Data Series #4: Climate change and human inertia

Our occasional interview series continues with a well-known name in climate change science and policy.

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson Schoo and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University.

He is the Director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Woodrow Wilson School and Faculty Associate of the Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences Program, Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer.
Photo: Princeton University

Dr. Oppenheimer joined the Princeton faculty after more than two decades with The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where he served as chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program. He continues to serve as a science to EDF and is routinely sought after by the news media for his climate and policy expertise.

Dr. Oppenheimer is the author of over 100 articles published in professional journals and is co-author (with Robert H. Boyle) of Dead Heat: The Race Against The Greenhouse Effect. His full biography can be found here.

Catholic Ecology: You bring a range of experiences to the climate change conversation—from academia to non-government organizations to the IPCC. With this unique perspective, what do you find is usually missing in the general public’s understanding of anthropogenic climate change and its impacts?

Dr. Oppenheimer: What’s missing is not so much understanding as political leadership. Like most technical issues, the public doesn't have the time to get deeply into the factual arguments. Generally, they look to opinion leaders whom they trust: the President, some Congressional leaders, religious leaders, individuals like Al Gore to give them a sense of where the reality stands. Of course, on some issues, the details are less important than overriding concerns like ethical implications, and people are perfectly prepared to and capable of making their own judgments. On climate change, I believe the public gets the big picture, the long-term stakes, the ethical issue, but has a lot of confusion (exacerbated by intentional obfuscation by some economic interests) on the details. Clear, consistent political leadership, day in and day out, is the one irreplaceable factor for overcoming this sort of confusion.

CE: Likewise, what scientific nuances do government leaders often struggle with?

Dr. Oppenheimer: Governments on the whole understand the details. They have lots of in-house experts telling leaders the truth (when they ask). The struggle is over their willingness to pay short-term costs to preserve the climate and the planet’s sustainability for the long term.

CE: With new studies being added to what we already know about climate change in preparation of the latest IPCC report, what do you think the next six months to a year hold for policy makers and national and local governments?

Dr. Oppenheimer: It’s going to be an interesting ride. I’m an IPCC author so I can’t discuss the details until they are public but I’m confident that the report will provide further details, allowing governments to sharpen their approaches and adding another dose of seriousness to the need for international cooperation to solve the problem. At this point, governments are falling behind what the science says is needed to stabilize the climate during this century.

CE: Many of us encounter critics of climate change science. What would you say are three or four quick statements that would be helpful when dialoguing with these critics?

Dr. Oppenheimer:

Carbon dioxide, the main human-made greenhouse gas survives for centuries to millennia once emitted so today's actions commit the climate to harmful changes for many, many generations.

Earth is already warming, and most of the warming is very likely due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The projected warming, if emissions continue to grow, would make earth warmer, and warm faster, than any time in the history of civilization.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy show just how ineffective we are currently at dealing with today’s climate risk. The risk is increasing be the year, and we will inevitably be falling further behind—that means losses of life and losses of property. We need to redouble efforts at adaptation and managing the risk but there’s no way to keep up with the changes without decreasing the emissions causing the problem.

CE: In some circles, there seems to be a growing focus on climate adaptation rather than mitigating the sources of climate change. Given what we know about the rates of greenhouse gas emissions, is mitigation a viable option in the next decade or so? Or is it more realistic to say that adequate emissions reduction will take a century or two to achieve?

Dr. Oppenheimer: We need to mitigate starting now and we need to improve our ability to adapt, starting now as well. Mitigation isn't going to avert all impacts and adaptation can’t possibly sufficiently ameliorate the changes headed our way if we fail to cut emissions.

CE: Is there a question that interviewers never ask you but that you wish they would?

Dr. Oppenheimer: After all these years (32) working on climate, I've been asked it all!

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.