Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability – I’m Alex Wise.
Bill Moomaw: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. The scale of recent changes are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
Narrator: These words of warning, read by today’s guest on Sea Change Radio, Professor Bill Moomaw, are from the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC). This week we speak with Dr. Moomaw, a climate scientist and longtime faculty member at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, about the inner workings of the IPCC, on which he has served for many years. We talk about barriers preventing more expeditious responses to the looming threat of climate change, examine the flaws in some quick-fix proposals, and look at realistic paths toward keeping our planet habitable for centuries to come.
Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Professor Bill Moomaw. He is a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University (my old school) and he’s a climate scientist. Bill, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Bill Moomaw: Thank you for having me.
Alex Wise: So why don’t you first explain your role that you’ve had in the I. P. C. C. we hear about these IPCC reports that come out every year with always more dreadful news want you first give us a summary of your involvement in that and maybe some of the challenges and some of the things that make you more hopeful being involved in this organization.
Bill Moomaw: All right well the intergovernmental panel on climate change was that created in and had his first meeting in nineteen eighty nine it was created by business name implies by governments. Governments said they needed more information about climate and this organization was founded his first report was in 1990 and it said “Gee, climate change is possible!” after there wasn’t a whole lot of research actually at that time so they were able to put that together pretty quickly I joined in 1992. To begin working on the second report whichever came out in nineteen ninety six and then four others reports that came out a subsequent that. And as a as a lead author and defer to them of coordinating lead author meeting that I had to do a lot more work to get these various chapters and in and shape a scientist to review all of the written work reports scientific reports government reports industrial reports. And then they they provide a big synthesis of that information and news essay they sometimes find that there are differing perspectives and so the rule is you say here’s option a and here’s option be sometimes will make a judgment that there is more is it appears to be more science supporting option a but we always try to be very inclusive as a result these reports get long and they’re getting longer and longer the one that just came out of in August of last year and through March of this year is ten thousand pages so I don’t expect any of your readers have read it all I certainly have not. But it comes out in three volumes one is on the science the physical basis of climate change which is the science of climate change the second volume is called the mitigation vulnerability and adaptation. And the third volume is called climate mitigation so there’s three different sections and there are hundreds of scientists working on each one of those. And if you go and look at these now they’re they say things like we reviewed ten thousand research papers and writing this report things like that just absolutely incredible and they have them all listed and if the message is pretty unequivocal it has not and for different forces not getting much better. This last report made quite clear that, first of all, the earth is getting warmer. The warming of the earth is on even and so that changes the pattern of weather events and the type of weather events it because it’s what’s responsible for some regions of the world becoming drier massive droughts now in the southwest United States for example other parts of the of the world getting much weather here in the northeast US probably let’s see I think since the nineteen fifties we’re getting something like fifty or seventy percent more rainfall in the most intense events and the most dramatic of these was hurricane Harvey that hit East Texas Houston and stalled over Houston and dropped several feet of water in two days I mean just unprecedented changes. And the reason this is happening is because we’re putting more and more of these heat trapping gases into the atmosphere particularly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Methane from the sloppy way we runners run our natural gas system with lots of leaks and from agriculture particularly from cattle -primarily from cattle- and from their management of and the intensity of events other like extreme storms of we’re not getting more of more tropical hurricanes hitting the United States but the ones were getting are more intense. So we getting many more category of of fours and fives in fewer ones and twos in terms of wind velocity for example. The water crisis in southwest U. S. in fact the whole car what Colorado River basin is pretty astounding there’s only enough water allocated avail allocate to allocate available to allocate of to provided about eighty percent of the water this needed for the agriculture in the whole the whole region. That’s you know we get a lot of a lot of our food in the United States and for export from that part of the world. So as we look at this, governments have decided they should do something so in. In 2015 in Paris they updated the original goal which was nineteen ninety two which the racial calls simply said of the goal is to avoid it is to achieve of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that will avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system so it’s pretty straightforward you know let’s stop putting in the gases that are trapping the heat and let’s get it to a level that we will not interfere with the climate system which we’re doing right now. And we’ve already raised the temperature. About 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre industrial levels and the goal is to keep it from rising more than a sorry we raised it to degrees the goal is to keep it from rising more than two point seven degrees.
Alex Wise: Celsius right?
Bill Moomaw: That’s Fahrenheit.
Alex Wise: Oh, Fahrenheit.
Bill Moomaw: Celsius is one point one and we’re at one point one and the goal is one point five I translated the first night.
Alex Wise: So you mentioned this ten thousand pages how are governments helping the process and where are the the biggest hurdles to overcome Bill.
Bill Moomaw: Let me just read three lines from last from his most recent report just to give you an idea of how seriously scientists have concluded things are. “It is unequivocal that human influence is warm the atmosphere ocean and land the scale of recent changes are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years human induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region of the cross the globe” – and it just goes on like that I mean has statement after statement about how serious it is it goes on to point out that we have already people worry about heavy cross thresholds yes we’ve crossed originals it points out the sea level will continue to rise for a thousand years or more even if we stop emitting everything today. That’s because the oceans of trap ninety percent of all the heat is on the earth and it takes a long time for that all to equilibrate and so we have locked ourselves into some serious problems but we can also prevent more serious problems the most Sir is one that I see right now are the feedback effects that are already kicking in for example of because we have put some money he trapping gases in the atmosphere we have warmed the arctic three times faster than reform the rest of the of the earth this is led to the melting of arctic sea ice and since nineteen seventy nine we had first satellite pictures we’ve we are you know the the the minimum area and summer is now down almost to half of what it was in nineteen seventy nine that’s a dramatic change because that was many feet thick of ice that we’ve melted. And what that does is it means there’s less reflective I use so there is more warming that is more of the sun’s heat goes into the dark ocean warms it up more. And so warming that region then is causing the permafrost which is soil is frozen for server for some of it for thousands of years is now following and as it thaws there’s all these trapped. Material from dead plants and so forth the bacteria wake up and they start chewing on that and they release carbon dioxide in some places and methane and others. And that is already started. And we can shut it off of to shut it off we’ve got to cool the arctic not many ways to do that. And so we are we are on the road to irreversible changes that could be ultimately you know get beyond any any levels that would make our life tolerable. We’re already at a point where last year in Canada there was temperatures of over a hundred and twenty six degrees I believe and western Canada and the next day a fire exploded there and destroyed the town where that was recorded. Temperatures are often over a hundred and twenty degrees in India and depending on what the humidity is at those temperatures it’s impossible for human beings for perspiring and cool enough to avoid the raising our internal body temperature to fatal levels.
Alex Wise: Yes I saw that actually just in India there was there were temperatures of 146 degrees.
Bill Moomaw: Yeah I mean it’s just it’s just that’s beyond anything any human could stand as like putting yourself on the other. At the end and yet we’re just startling we we’re just not getting the job done in the infrastructure Bill there are Billions of dollars for far out possibilities like direct air capture of carbon dioxide you know and and there’s great excitement about this little project in in Iceland that is removing four thousand tons of carbon dioxide dioxide a year and storing it in rock. Well, the forests of the world are absorbing about thirty percent thirty percent of what we put in which is somewhere in the neighborhood of three and a half for four Billion tons a year. There’s money in this legislation to cut down more of our forests. It just makes no sense except that these are the goals that are put in by financial interests. So we have the fossil fuel interests they’re refusing to – well, who are putting out false information for years thirty years or more. We have the natural gas leaks of methane which they’re doing nothing about some of the companies are divesting of their more worst wells they’re selling them to small cap small owners who don’t care so this doesn’t help the problem at all it just gets the big oil companies off the hook for the for the emissions so these are often the least productive wells anyway but it doesn’t change what’s happening in the atmosphere. And so this whole business of trying to green wash yourself while getting rid of your really bad stuff but continuing to produce all the gas all the all the. Of the fuels and everything that that are causing the problem. So we have we’ve had what I think is call regulatory capture in our government meeting that the regulations regulatory system has been captured by the industries that should be regulated. And so it’s happening all over the world I I just have to put on a two hour meeting with people with government officials in the United Kingdom. Where they are replacing all their coal with burning wood to make electricity.
Alex Wise: And that sounds really terrible idea.
Bill Moomaw: It is a terrible idea but we have money in the U. S. legislation to do the same thing because it’s not coal we gotta get rid of coal well we didn’t get radical what we need to get rid of it and replace the electricity we get with something like wind and solar energy.
Alex Wise: Burning wood sounds like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Bill Moomaw: It is and and a colleague and I have done an estimate that up to date already about a four percent of all the emissions in the world now or from this modern use of bioenergy to make electricity I mean and is growing rapidly. It’s not economically feasible so there are huge subsidies for. The end at the U. K. is in the lead on this they imported amount of the equivalent of about fourteen million tons of wood by the time it gets to converted into pellets at seven Billion tons – or seven million tons, rather, and they have put out huge amounts of carbon dioxide if they count is zero because trees will grow back and therefore it’s carbon neutral. Well the trees will grow back if it’s a fifty year forest they cuddle grow back in fifty years we don’t have fifty years and they counted as immediate as zero.
Alex Wise: This is the kind of funny accounting that they calculate when we’re talking about the carbon offset it movement, right?
Bill Moomaw: That’s right. In other words if you, most carbon offsets fail the ultimate test that is they do not change a single molecule in the atmosphere. If I spend some money and somebody will plant some trees to offset my emissions when I fly to Europe. The emissions for flying to Europe or still there.
Alex Wise: Right it doesn’t magically just evaporate because some trees were planted you still flew to Europe.
Bill Moomaw: I feel the Europe and those little trees will not absorb that amount of carbon for probably twenty five years. So it fails the atmospheric test it just changes who gets credit. IIt does not change what happens in the atmosphere. So it’s a pretty and a lot of them are more fraudulent than that but but but anyway it’s it’s it’s really troubling that that we’re counting on these offsets because they’re so cheap if they’re so cheap there’s a reason they’re so cheap. They aren’t doing the job.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Professor William Moomaw – he’s a climate scientist at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. So Bill, we were talking about the failings of the carbon offset movement and some of the governmental barriers that exist in fighting climate change maybe you can talk about some solutions and how they’re being undermined by governments what solutions resonate the most with you.
Bill Moomaw: Well there are two kinds. We need to both as reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other gases were putting into the atmosphere and we need to increase the rate at which they’re being taken out what one of the statements made in the new IPCC report is that for the past six decades. Land and oceans have been removing fifty six percent of what we met every year so what we see is an increase in the atmosphere is only forty four percent of what we put in so we are we are the increase is only is less than half of what we put in because nature is removing from the atmosphere all during that year more than half of that amount more equal to more than half of what we put in. And if if that were a technology would go wild over it you know of but but we’ll get wild over four thousand tons a year removal. And at the door what does the natural world is doing in fact work to destroy it more and make it less effective. So what what are the things that will work well? The cheapest and easiest things to reduce emissions of course is to increase the productivity of energy or as some people call it call it energy conservation. What this means is we still want to do actually Amory Lovins could point this phrase he says “we don’t want energy want energy services we want the services he used to make the job what we want is a is a hot shower and a cold beer and we don’t really care what you what makes the shower hot what keeps the beer cold.” And so it turns out we now have technologies that they can give you the hot shower and give you the cold beer without adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere so that’s a technology change. Also we began by a reducing the amount of energy that we need to perform specific tasks that’s what I mean by increasing energy productivity. And I’m on the board of an organization that works with corporations and we have something called the Energy Productivity 100, and the goal of that is to use the same amount of energy using dollar have twice the twice the output of goods and services you’re providing or you produce the same amount of goods and services with half the energy so that’s an energy productivity gains. There’s another goal called Renewable Energy 100 and there are now three over three innings seventeen multinational corporations that are signed on to that they all get to define things that their own way of is to when they’re going to do it but that we just got a report that. About forty five percent of the electricity used by these firms is now from solar and wind zero emitting sources. And if you add it all up it’s about the same amount of electricity this used by the United Kingdom that’s pretty good you know we are making progress but not through government’s unfortunate to national governments.
Alex Wise: And not through some of these more expensive technologies which are in many ways designed to keep the status quo financial in terms of financial structures correct.
Bill Moomaw: Yep that’s right that’s right there’s a big there’s a big attempt to try to keep things as they are and find a way around it when it comes to climate first of all it there there’s only point oh four percent carbon dioxide in the atmosphere so you want to get that down to what point oh one well you know it takes a lot of energy to do that. And the only reason that this little system in Iceland isn’t producing carbon dioxide is they’re using geothermal energy to run the electric all the electricity to suck up all the air in order to do the process.
Alex Wise: And Iceland is unique in that its geothermal properties compared to, you know, you couldn’t do this project in Kansas.
Bill Moomaw: No you can’t you can’t you can’t even do it Massachusetts or I guess you could do in California because you do as a geo thermal electricity out there and you do a lot of solar energy but it’s much better to use the solar energy directly to provide the services the lights the the the the the electricity if your refrigerator the electricity for making steel you know those are all much better uses of this directly than to use it as clean up for continuing to use either fossil fuels or burning wood or anything else that you might want to do it the other one as of every time a research group comes comes up a little something on on the fusion powers it’s a big headline like fusion is going to be here tomorrow well I’ve been hearing that since I was eight years old frankly I remember that when I was a kid of the fusion power was going to be the answer and it’s they’ve yet to get to get a fusion reaction to release more energy than it takes to because the fusion of the nuclei to occur they may achieve that some day date but then you it’s going to be very complicated to put together how do you extract all that heat and then how do you attach it to make steam so your your heating heating things up to a million degrees and then boiling water two hundred and twelve I mean a hundred degrees Celsius that just doesn’t make sense to me as a way to go about making steam. And so I I just think we need to get away from this notion that there’s gonna be a magic solution out there that’s going to solve our problem we can go on with business as usual from all the work I’ve done with IPCC I learned a lot from a lot of people from a lot of countries about technologies and other things that could make a difference and so I got in my head that I would like to try to achieve some of those in practice. So about almost twenty years ago my wife and I started thinking about a building a home that would be as energy efficient as possible use of much solar energy as possible. And we built a what was the first fully engineered zero net energy home in New England every everything here is run by a solar energy we use is designed for passive solar gain we as a ground source heat pump server using stored solar energy out of the ground and the house itself was designed and built to use about six only about sixteen percent of the amount of heat needed in a cold weather as code would require so we are much more efficient and so we use very much less heat to stay warm comfortable the most comfortable house of ever lived in. And we and we have all the modern conveniences should prove to me we could do it at that time it cost maybe ten or eleven percent twelve percent more today studies show that Billing and net zero homes. And in New England it would be only about two percent more than a standard code house. So this is what we should all be doing but we’re not doing it it’s not in the building codes is not in the training of the builders for the most part and so a lot could be done by just changing those rules and teaching everybody how to do it and retrofits we’ve learned how to do renovations that will make homes much more energy efficient.
Alex Wise: He’s a professor at the Fletcher school at Tufts University, Bill Moomaw. Bill, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
Bill Moomaw: Oh, thank you very much for having me.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the Neville Brothers. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week. As we continue making connections for Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.