Jeffrey Sachs: On climate, more ‘now’ and ‘how’ is needed

To hear Jeffrey D. Sachs tell it, if humanity manages to avert catastrophic warming from manmade greenhouse gases, it won’t be because of an astonishing technological breakthrough that suddenly saved the day. It will be because policymakers mustered the will to start acting today rather than later, and focused on how to transform global energy systems before squabbling about who should pay for it.

Unfortunately, that has not happened yet. “What we have is mostly a debate about what’s fair and unfair, but very little understanding about what to do,” he says.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director, Earth Institute, Columbia University. (Credit: Eiwebnyc; CC-BY, via Wikipedia)

Sachs, renowned as an economist and advocate for sustainable development, is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals to U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. He is also a coauthor, with climatologist James Hansen and a multidisciplinary team of other specialists, of a recent report in the journal PLOS ONE that made a plea for 1 degree Celsius, not 2 degrees, as the appropriate ceiling for permissible warming in the future.

To get his impressions of the report’s content and of its policy implications, I spoke with Sachs a few days before the paper’s publication. What follows is a summary of that conversation.

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Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Technology | 4 Comments

Q&A with James Hansen

While working for NASA back in 1988, James Hansen became one of the first climatologists to sound the alarm about global warming and industrially-driven climate change. A quarter century later, his affiliation has changed—he is now an adjunct senior research scientist at the Earth Institute of Columbia University and an adjunct professor of earth and environmental science—but he is still one of the most prominent and outspoken advocates for climate reform.

Hansen is the lead author on a paper  published today by PLOS ONE, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648). The study makes unsettling arguments about the need to keep the maximum amount of warming below 2 °C. and about how rapidly fossil fuel use must decrease to prevent disastrous warming. More about the study can be read here and here.

I spoke with Hansen in November before the paper’s publication. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity.

John Rennie:  When I take a look at the paper, the big message that jumps out at me is, if we take the dangers of future global warming seriously, then nothing seems to be more important than to immediately begin significant annual reductions in CO2 emissions through a switch away from the fossil fuels to non-carbon energy sources.  Does that seem like a fair summary?

James Hansen: Yes, and that’s because of the lifetime of the carbon in the system.  You know, there’s this notion that we could do some other things more easily, by acting on the non-CO2 forcings and reforestation. But those things work on a shorter time scale, and it doesn’t really matter so much when we do them.  What’s crucial is that we not put stuff in the atmosphere which is going to stay in the climate system forever. For all practical purposes, that’s what it does.

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Dangerous Climate Change, Reconsidered

If we take the dangers of future global warming seriously, then nothing is more important for curbing them than to immediately begin significant annual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. That was my first reaction on reading the new paper by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University’ Earth Institute and his colleagues being published today by PLOS ONE, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648).

The paper, which is very large in scope, sets out to do several things. Its most noteworthy ambition is to make a case, based primarily on paleoclimate data and the Earth’s planetary energy balance, that the 2 degree Celsius target that climate strategists often use as a limit for allowable warming is too high. That much warming would not only be worse than is commonly projected, the authors argue, but would commit the world to catastrophic levels of further warming thereafter. The paper also offers some projections about how rapidly CO2 from burning fossil fuels needs to fall to keep the total amount of global warming below crucial thresholds.

For many readers, however, the great value of this paper may be that it serves as a broad summary of the current state of climate science relevant to the warming challenge. Hansen conceived of the paper as a brief that might be understood by a judge or other authority who needed to understand the rationale for restraining carbon emissions.

I imagine that the report’s focus on developing appropriate plans for the future was why PLOS ONE’s editors chose to publish it in conjunction with the new PLOS Collection “Ecological Impacts of Climate Change” and accompanied it with a call for papers offering constructive responses to climate change.

Its comprehensiveness also offers a good opportunity for examining a number of particular climate change issues and ideas. I am planning to publish a variety of posts in the days ahead that tee off of this paper, but which may not be restricted to what Hansen et al. wrote, including criticisms of the paper’s recommendations and a more considered reflection on my first reaction. To kick off the series, here are a couple of items:

I’ll add more links to this page as new posts appear.


Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Technology | 10 Comments

Standing with DNLee, but not turning on Scientific American

Late last week, along with so many of you, I read Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s honest and horrifying post on The Urban Scientist about the email exchange she had with a website editor who invited her to write posts for free and then called her an “urban whore” when she declined. This side of suffrage, emancipation, the Enlightenment, and the end of the Middle Ages, there’s really only one possible reaction to such a story, which is to be outraged at the inhumanity and unprofessionalism of the editor’s  response. Those words would be cowardly and reprehensible if directed at anyone, but aiming them at one of the too-few women of color in the science blogosphere also drags in racism and sexism.

Then, unfortunately, that original offense was all but eclipsed by Scientific American‘s decision to remove Danielle’s post, citing an unbelievable reason for doing so. Later statements from Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief, gave a fuller explanation but even that was generally received as incomplete, inconsistent, and at least partly unbelievable.

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Category: Journalism, Media | 1 Comment

Sequencing the Snipe’s Genome, and Other Lab Hazing Rituals

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The cultural challenge to climate science writing

Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

My previous posts on the inevitable politics of climate science, I was flattered to see, figured into a terrific article this week by David Roberts of Grist about the futility of “just the facts” approaches to explaining that science to the public. Read his whole post for the thoughtfully developed argument, but these paragraphs offer the gist of it:

… [A] democratic public does not want bare facts. It wants meaning. It wants to know why climate science matters and what can be done about it. More fundamentally, it’s not just that people want meaning, it’s that they only absorb facts through meaning. Our identities are how we make sense of information. This is the whole point of cultural cognition research: We seek out information that reinforces our identities.

Scientists, at their best, avoid this kind of blinkered, identity-reinforcing cognition, at least when they’re engaged in scientific work. They struggle to unearth their own assumptions and subject them to testing, to render them falsifiable. It’s a kind of mental self-discipline that requires considerable training. Scientists should not imagine that members of the general public do or could or should share that same self-discipline. If they want the information they convey to be understood and absorbed, they will have to speak as humans speak, from within a cultural identity and a set of values, not hovering above such mortal concerns.

Roberts notes my “morose conclusion” that scientists should advocate for whatever they want because nobody seems to care what they think, then makes the case that by building bridges to cultural groups with whom they can find real affinities, scientists can become more persuasive. (He cites climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe as a success at this.)
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Category: Climate, Environment, Journalism, Media, Politics, Psychology, Science Writing | 8 Comments

A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

It’s long been my contention that no matter how much the Earth’s climate warms, butter will never melt in the mouth of Bjorn Lomborg. Most people find him personally charming. He’s a highly skillful debater and careful writer who understands the power of well-crafted rhetoric to quietly suggest and persuade. His critics may charge that his book The Skeptical Environmentalist invokes selective readings or slanted analyses of the scientific literature to make its case, but even they would probably agree that Lomborg excels at making those arguments sound reasonable and fair-minded.

He is certainly more careful and fair than I was when writing my recent post on “The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1).” As Lomborg politely pointed out to me, I was entirely wrong to suggest that in The Skeptical Environmentalist and subsequently he had taken an old quotation by climatologist Stephen H. Schneider out of context to make it sound like he thought lying to the public was acceptable. I apologize to Lomborg and you readers for that mistake.

At the time I wrote it, I was sure that was so because I remembered speaking with Schneider about it. But I’ve gone back over the facts and now think I see what happened. And it’s actually been quite interesting to see the history of the poor, abused words by Schneider in the process.
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Category: Climate, Politics, Science Writing | 3 Comments

The inevitable politics of climate science (part 2)

In my previous post, I gave several reasons why a blanket condemnation of climate scientists for publicly staking out positions on climate policies seems unwise. Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they have perspectives that deserve to be aired at least as much as those representing other social, economic, and political concerns. Climate researchers may be wary of getting mixed up too much in politics, but unfortunately, politic significance is so pervasive when it comes to the issue of global warming that avoiding it is all but impossible.

What I promised to address this time was the idea that the climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it. As evidence, I’ll offer an excerpt from a Storify I compiled last year to recap the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s conference on “Science Writing in the Age of Denial.” At one session, speakers historian Naomi Oreskes, journalist Bill Blakemore, and researchers Nancy Langston and Steve Ackerman traced the the long, deep, political and psychological roots of climate change denial. Here are some of the highlights.

(After the Storify, I have a postscript that may also be worth reading.)
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Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Health, Politics, Science Writing | 3 Comments

The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1)


Credit: National Center for Atmospheric Research; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. DOE

Scandalous, isn’t it? How medical researchers keep saying that we need to develop new treatments for disease, I mean. Or suggesting that people should change their exercise and eating habits to reduce their risks for developing medical problems—that is so out of line. Complex economic, social, and political variables are every bit as relevant to sound healthcare policy as narrowly biomedical ones are, if not more so, and scientists’ expertise does not carry over into those areas. The decision to help people live full, healthy lifespans carries profound consequences and tradeoffs that should not be dismissed lightly. Researchers’ presumptuous advocacy for a healthier population undermines their value as objective evaluators of medical science in the eyes of the public. Thank heavens the pro-disease lobby is here to slap them down for it.

While I’m at it, these astronomers urging the government to build an asteroid-collision defense system ought to hush up, too. Yes, someday a big asteroid will slam into the Earth again, and maybe it would take out a city or worse. But that could be centuries from now, and for astronomers to petition that work on a space defense should begin now shows not only unprofessional bias on the subject but a careless, nay, reckless disregard for all the other priorities facing the government. Astronomers’ proper role is to keep on watching the stars and to announce an impact with Los Angeles or wherever when it is imminent. Our leaders in Washington, D.C., will sort out what to do then in a timely way.

–Forgive the heavy-handedness of the satire, but you take my point. Climate scientists often get criticism, some of it from their own peers, when they speak out about a need to take rising temperatures seriously and to act accordingly. To do so is characterized as unprofessional if not counterproductive. My PLOS BLOGS sibling and climate scientist Tamsin Edwards made that argument herself recently in “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies,” co-posted on The Guardian’s Political Science blog.
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Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Science Writing | 9 Comments

Can better technology prevent drownings?

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgive a scary statistic that may interfere with your summertime fun, but the month of June is already half over, which means that if past trends marked by the CDC have held true, then more than 200 people have already drowned in the U.S. since Memorial Day. That toll at beaches, in pools and bathtubs, and around other bodies of water doesn’t include the approximately 20 others who drowned in boating-related incidents. Nor does it reflect all the undocumented, largely preventable situations in which people nearly drown, an experience that can do permanent neurological harm.

Some of these untimely deaths befell children and adults who were genuinely alone at the time, but as I noted in a blog post from two years ago on this subject, a tragically high number occurred in public places, often right under the noses of parents, spouses, friends, other swimmers, and lifeguards. (That’s how my father’s youngest sister died in a crowded Boston city pool many years ago.)

The fundamental problems are twofold. First, people do not always take the precautions that could minimize the chances of accidental drowning, which include:
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