By David L. Brown
There is no longer any significant doubt about whether global warming and the potential climate change it will bring about are real. Recent reports from the National Research Council (read it here) and others have confirmed that the planet is growing warmer, and that the major cause is rising levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere resulting from human activity.
Not only is it becoming clear that global warming is real, evidence is mounting that the consequences could be far more serious, and perhaps come much more quickly, than scientists have previously thought. The latest warning comes from John Holdren, in his first interview since being elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Holdren last week told BBC News that the climate is changing much faster than had been predicted, adding:
“We are not talking anymore about what climate models say might happen in the future. We are experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate and we’re going to experience more.”
Holdren, one of America’s top scientists, is director of the Woods Hole Research Center and is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University. In the BBC interview he said that unless “drastic action” is taken soon, the world will experience more heatwaves, wildfires, and flooding.
As just one example of the effects of global warming, he pointed to evidence that melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is accelerating, and it is now predicted that at the current rate a “catastrophic” rise in sea level of 4 meters or 13 feet could occur this century. That would drown many of the world’s major cities and low-lying areas, perhaps displacing hundreds of millions of people. Holdren added that should the Greenland ice completely melt it would raise sea levels by 7 meters or 23 feet.
The environmental scientist says that the problem of GHG emissions is not being seriously addressed, nor are strong efforts being made to find non-polluting energy sources to replace the fossil fuels which add CO2 to the air. According to the BBC article (read it here):
[Holdren] blamed President Bush not only for refusing to cut emissions, but also for failing to live up to his rhetoric on harnessing technology to tackle climate change.
“We are not starting to address climate change with the technology we have in hand, and we are not accelerating our investment in energy technology research and development,” [he] observed.
He said research undertaken by Harvard University revealed that US government spending on energy research had not increased since 2001. In order to make any progress, funding for climate technology needed to multiply by three or four times, Professor Holdren warned.
His reference to 2001 is interesting, because in that year Holdren went on record concerning the necessity for changes in energy policy, writing in an editorial titled “Meeting the Energy Challenge” that appeared in Science magazine (9 February 2001, pg. 945; read it here; subscription required). He concluded that opinion piece with these words:
[The energy challenges] include providing a sustainable energy basis for maintaining prosperity where it already exists and achieving it where it does not, limiting dependence on imported oil, reducing the risks from greenhouse gas-induced climate change, and minimizing the contributions of nuclear energy to nuclear weapons dangers.
Meeting these challenges will require increased efforts to maximize the capabilities and minimize the liabilities of the full array of energy options: improvements in end-use energy efficiency in vehicles, residences, and industries; renewable energy sources; advanced fossil fuel and nuclear fission technologies; and nuclear fusion. There is no silver bullet in this array nor are there any that we can be confident we can do without. Current levels of public and private investment in energy R&D and demonstration are not remotely commensurate with the long-term challenges and opportunities, either in the United States or in any other country. U.S. federal expenditures on applied energy technology R&D are about what they were, in real terms, just before the oil price shock of 1973-74, although today’s economy is more than twice as large. U.S. private sector investments in energy R&D have been falling since the mid-1980s.
Strengthening R&D is only part of the answer. Incentives must also be strengthened for deploying a wider array of the most attractive options from the menu available at any given time. And increased international cooperation in energy innovation is warranted, because U.S. and other countries’ economic, environmental, and security interests are served thereby. Although markets have a large role to play in all this, the government must also be involved. The large public benefits attending the right choices—and the large public costs attending the wrong ones—require it.
Sad to say, little has been done in the critical half-decade that has passed since those words appeared. In his State of the Union Address early this year, President Bush glossed over the energy problem with the outlandish statement that switchgrass could be used to replace imported oil. To anyone who understands agricultural economics, this concept of mining our soil makes little sense except as a small and temporary source of energy. Meanwhile, little if anything is being done to rein in the use of fossil fuels and reduce dependance on imported oil.
When will our leaders of government and industry wake up to the fact that global warming is a real and imminent threat; that the world economy cannot continue to rely on fast-disappearing oil; and that the burning of fossil fuels must be curtailed to prevent a global disaster? Must we wait until it is too late? Sadly, that question may be moot because it might already be too late. Tipping points already are being reached and surpassed and even if an all-out effort to address the problem were to be launched tomorrow it could be impossible to reverse the planet’s slide into a hot and disastrous future.