they do that. I think they must think in their short-term interest they’ll make more money by doing that and it’ll be somebody else running the company when they’re tired and they don’t really care.
JAY: In the earlier interview, you said–but you feel optimistic about things. I mean, I don’t. I mean, I feel optimistic in the sense that I think because of the economic crisis sooner or later people are going to demand some fundamental changes in who has power and who owns stuff, and part of that process, I think, will be a different kind of economy when it comes to the environment. So I’m kind of optimistic in that. But–.
ROBOCK: Well, the corporations control the news media too. That’s why we’re doing this here and not on one of the national networks. Al Gore tried to do that too, but it didn’t go very far in terms of another outlet for communicating the science, the truth.
So I can’t predict the future. I can tell you how the climate’s going to change if we behave–but I can’t predict–human behavior’s so much more difficult. We have equations that describe the physical system. We believe in conversation of energy and conservation of mass. But how do you actually predict human behavior? It’s so nonlinear, so variable.
So my fantasy is that there’ll be a charismatic leader of the world who will convince us that this is in everybody’s interest and in the near-term it’s going to really help us, even in spite of saving us from–.
JAY: Okay. Well, what needs to be done?
ROBOCK: What needs to be done?
JAY: Yeah. Like, you know, tomorrow night President Obama calls you and says, okay, I watched the Real News series–it won’t be tomorrow night, but when he sees this series, I watched the series, you’ve convinced me, and I just actually in 2014 won both houses. (Okay, this is all real fantasy, okay?) I now control both houses and we can do whatever you tell me to. What would you tell him to do?
ROBOCK: I would tell him to move quickly toward solar and wind energy for producing our electricity, move to electric transportation, and stop burning coal immediately, leave all the tar sands in the ground. And it’ll be a while before we can move to fossil-free emissions.
But there are scenarios where within a couple of decades we can have many fewer fossil fuel emissions. And it’s not what the U.S. does, though; it’s what China does which is going to control the world.
JAY: Well, before we get to China–and we will–President Obama says, no, his current strategy is a transitional strategy. You know, through fracking and natural gas we’re going to build up energy independence, but that will be a transition to something green, and he says that’s the track he’s on.
ROBOCK: We can go much faster towards–I mean, fracking is really bad locally in terms of what it does. Methane leaks into the atmosphere, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas. When you burn it, it produces half the amount of CO2 as burning coal or burning oil, but that’s still a lot of CO2. So it’s really not a solution. And it’s better than burning coal.
But using–I mean, I haven’t paid an electric bill in several years ’cause I have solar panels on my roof. We have net metering, which lets me run my meter backwards, and they keep track. And so I don’t contribute to CO2. I have a hybrid and I try not to drive it. My biggest sin is flying around the world.
But we know what we have to do. There’s a lot of wind in the middle of the United States. There’s a lot of sun everywhere in the world. So we can move that way quickly. But there are people standing in the way that don’t want to change for a variety of reasons. But we know what the path is. It’s not new technological breakthroughs; it’s just to get started doing it.
JAY: Okay. So China says, you’ve had, like, you know, 150 more years of industrial development, and you’re telling us that we should bear the burden of this. A place like Ecuador said–you know, they said, you know, we’ll stop destruction of the Amazon, but you guys have to help pay for that. What do you make of that argument, especially the Chinese one, as you say? ‘Cause, as you say, the Chinese emissions now have actually surpassed the Americans’, you said.
ROBOCK: I think that’s a good argument. I mean, why–you know, it depends how you do it. I think the limitations on emissions should be per person, not per country. So the Chinese per-person emissions are still much lower than the United States.
Yet we have to move toward technology that the Chinese are actually developing that we’re going to be buying from them. And so I think it’s a win-win if we all move in that direction. How fast we get there and what the equity things are will have to be figured out, but, yeah, we should help them. We shouldn’t just demand it of them. We should help them.
JAY: But you’re clearly saying it’s not a gradual transition; we have to stop now–tar sands now, coal now.
ROBOCK: We have to–it will be a gradual transition, but it has to be as quickly as possible. It’s not going to be instantaneous. I mean, we can’t–.
JAY: Yeah, to develop alternative energy at those levels. How long would it take?
ROBOCK: And the way to transmit them. Decades, a couple of decades. But we have to get started now. We’re not even trying to do that now.
If you look at the amount of carbon dioxide on the planet, it’s going up and up and up and up. And if you look at the rate that it’s going up, it hasn’t even slowed down. So China, the cheapest thing for them to do is to burn coal, and it’s too cheap. But they don’t pay any fee for dumping this pollution in the atmosphere. You can’t put water out of your house without paying a sewer fee. Why is there no sewer fee for the atmosphere?
So it would take a global agreement on this, that we have to gradually increase–. One way of doing it is a carbon tax, a gradually increasing charge for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And if everybody knows what this gradual increase is, then they can plan for it. And businesses would be cool with that. As long as they can plan and it’s fair, everybody would do the same thing. Germany’s already made large changes because of doing that, and they–I was in Germany a couple of years ago. They used to burn this brown coal and be one of the worst polluters, and now they’re going to a carbon-free economy pretty quickly.
There’s another question about nuclear power. Jim Hansen, my colleague, thinks we really have to go with nuclear power. I think nuclear power is pretty dangerous, especially in the hands of countries that might make nuclear weapons, but they’re–in theory there are new nuclear technologies that are much safer, and we should do research on those. But that’s not the instantaneous solution, and you have to build a lot of nuclear power plants to solve the problem. But we should think about how we can do that.
But solar and wind is pretty simple technology that already exists, and the prices are going down. And it’s not going to be one or the other; it’s a gradual transition to putting less CO2 in. If we can put less CO2 in gradually, then the warming will slow down, we’ll have more time to learn to adapt to it. But we have to move in that direction as fast as we can.
JAY: And I don’t think it’s too likely that you’re going to get that phone call–
ROBOCK: We’ll see.
JAY: –from President Obama.
ROBOCK: He probably wouldn’t call me, but yeah. But he knows this. He doesn’t have to call me.
JAY: He knows the data.
ROBOCK: John Holdren, his science advisor, knows that. The question is: politically what can you do? And money talks. You know, so as they used to say at a clothing store New Jersey, money talks, nobody walks. So money is very important in power.
And, now, you say the problem is capitalism. We could get in a whole discussion of what other economic system. But the Soviet Union, which isn’t that capitalist, is living on their fossil fuels and they’re selling them. They aren’t even–.
JAY: In Russia.
ROBOCK: In Russia, yeah.
JAY: Yeah. Isn’t that capitalist? How do you–you can’t get more capitalist than Russia and China, just state–I mean, they’re different forms of developing state capitalism.
But, no, it’s not just about–I’m saying certainly capitalism as we know it. This is another discussion.
ROBOCK: Yeah, yeah.
JAY: But what I am saying is concentrated power leads to concentration of control of politics. And right now, where power, where wealth and ownership is concentrated–and these people are not very interested, it seems, in thinking anything but, you know, the next quarter and very quick return.
ROBOCK: That’s right. But, you know, California is one of the biggest economies in the world. I think it’s the seventh largest economy in the world. And they’re moving rapidly toward much more environmentally friendly actions. But they don’t have net metering in California, so people, when they build a–put solar panels on their roof, there’s no incentive to generate more than they use, because if they run the meter backwards, they don’t get paid for it, because the electric power companies are so strong.
JAY: How many states have that?
ROBOCK: I don’t know. I know in New Jersey we do have net metering. And one of the arguments is, well, you know, if you don’t pay anything to the electric power company, why should they provide you–serve as a battery for you? Why should they take your power and give it to you at night when you don’t need it? And one of the answers is, well, I generate electricity in the middle of the day when there’s the biggest demand, and they don’t have to build a new generator because of that. So up to a certain level it really helps them out, even [crosstalk]
JAY: So there are some sort-term solutions if there’s some political interest in doing it.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
ROBOCK: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.