Leading the Charge: An Extended Interview With Stephen Schneider
Steven Schneider (below), one of the nation’s most outspoken scientists, has been calling for a sharp reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions since the 1980s. He has authored or coauthored hundreds of scientific papers, book chapters and other works related to global warming. Audubon recently spoke with the Stanford University climatologist about tipping points, extinction, and the Live Earth concerts.
Audubon: In the last year there seems to be a sudden groundswell of public concern over global warming.
Schneider: Thermometers say that we’re warmer than we’ve been in a thousand years or more. Glaciers are melting all around the world now. Big ice sheets are starting to melt. Plants and animals are moving around. It’s [climate change] not a theory anymore. There was Katrina a couple of years back, then Al Gore’s movie, and—this is what’s not visible to the public, but I think just as important—a lot of corporate leaders have decided that this problem is real. A lot of companies are getting involved, like Wal-Mart and GE. BP started down this path a decade ago. Now of all a sudden it becomes safe for moderate Republicans—which we used to think was an endangered species but seems to be re-emerging with Bush’s unpopularity—to come out and support climate policy. So we have a true social tipping phenomenon, which gives us a better chance for action on climate than we’ve ever had before—as long as we don’t waste it.
Q: What can individuals do to make a difference when this is global problem?
A: Well, that’s a great question, because I do a lot of call-in shows on the radio and sometimes on TV and inevitably somebody says, Oh, what good is it going to do if the U.S. makes a sacrifice and we don’t get an equal action from the Chinese and India, and we go through the usual conversation: “We use a factor of 10 more energy per capita and they need a catchup time, but yes they do have to be in it.” And somebody inevitably calls in and says, But I can’t negotiate with the Chinese. I can’t build a power plant in India. What can I do? And so I’ll usually say, “Well, you’re in one room. Are the lights off in the other room you’re not using?” Hmm, not always. “And when your kids walk out and insist that the computer must stay on—it doesn’t have to stay on.” I’ve talked to engineers in the companies that make them and they say it does not break computers to turn them off. You can turn them on and off a hundred thousand times before you start breaking them. They’re not going to do that. When you have to go out to the store or your kid says, Hey, I want to go out to the game. “Fine. We have vehicles for that purpose. I’m not objecting to that. But do you have to do it that minute or could you say, you know if we waited an hour—I’ll move up my trip an hour, you move yours back my trip an hour, we’ll make one trip instead of three? And do you have to go—in California, in the warm zones—do you have to go to the store in a 6,000-pound SUV because you got a $25,000 tax deduction in one of the most perverse incentives in the world. There’s so much we can do.
Q: What source of alternative energy has the best chance of replacing fossil fuels in your mind? Is it solar? Wind?
A: I’m not into “best.” I’m into what works really well where you are. There are some areas with a lot of wind that don’t have a bird migration pattern where the forces are right for wind. You can have a city not far away so you’d don’t need long transmission lines. Then wind is your biggie. It’s already relatively inexpensive. There may be other places where wind is a little less viable. There are a lot of places—California now—where rooftop photovoltaics, while they’re still a little more expensive than conventional energy, the fact that they do them here and that the sun shines in the middle of the afternoon when the air conditioners are full-blown means PG&E is going to pay you much more in terms of pumping your energy back into the grid in the middle of the day than they would at night. So if you can figure out how to get your house to use less energy during the day, you could feed it back to PG&E and all of a sudden, instead of being a luxury item for the rich, it starts to be cost effective. So that happens to fit in that climate. That’s probably true in Arizona. There are a number of places it wouldn’t be true—probably in Maine. So you have to pick and choose a renewable that makes sense for you.
Q: What sort of government or legislative action should be at the forefront here? Are we talking cap and trade? A carbon tax?
A: Well, eventually we cannot keep dumping our smokestack and tailpipe waste into the atmosphere as if it was an un-priced sewer and expect nothing to happen. There has to be an incentive not to use too much of the bad stuff and for more market share for research and development of the good stuff [like wind and solar]. So for that to happen, you eventually need either a cap—and the reason for the trade is to do it at lower costs. I have no problem with doing it at lower costs.
Q: What about a carbon tax? Many experts contend it would make a big difference but others say it’s a nonstarter, because Americans supposedly won’t go for a carbon tax.
A: Well, you know, the Clean Air Act was a nonstarter before it was signed too. There are a lot of nonstarters. The banning of cigarettes in most restaurants in the country and in every virtual public place in California was a nonstarter 25 years ago. It’s amazing how things that people don’t want to happen, which they declare nonstarters, start when there’s usually enough annoyance among a majority that it finally happens.
Q: What about this notion that even if we get our house in order, there’s still the rest of the world to contend with? For example, China’s and India’s economies are going like gangbusters, spewing out their share of global warming gases.
A: Well, I think they’re spewing out well less than their share if you look per person. China will be just barely catching up with us this year and probably ahead of us in the next two years—as a country. But we have, you know, 300 million-ish people. They have 1.2 billion-ish people. So per person, they view it as not even close to their share. So here’s the problem: You have China, India, Indonesia, Brazil—big, big, you know, uh, developing or at least—they’re not even developing anymore. They’re moving beyond that. They’re rapidly developing economies in transition, but still well below us. And they say, Look, you guys used the Victorian Industrial Revolution with sweatshops, coal-burning internal combustion engines to get rich. You—twenty percent of the world’s population—are responsible for about 75 percent of the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere till now. And therefore, when we catch up with you, we’ll talk about taking targets.
So what they’ve really done—to be nasty—is they’ve held the sustainability agenda of the planet hostage to their notion of equity. On the other hand, what have we done? When George Bush Sr. went to Rio de Janeiro, he did sign the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which binds the United States to avoid dangerous climate change through action, and his son systematically ignores the law of the land. That was ratified by the Senate, I might add. But when he went there he said the American standard of living is not up for negotiation. And that is exactly the behavior of the Bush II administration. So we have two sets of intransigents. We have the developing world saying, We haven’t got our full share yet, and the hell with the world until we do, and we have us saying, “We’re not going to give up anything of our greed and our dominance and the hell with the world.” Now that’s a prescription for tripling and quadrupling CO2, no matter how many good lightbulbs we put in. So the only way to solve that problem is with a deal. And a deal means those guys—the ones who don’t have per capita quality with us—agree that they’re not going to get it. But we help them leapfrog over the Victorian Industrial Revolution right to high technology. So we set up partnerships between our industries, which have skills, and their countries, which have demand, and anything new that’s discovered, say the patents are shared between the companies and China or India. And that’s going to take money, and that money is part of preventing global warming and helping the world develop in a sustainable way. That’s a pretty good investment.
Q: So it seems.
A: We have to be partner in that. When we get this cooperative venture, we have a chance that we could prevent them from doing what we did. But we have to give up a little greed first.
Q: Can the CEOs of companies that are buying into environmentally friendly practices—can they lead the way here? Are they the ones that should be forming these partnerships and developing the technology?
A: The answer is, absolutely yes, but I think they’re going to need a little help, a little incentive. And here’s where I think the government comes in again, not only in negotiating treaties. They’re going to have to back up contracts. People don’t want to make big investments with countries that they think are unreliable, so there may have to be some guarantees. I don’t know what the right form is. Those CEOs know what they would need to convince their boards and stockholders that being a good citizen of the world actually is a way to make money—even if it’s one point less than doing something dirty. I think they, they probably could do that. The big problem you have with them is there’s still a bit of hypocrisy. Because on the one hand they are [American CEOs] now saying they want to do that. On the other hand, they still hire lobbyists to go to Washington and block things like CAFE, the fuel-efficiency standards. So that’s slowly diminishing. And they still spend, you know, hundreds of millions a year on advertising trying to convince people that big, heavy, fast automobiles is sexy instead of those that are efficient, sleek, and cleverly designed. You don’t need a heavy car. You can design it with ceramics. It’ll be stronger and safer than a lot of the big ones and it’ll get much better mileage. You just have to make the investments and that’s where we’re going to have to get the feds and the states in the act to help with a combination of laws that require it and the incentives to do it.
So, yes, you’re right. You need to have those companies in there, but it’s going to take a joint action of companies and countries to do that. That requires the average person on the street—who votes—to sit there and tell them, “Not only do I expect it, I require it or I’m voting for somebody else.” Things will change. Unfortunately it does take some Katrina’s to get people’s attention. But things will change and we have to do the deals with the other countries at the same time. It’s the one thing Bush has said right—he said, we need a deal with China and India. The trouble is he’s postponed making the deal until he’s out of office and what he wants anyway is to make the deal so weak it won’t make any difference. So idea: right, but typical Bush implementation: terrible.
Q: What are the impacts to wildlife from climate change? It seems like a hard thing to pin down.
A: Well my wife, Terry Rude, who’s an ecologist [at Stanford University] has often referred to a number of species as “functionally extinct.” They’re not extinct now, but the trends that we’re on means that they’re going to run out of habitat through the combination of fragmented habitat and climate forcing them to move but having nowhere to go. Somewhere between 10 to 50 percent of species could become extinct over the next several centuries. The actual process takes a long time. But once they’re gone, they’re gone. So we really have to get going on reducing the pressures on nature.
Q: On, on a lighter note, what did you think about the “Live Earth” concerts all around the world that millions of people either attended or watched online?
A: I didn’t see it, but my email inbox is filled with it. I’m not a big rock fan. Now, if they had had Peter, Paul, and Mary doing it, then I would have watched.
Q: Now you’re dating yourself.
A: That gives you my vintage.
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