The Climate Crisis in 2015: Where Do We Go From Here?

  • Photo: Paul D. Cocker via Flickr

October 16, 2015

The political conversation over climate change is heating up again as we move closer to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris next month. Countries around the globe, including the U.S., are expected to make commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But what issues will shape the conversation? Well, recently Kara Holsopple got a chance to speak with someone who has been thinking about that bigger picture—including the ethical implications of climate change. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Alley, who studies ice and climate and is a strong advocate for investing in renewable energy, remains optimistic that the world can still take meaningful action. Here are some highlights from the interview.

On why climate change is a moral issue

"So it’s very clear that right now most of climate change is caused by greenhouse gases that come from fairly wealthy people in cold places that have winter, bulldozers and air conditioners. And most of the harm is caused to poor people in hot places who don’t have winter, bulldozers and air conditioners. And so we’re in a situation where the people causing the change and the people suffering from the change are not the same people. And that gets you back to the Golden Rule: If I cause the climate change, and I don’t hurt from it and somebody else does—is that ethical?"

On the economics of climate change

"It’s very clear that we get benefits from burning fossil fuels and that they have costs. And some of the costs are not included in the cost of the fossil fuel. If I were to make solar cells, the scrap that is left over, I would have to throw it away. And I’d have to pay somebody to throw that away. If I throw away the CO2 from a fossil fuel, I don’t pay anyone. As a consequence, we cause changes that are costly and those costs are borne by society. And we often term that the social cost of carbon. And that’s an economic efficiency. If we rebranded that as the profit that we could make if we made wise policies on this, you’d suddenly see this as a business opportunity. We could make the economy hum better by reducing climate change and taking other actions."

On next steps for dealing with climate change

"I think it’s an issue where we can do so much good. The history of our energy use [has been] burning something—whether it be whales or trees or fossil fuels—and then running out and having a crisis and trying to figure out something else. We’re the first generation that knows how to build a sustainable energy system that will power everyone essentially forever economically. And so the answers are now there. [The question is] how do we get there in a way that keeps everyone now happy, healthy and terrific—and does the same for the future?"

On how to deal with the uncertainties posed by climate science

“The uncertainties on climate change are really big. And they’re mostly on the bad side. So we know CO2 warms things up. It may warm it a little less than we expect, a little more than we expect or maybe more than that. We know that if you make it warmer, sea level rises. It may rise a little less than we expect, a little more than we expect or the ice sheet may collapse and it may rise a lot more than we expect. Across a huge amount of the scholarship, there’s a most likely future and it may be a little better, a little worse or a lot worse. But we don’t see a lot better. And this ultimately comes back to the fact that it’s easier to break things than it is to build things. Just cranking up CO2 is like a big hammer. And you can’t build a building or a cell phone with just a hammer. But you can break it with just a hammer. We are hopeful that we have decades to make the transition to a sustainable energy system in a way that honors what people are doing today. But if we’re headed toward the bad side, we have to do things really fast in order to avoid the worst. And so a lot of our research is: Can we reduce these uncertainties? Can we show that the bad side is not likely? Or do we really have to step on the gas to try to get to a sustainable future in a hurry?”