EARLY ADAPTER: Stephen Schneider was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about global warming, and he says it's not too late.
After 35-plus years battling climate change, Stanford's Stephen Schneider refuses to surrender hope
By Jessica Lussenhop
DR. Stephen Schneider is a climatologist, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and a 1992 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient. He has been in the trenches of the climate change battle since the 1970s and has advised presidents from Nixon to Obama on how to manage the threat posed by global warming.
The insanely busy Schneider (the following interview was cobbled together from four separate phone calls during which he was at the airport, grabbing a bite to eat, waiting in a doctor's office and rushing to class) is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
His new book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate, will be published next month by the National Geographic Society.
Metro spoke to Schneider about his work in advance of an international day of action organized by author Bill McKibben, slated for this Saturday, Oct. 24, and known as 350 Day. Three hundred and fifty was chosen because it's the amount of carbon parts per million in the atmosphere that NASA's top climate scientist, Jim Hansen, has counseled will most closely support the earth and human civilization.
METRO: How long have you been on board with the 350 parts per million figure?
STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: Since back in the 1970s. We were well below 350, and I was trying to get us off the pathway of the mega increases, and we failed. The issue will [now] be: how much are we going to overshoot the safe target? There's no doubt we already have, and we will go far before we go back.
How does it feel to have the number 350 back in the headlines? Do you feel vindicated? Depressed?
The kids told me, "Well you may be frustrated, but at least you can give them an I-told-you-so." Now an "I told you so" is just an "I failed you so." We just didn't get it done. Yes, it's very frustrating.
As we look to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, what new technologies are you excited about?
We have to work across a whole spectrum and see who wins. I call it a "learning-by-doing feeding frenzy." Let's see how much carbon we can take out of smokestacks and coal plants so that we have a smooth transition towards renewables. And can we put it underground permanently and safely? Not clear. Let's work on that. How about putting it in high concentrations into algae and the algae can be used for biofuels? Great idea. How about biochar? Let's take agricultural waste or forest plantation waste, cook them at 300 degrees for an hour and get the natural gas off of the top, and then get char—which is sort of charcoal at the bottom—which you can add to the soil and sequester carbon.
There are even crazy ideas to build artificial trees, a chemical process where you run water by certain kinds of chemicals. And then there's a little company in Silicon Valley called Calera, and they're going to try and actually see if they can make real cement by a different chemical process that, instead of giving CO2 up when it hardens, it takes it up.
So now, will it work? Will any of these things work? We don't know yet, but we've got to give all these clever ideas a chance.
What about solutions on a policy level?
One is performance standards. California has the lowest energy use and the lowest carbon dioxide footprint per capita. It's a big footprint, but per capita it's the lowest in the United States. Europe and Japan are around California. So how could that happen? There's always been a culture of public protection. California has had, for the last 40 years, rules, and these rules are very strict building codes on double pane windows and insulation and air conditioners and refrigerators and lots of other things. The states have to set up an energy commission and the energy commissions set the rules. The U.S. must do this; the rest of the world must do this.
Then there's the tax on carbon. That's the market solution. It could be a direct price—meaning you just have a tax, $50 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted—or a shadow price, which is a cap. It's got to be mandatory—either cap or price. I prefer price, I could live with a cap.
The last part of it—for me, I will pay more money. So will you. Everybody will pay more money. But we're already paying money in the form of burned-down forests and hospitals for children with asthma. That's what we call external cost. You've got to make the price of energy include all the costs.
For me, it's going to affect the quality of the pinot noir I drink. A poor person, it's going to affect the quality of the protein their family eats. So not only do you have to protect the commons by having a fee for dumping your waste in the atmospheric sewer, but you also have to deal with the people who would be differentially hurt. I do not believe you hold the sustainability agenda of the planet hostage for poverty. You've got to cure poverty, but not by artificial low prices and energy.
We have to deal with equity, and we have to deal with environmental effectiveness, and this means two acts of good governance in a world that has trouble getting one act of good governance. So I'm not pretending what I'm saying is easy. But there's no defensible reason we couldn't do everything I just said. The only thing is political will and people's awareness.
Do you see that kind of political will in the Obama administration?
Dramatically. Remember, in the previous administration we were going in the wrong direction. In this administration, what we've got is the political will to get things done. They've put their money where their mouth is. They got with the stimulus bill $100 billion—that's a lot of money—for green tech development.
They still have Congress in bed with all the special interests in their districts. Every coal mine, every power plant, all the farmers who want to use fertilizer at the lowest price. These people only think about their own bottom line and their own back yard, never concerned about the country and less about the planet. So the difficulty is, he's got to fight with the pork barrel lions in Congress, including Democrats, and it takes major leadership. He's got to make compromises, but he's got to turn the ship around. You don't turn a tanker around quickly.
What do you see as the most important role for you in the future?
In the short term, it's to try to explain to people how not to be fooled by the cacophonous and often fraudulent opinions out there. There's all this nonsense out there and you can't make good decisions if you don't have some idea about what's reality. Then, of course, there's research and working inside the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. Long-term role, Crosby, Stills and Nash: "Teach your children well." In my case, I include my academic children, which is where I'm about to go right now to meet with them.
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