“Why is it that the politicians have such an insufficient response to this? Do they wait until there is loss of life and billion and billions of dollars worth of damage before they do something? Do we always have to wait until it’s too late?” Judith Regan asked during our Q&A on her show from New York City on SiriusXM satellite radio.
SiriusXM satellite radio is by subscription. On November 7 we talked about a number of things, starting with Hurricane Sandy and how human-caused climate change is now a component of weather variability and extreme events. We talked about the global warming denial machine and some of my experience with it, and went on from there. Two excerpts from CSW’s transcript:
JR- He realizes, Cuomo realizes, the Governor of New York and also Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, they are now taking this seriously. They should have taken it seriously before.
RP- Well I think that actually for a number of years now Mayor Bloomberg has had an adaptive preparedness strategic planning thing that has brought a lot of the top experts together with the city planners and the different agencies about how to be proactive on climate change. But it’s really hard and complicated to do.
JR- All right, so what should be done?
RP- I think that first of all you have to acknowledge the problem. From the White House on down, the leadership of the country, the people who have the policymaking and management responsibilities, including the private sector, have to talk to the public about, ‘Look this is the problem that we’re facing. Here are the key scientists, here’s what they are telling us, here’s what we need to do.’ And provide some leadership because the public is taking its cues -- if the leaders don’t talk about it, which they have not been, then the public attention goes somewhere else. People don’t understand the details of this any more than people understand what’s going on in Afghanistan.
JR- But they do understand that their subway is flooded, their house is flooded, their house is gone. They do understand now. In 2008 for instance, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to examine the ways in which climate could affect New York. That report, which was issued in 2010, they had documented undeniable information that the rivers and the bays around New York City were rising, that changes in the atmosphere were going to make storms more dangerous, more frequent. And everything that has unfolded in Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, all was laid out for everybody. It was all laid out.
There was a guy who led the storm surge research group. He was told that barriers were not going to get much emphasis. Somebody brought up the idea of building these barriers, which they have in other cities. Everybody knew this was going to happen. These panelists were saying, ‘we have to be aggressive because you’re playing Russian roulette with New York City, and New Jersey and the towns around New York.’ They all complained about these horrible -- the situations with the tunnels, with the subways, with the infrastructure, with the water rushing in. Everything that happened, they knew in 2008. They knew before even. They laid it out in reports. They had committees.
But why is it that the politicians have such an insufficient response to this? Do they wait until there is loss of life and billion and billions of dollars worth of damage before they do something? Do we always have to wait until it’s too late? Do we always have to be the way I was when I was growing up and my father used to say, ‘you just have to learn the hard way. You’re just one of those.’
RP- The problem we’re causing has such long-lived consequences that if you wait until they are all apparent, it’s not like you can turn on a dime. You have to be proactive. I think there are two pieces where we’re falling down. One is you have to phase out fossil fuels. You have to get electricity from something besides coal, and gas even. You have to run transportation on something besides oil and you don’t have forever to phase that out.
The other is what I call preparedness, adaptive preparedness, because we know that the impacts are already coming and that they’re going to get worse. And this requires a huge, complicated set of actions a lot of which will be down on the local level to analyze where you are vulnerable, to do risk assessment. The military knows how to do this stuff. Risk assessment, risk management, vulnerability reduction -- for heat waves, for storms, for everything. Except for a few progressive cities that have a planning process underway, we are so far behind on that. And the leadership needs to bring the public along because it’s going to require a lot of complicated action and some costs.
JR- What’s going to happen? Are we going to wait for the next storm? Are we going to wait for lower Manhattan to be gone? Or are people going to have to leave lower Manhattan? Is it too late? Can we reverse these things?
RP- I think it’s to late to avoid damaging impacts, but it’s all on a continuum. When people see the limit to how much adaptive preparedness you can do, and it will be limited, hopefully that will drive the discourse to, ‘my god we have to stop putting carbon pollution into the atmosphere.’ That’s a global problem. The US can’t solve it alone. But if the rest of the world sees that the US isn’t doing anything, then why would we expect the rest of the world would deal with it?
We’ve got to get out in front of this somehow. And there is money to be made doing it, but it’s a huge problem. The media doesn’t cover it well, the political leadership has really fallen down, the public has been too illiterate on it, the corporate interests too powerful. The scientists have made a heroic effort to communicate. They have diagnosed and characterized and identified the problem, but they can’t solve it. It has to be solved in this more public arena and that’s where we are now.
JR- And I think were getting to a point -- and Rick Piltz and Howard Altschul I hope you agree with me -- I think one of the lessons to be learned here is that we need to simplify our lives. We need to have fewer things. ‘Stuff,’ as Bill O’Reilly would say. We have to lower our carbon footprint. We have to stop consuming so much. We have to change where we’re getting our energy. And we really have to do it minute by minute and conscientiously examine each of our lives very carefully because every single day we are impacting the environment. Every single day all of us are changing the weather in all the things that we do. By what we consume, by what we buy, by what we support, by all of these things. Rick, what do you think?
RP- Wouldn’t it be interesting to have the President go on television and give that talk to the public? Don’t hold your breath.
JR- I don’t know, I think he might have the nerve to do it second term, what do you think? No? You are in Washington.
RP- I think what we see is what we get. I think were going to see a centrist, civilized, but not getting out there on the edge. And as far as telling the truth to the public on issues that are difficult for people to hear, boy it’s hard for me to see it. I hope I’m pleasantly surprised.
JR- I hope you’re wrong and Howard what do you think?
HA- I think that if Mitt Romney would have won this election you would be even more upset with his renewable energy plan. At least Barack Obama is talking about wind and solar. I think solar is going to become an even more viable option and will help reduce some of our carbon footprints. It is going to be getting more efficient and easier to produce, even here in the Northeast. It’s going to take a while, but we’ll get there.
RP– I agree with that.
JR- I think with the younger generation they are more conscientious.
RP- Take a look at the vote. I work with millennium generation young people, maybe some of the best and brightest here. I have confidence in their skills and social consciousness. As the older folks die off and this new generation comes along it may be a less materialistic approach to life -- actually become something that gets framed as a positive message rather than a painful, self-abnegation message.
JR- Simplify, simplify. My son is very into this. His friends, they live very simply, they live communally. He gave up his car, his TV, he bicycles to work, he is very very conscientious.
RP- Not trying to outdo us in terms of the material level, they are trying to do something different.
JR- No, he built a company where everything is made in San Francisco. It’s made locally. He’s just trying so hard to be conscientious and I see it with his friends. It’s really a beautiful thing to watch and I think just looking at what happened in this election I think there is a reason to be optimistic.
RP- So work with the young people.
(Thanks to Jordan Nichols for the transcript.)
I was reminded of a passage in Steve’s memoir Science As a Contact Sport, published in 2009. Steve wrote (pp. 231-232) about how Erik Rasmussen, a communications expert and founder of the Copenhagen Climate Council, had asked him to work with a youth group Erik had established:
“… knowing that the opinions of 20-year-olds matter, as they are the generation inheriting our legacy. I spent considerable time with them … and we went over all the various issues. “So what is our most important message?” one asked. “Is it to limit the climate emergency we face by mentioning specific emissions reduction targets?”
“I replied as best I could:
‘I think it is okay for you to discuss science, impacts, and policy issues, but in truth that is not really your job now—that is the IPCC’s job, among others. You have maximum credibility in telling my generation how you feel about their legacy to your generation. I’d tell them—were I somehow able to be 20 again while knowing what I know now—that you know your elders love you and want to leave you in a better world than they inherited. But the older generations’ traditional model of “what was best for us is best for you” may not apply. You could say to them, “You were brought up to believe that the older generation has an obligation to leave us a legacy of wealth and infrastructure. We don’t altogether reject that, but we are willing to trade off some of that consumptive orientation to get a legacy of clean air, a full complement of the diversity of nature and culture, and not just material wealth on a damaged planet.”
‘… And most important of all, learn how to separate what part of the discussion is over scientific disputes and what part is over worldviews. Armed with that kind of literacy about sustainable development and communications, there really is a good chance you will have had a hand in getting the kind of world you’d rather have from those who can only change course if you tell them what you believe and what you value. Youth can be a powerful force for change through your honesty. … Always know some of us will be there right with you as you go through a life-long apprenticeship in planetary sustainable management.’
“Without these kids, I don’t know how I’d find the energy to stay focused in this 40-year war. Their caring honesty—along with my wife, friends, and family—helped me endure the three weeks in a hospital clean room during my 2002 bone marrow transplant. I learned first-hand the power of youth to focus the older generation to stay on track to achieve a better legacy. We have been making progress in changing people’s minds, but we have a long way to go, and time is not on our side. ……….”