Friday, December 19, 1997

Donald Aiken, senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists; David Goldstein, senior scientist, energy, National Resources Defense Council; and Henry Rowen, senior fellow, Hoover Institution, and director, Asia/Pacific Research Center, discuss the effects of the December 1997 treaty agreeing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions seven percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

Recorded on Friday, December 19, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, global warming. During the last century, the temperature of the planet seems to have gone up by about one degree Fahrenheit and all ten of the ten warmest years on record have taken place during the last decade and a half. How come? Well, many scientists believe that human activity and particularly the emission of greenhouse gases is to blame. If trends continue, they argue, then during the next century we'll see polar icecaps melting, ocean levels rising, and one catastrophe following another. Not long ago, representatives from more than 150 countries, including Vice President Al Gore, met in Kyoto, Japan met to decide what to do about global warming. The result, a treaty calling on the United States to reduce greenhouse emissions by 7% below their 1990 levels. With us today, three guests. Donald Aitken is a Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and David Goldstein is Energy Program Director with the National Resources Defense Council. They're in favor of the Kyoto treaty. Our third guest, Henry Rowen of the Hoover Institution thinks the Kyoto Treaty is a bad idea, a very bad idea. Now I have to believe that our viewers in cooler parts of the country will take a special interest in today's show. If things go badly, the good people of Riverton, Wyoming may one day be raising mangoes while our viewers in Bozeman are raising their own bananas.

ROBINSON Human activity is introducing small quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but quantities that have an effect on the temperature of the Earth.

AITKEN Yeah, they are actually large quantities. It's just that the total quantity compared to oxygen and nitrogen are small.

ROBINSON Proportionally small.

AITKEN We're introducing proportionately compared to the natural systems, we're introducing proportionately large.

ROBINSON Fine with you?

GOLDSTEIN That's right. In fact, the problem is that the most potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which is also the one that's produced by burning fossil fuels, the concentration of that has already increased by about 30 percent compared to pre-industrial times and it's predicted to double by about the middle of next century if we don't do something about it.

ROBINSON The prediction, so in the middle of next century. You're talking about 50, 60 years, in that range. It'll double.

GOLDSTEIN That's right.

ROBINSON This is all fine with you, Harry?

ROWEN This seems to me indisputable.

ROBINSON All right. Fine. And what has happened as a result? I distinguish between what has happened and what might happen. There is argument that the Earth is already warming up. Is that not it?

AITKEN There's evidence that we're getting warming on the near surface of the Earth which is where we live. There's cooling in the upper atmosphere; there's cooling down here; there's different things happening in different layers. But what we are concerned about is warming on the near surface where we are. There appears to be abundant evidence now that there is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authors of this large document I have here, called a discernable human influence on that but we have to be aware, again, that the Earth immediately responds to a change or a warming with other variables. It tries to resist it with climate and so the main things that we're really looking at are how ecological systems and human social systems can respond to these kinds of changes.

ROBINSON So, but one thing I want to be very clear on is have we, I've seen the statistic that over the last century the surface temperature of the Earth has gone up by about one degree Fahrenheit.

AITKEN That appears to be ballpark - about right.

ROBINSON That's about right. And do we know or do we believe that that is a result of human activity putting these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

AITKEN We believe that as much as half of that could be natural and as much as half of that could be human influence but the, as we project the human influence, it becomes much more dominant-

ROBINSON Okay, so as much as half of what has already happened could be human influences but that really isn't what concerns you. What concerns you is the projections. Why is this an issue? What do we need to be afraid of?

GOLDSTEIN We need to be afraid of the unknown because the climate system is very complicated. Professor Aitken mentioned one degree Fahrenheit warming. Now that doesn't sound like much: one degree Fahrenheit so it's 30 degrees for a low temperature instead of 29. But 9 degrees warming, 9 degrees cooling, I'm sorry, brought on the Ice Age with mile-thick sheets of ice covering what's now Minneapolis and Chicago. So 9 degrees is one heck of a big deal. Is 1 degree a very big deal? And the answer is we don't know. And that lack of knowledge means we might get disruptive weather. We might have for the growing seasons for the most economically significant crops change. We may find that it's a lot harder to do the things like agriculture that we depend on.

ROBINSON All right. So these disruptions that might take place would take place over what time frame? You're talking about, you're not talking about next year, you're talking about next century.

GOLDSTEIN Again, we don't know. Hurricane Andrew might have been that destructive as a result of global warming, unprecedentedly large El Nino that we're having this year might be a result of global warming. Some people have suggested that it is. So the danger is that we'll get anomalies in weather, things that are economically destructive, environmentally destructive, and since we don't know what we're going to get, we're performing an experiment with the whole life support system for humanity and all the other species in the world.

ROBINSON David says scientists don't know quite how much the globe will warm up or when it will warm up. Sounds to me that there's quite a lot they don't know.

ROBINSON Twenty years ago when I was in college, I remember the scare at the time. The scientifically sanctioned scare at the time was that the world was getting too cold, not too warm. Twenty years later, still the blink of an eye in geologic time and the scientists are telling us to have just exactly the reverse fear. Why should you have credibility now?

AITKEN The things that are happening now are now matched surprisingly well by the models, surprisingly well, including the migration of rainfall.

ROBINSON So for the past 20 years the science has advanced?

AITKEN The science has advanced even since 1992 when the first work came out here and in 1995 when they updated it. Their ability to model is advanced, but as David was saying, you're modeling an incredibly complex system and where people fall down in the science saying you can't predict this, you can't prove that, science doesn't predict, it doesn't prove. It works within a realm of probabilities based upon sound observation. And the sound observation appears to match what is happening very comfortably now and appears to project very comfortably. I want to carry on a...


AITKEN David's example of what is one degree Fahrenheit. Well, the models show you might have something like a three degree centigrade, that's an average figure of warming that might happen over an unknown number of years, maybe 50 years. Three degrees centigrade moves the snow pack accumulation up by 1500 feet. It reduces the snow pack accumulation in the Sierra by 70 percent and that reduces the river..

ROBINSON Now we don't have, no skiing at Tahoe.

AITKEN Well, I don't know about skiing at Tahoe but you really lose the basis for agriculture in California which is an 18 billion dollar industry. And as we look at the potential economic consequences, they're huge. When I mention the migration of rainfall, it's a vicious cycle. It looks as though there's a little more rainfall globally but especially more in the Northern Hemisphere and it's going away from Africa and it's going away from Asia; exactly the areas where they desperately need to be able to grow food. Can we say unequivocally that that's caused by global warming or by what we've done? No, we can't. But it is consistent with it and it's an unacceptable risk being imposed upon the developing nations.

ROBINSON All right. Now you- Scientists may not have all the answers yet but world politicians aren't waiting. You just came back from the Kyoto Conference. What exactly does that piece of paper call for, call for the United States to do?

GOLDSTEIN That piece of paper commits the industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by varying numbers but typically 7 percent which is the U.S. number by the year 2010. So as much pollution of the climate as we're putting out in 1990, we've got to reduce that by 7 percent.

ROBINSON The base year is 1990...

GOLDSTEIN That's right.

ROBINSON ...we've just signed a piece of paper committing us to cutting the emissions 7 percent below the 1990 level by the year 2010.

GOLDSTEIN That's right.

ROBINSON And that's a good idea?

GOLDSTEIN Well, that's only a small down payment on a good idea...


GOLDSTEIN ...because we're polluting, it's like polluting a lake full of poison. What we've done is we've agreed that we're going to pollute it a little bit less in 2010 than we are today, but meanwhile, every year the pollution levels build up, build up, build up, build up.

ROBINSON Now how do we cut back 7 percent on the 1990 levels? How does the United States do that?

GOLDSTEIN Well, we do it by a variety of methods to improve the efficiency of energy use and to substitute fossil fuels, particularly coal which is the worst greenhouse causing agent, with renewables and this is something that we've started to do in many areas because it makes economic sense, because it's good for other aspects of the environment.

ROBINSON So you want to shut down coal burning power plants basically.

GOLDSTEIN We want to replace them with something that makes more economic sense.

ROBINSON Okay. And do you know what that is yet?

GOLDSTEIN Well, it's a long list. This study that Don Aitken brought lists about 50 different measures. But let me give just one example.

ROBINSON All right.

GOLDSTEIN In 1973, the largest energy user in the home was the refrigerator and in California we decided to do something about reducing energy consumption of refrigerators and we set standards to require them to be more efficient. This was followed by federal standards, so by the year 2001 we will have cut energy use in a refrigerator by three-quarters and during that time the refrigerator has gotten bigger, more of them are frost free, it's gotten more features and it's gotten cheaper.

ROBINSON Harry, this all sounds very reasonable to me. We're running a terrible risk with the fate of the planet and the future of humanity and we make a few changes, the technology adapts, and the problem begins to be mitigated, right?

ROWEN Not by 2010 it isn't. There's a huge disconnect between the general argument and the terms set. The general argument, much of it, there are complications which I will not address, but the timetable is absurd. Go back a little bit. In 1992, there was a Summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro in which these great people came together and they said, "Ahhh, We have a problem here and we pledge that we will get back to the 1990 level of emissions", all these people so said this, I guess by the year 2000 and then they went home and they did absolutely nothing about it. I mean, basically. They did nothing. So here they are going off to Kyoto to say, "Aha! Well now we're really going to get serious. We're going to truly, honestly do all of this by 2010", the "this" being to get to roll back to below, below 1990 level by 2010. Meanwhile, of course, the emissions have gone up a lot everywhere, notably, by the way, in the developing countries which you expressed, I think quite reasonably, concern as to their fate. You know what their position was in Kyoto? We will have absolutely nothing to do with this enterprise at all. We will commit ourselves to nothing.

ROBINSON China with a billion people says. "We ain't signing."

ROWEN We're not signing it and all the rest sort of lined up. They committed themselves to zero. They said you industrialized countries created the problem. You fix it. We do nothing. Meanwhile their greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 will be an estimated 123 percent over 1990, by far the biggest increase in percentage terms.


GOLDSTEIN Professor Rowen said after the Rio conference that most countries did nothing and that's exactly the problem. The advantage of the Kyoto protocol is it calls for binding reductions in emissions so there were a lot of things the United States could have done. There was the Climate Action plan that the President issued, most of which wasn't funded and didn't go ahead. So the point is, can we take assertive measures starting now to control our emissions?

ROBINSON This sounds like a chorus of agreement. Your objection is simply that it won't happen, right?

ROWEN What would it take, what would be involved between now and then? We're not going to have much new technology.

ROBINSON In ten years.

ROWEN In ten years. You can't do it. It's just not there. It is simply not there.

ROBINSON So, how do we live up to the Kyoto accord?

ROBINSON Coal burning electrical utility plants. What is the technology that replaces those?

AITKEN Those are replaced both by efficiency and by renewable energy resources but the transition one is natural gas.

ROBINSON Natural gas. We burn gas instead of coal?

AITKEN Yes, there are no lights out. I hate hearing the ‘lights out' statement. No lights will go out. We're going into a transition period where we use less carbon intensive fuels and then we go away from the fuels more and more as we go to the natural

ROBINSON All right. Now let me ask you this question. So we go to the second one. Automobiles. They burn gas. Gas emits carbon dioxide. How do you replace that.

AITKEN Well, I have two answers to that and I am going to turn the answer around first so you can see the way the model works. An automobile typically, a typical average 25 mile a gallon automobile will give off about 4 tons of CO2 a year. An electric water heater for a house is responsible for 9 tons of CO2 a year. If you simply reduce, increase the efficiency of half of the electric waters in the United States by 50 percent, it's equivalent to doubling the efficiency of the entire fleet of automobiles in the entire fleet of automobiles in the U.S. and a whole lot cheaper.

ROBINSON How? How, how, how? I have a water heater at home and it's, I'll tell you, I have very little insulation. The energy bill goes spiking up in January. Quite apart from global warming I'd like to know how to improve that.

AITKEN That I'm going to defer to David on the efficiency of the technology of improving that. I'll simply mention that the solar domestic water heating which is a way that pays itself back within about 5 years in an excellent investment: 20 percent rate of return on your investment, can reduce it by 50 percent in all of the climates of the U.S.

ROBINSON Okay now, here.

AITKEN I'm talking about solar...

ROBINSON I speak to you as a layman, yet again, because it happens that my landlord, before we took the house, had tried solar heating for the water tank and the thing was such a damn nuisance that he finally ended up disconnecting it. The point I make to you is that what you are proposing is a very deep penetration of disruptions into the lives of ordinary Americans.

AITKEN I just came back from Cyprus and there is one square meter of solar water heater for every man, woman and child in Cyprus and they have a very advanced, the highest educational level in the world for an advanced culture and these are not disruptive things but I just simply threw that out. I didn't want to avoid...

ROBINSON All right, no, no.

AITKEN I didn't want to avoid the automobile issue either because there is a great deal you can do with vehicles and what we do in this analysis is say let's improve the fleet average of automobiles by 1-1/2 miles per gallon per year is a very do-able goal for the year 2010. That will contribute. Efficiency will contribute. Renewable energy will contribute. We don't look for one solution. We look for a package of solutions and, by golly, the package comes out to meet the 2010 goal.

ROBINSON It's all here.

AITKEN It's all there.

ROBINSON Sorry, wrong book.

ROWEN This is a replay, this is really truly replay of a lot that was said in the great oil crunch, crisis of the 1970's, early 80's, in which people trotted out all of this stuff which is more or less technically correct but who has an incentive to do any of this stuff? Why should any of it really happen? If an old plant that reaches the end of it's life and a new plant has to be built people will look around and see what's the most cost effective plant to put in if it's an electricity plant or a water heater and they'll shop around and they'll presumably do that if they're rational. But why should they do these things. I mean, what is it that is going to cause the utilities which are expanding natural gas fire generation because they can get more energy out of it, it's cost effective. Are they going to shut down, why should they shut down an existing coal fire plant that seems to be from their perspective cost effective. They're not going to do it unless something changes in their environment. They're not going to do it. And your landlord, he's not going to do that unless something happens that makes him want to do it.

ROBINSON So what you're suggesting here is that it is going to have to be a very heavy-handed government that forces all these changes.

ROWEN Well, if something doesn't happen, it's either going to be regulatory in which you'll have a hoard of bureaucrats saying you've got to do this, that and the other thing and the Senate and the Congress is not going to allow that. It has to be a tax, much better would be a tax system. Get the tax on carbon basically up a lot and I can assure you that if a big tax were put on to make all of these things happen by 2010, that would put the economy into the tank because that would effectively, that would cause the same kind of disruption. It might get a small, in principle you might get a small tax break, gradually increase it. It's not going to reach the 2010 goals and the Congress isn't going to do it anyway at the present time.

ROBINSON David, a hoard of bureaucrats or a quite heavy tax regime.

GOLDSTEIN Those aren't the choices and that's not just theory; that's practice. In California we have made an attempt through the State Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission to reduce climate emissions. We weren't really doing it for that purpose but the effect was that way. The Public Utilities Commission did it by opening up the generation market so that renewables could compete on a more level playing field with conventional energy resources.

ROBINSON Name a couple of renewables. That's wind energy or...

GOLDSTEIN Primarily it's been wind. Secondarily, I think biomass in California.

AITKEN Yeah. Biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photo-

ROBINSON Okay. So you're getting away from the notion of burning stuff.

GOLDSTEIN Yeah. So California is 12 percent new renewables that have been developed as a function of policy by state government making the electricity market more competitive than the monopoly utility market that it occurred before. The point is California reduced its climate emissions by over 10 percent due to policy measures alone undertaken by the state government. That's building efficiency standards so your heating bills won't be so high, appliance efficiency standards so that California's electric bills have wound up the lowest in the country...

ROBINSON That's a lot of regulation. That goes back to Harry's point though, right? You just change the regulatory regime.

GOLDSTEIN It's a lot of regulation but I don't think anyone in California feels they are under a heavy bureaucratic hand due to these regulations.

ROBINSON But the point is still valid, isn't it? The scientists want to tell us how to live.

ROBINSON I'm a layman and you're asking me to change the way I live. You want me to go fix the solar heating system on the roof of my house. You want me to pay higher taxes or endure a new regulatory regime. Point One: Your computer model knows about the weather more than I know about the weather I don't deny. But you're asking me to do a lot based on your computer model. Furthermore, your computer model knows more about the market, knows more about energy efficiencies than do the people who spend 8 and 9 and 10 hours of their working day each day trying to figure out how to make money on the market. It sounds to me as though you are ordinary mortals like the man behind the curtain but you are presenting yourselves as the great and powerful Oz. No?

AITKEN No, absolutely not. I think we have to go back to the risk statement. Everybody is using models. The purpose of models is simply to show trends that might give most probable outcomes and then for us to determine policy based on that. The problem is that we're using entirely different models because we have entirely different inputs and our models end up showing real benefits for society, benefits for the economy, and benefits for the environment and the problem is more a matter of market development and market transformation. That's where the policy ought to be focused, not heavy-handed government anything, not taxes, not all of that stuff.

ROBINSON You, you and the people who run America's utilities lack imagination and their models.

ROWEN I confess. Markets are not perfect and governments are not perfect so we have to choose between imperfects.

ROBINSON All right.

ROWEN Okay. I mean let's, I'll accept that. But the notion that somehow there are vast opportunities being missed by the market in terms of saving money in this area, on this domain seems to me to be a strange emphasis. You know, we heard the same thing during the great energy crisis, oil crisis of the 1970's. It was wrong then and it's wrong now.

GOLDSTEIN It wasn't wrong then, if you'll excuse me, because during the great energy crisis of the 1970's, environmental groups said of the 17 new power plants that needed to be constructed according to conventional forecasts in California none of them were needed and everyone thought we were crazy except that 10 years later none of them was built and the last one before that was built was what's called a stranded cost, that is, billions of dollars that rate payers in California have to pay for something that isn't competitive in the marketplace.

ROBINSON It was a dumb idea, essentially.

GOLDSTEIN We said that efficiency and renewables could entirely substitute for new power plant growth in California. We were right and the big industry was wrong.

ROWEN Oh, industry was certainly wrong in projecting a growing, that was certainly wrong. But a lot of people were wrong, actually. It was plenty of ways of being wrong. But the notion that there were a lot of opportunities out there that could be tapped without a change in the prices people faced, that was just clearly wrong.

ROBINSON Harry, let me turn it around. What would you do? How would you address the problem?

ROWEN The one thing that I would- unambiguously good thing to do right now which is not going to effect 2010 because fundamentally nothing now can effect 2010 very much...

ROBINSON That's just impossible, no matter, all the good will in the world, whatever computer models, we just can't...

ROWEN You can do a little bit but not a lot. Basically nothing could...

ROBINSON What would you do?

ROWEN Invest a lot more in technology, R&D, because if this argument is right, and it could well be so, there is going to be an urgent need and a strong demand for improved technology which is non-greenhouse gas emitting. And we can do an awful lot better than we do now in terms of the potential. Invest now in this and this is for the U.S., Japan, the industrialized countries.

ROBINSON By way of what? By way of government?

ROWEN Some of it.

ROBINSON Tax incentives. How do you want to do this?

ROWEN Those are details. I mean, the main thing, government has to play a large role...

ROBINSON All right.

ROWEN ... obviously in this. Clearly it has to play a large role because industry is not, the incentives are not right for industry to do all that's needed. But that's the clearest thing that can br done. I would like to see a small tax on carbon because I don't think a big tax, it would be too disruptive. A big tax absolutely would never get through. A small tax won't get through either but at least there's more of a case for a small tax on carbon.

ROBINSON A small tax on carbon.... We've discussed what should happen, now a little political reality. What can happen?

ROBINSON The Kyoto Agreement calls for the United States to reduce its emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Will that happen?

AITKEN If we introduce political policies that will get people to realize we can save 58 billion a year, that every American family can save $530 per household per year by 2010, the answer is yes.

ROBINSON You nicely, you've restated the question nicely. So the question is will the American political system respond in time to what you see as an urgent need?

AITKEN We would be economically foolish from the standpoint of the efficiency of our invested capital and energy not to respond on the pace set by Kyoto and we could indeed realistically accomplish that.

ROBINSON David, emissions in 1990.

GOLDSTEIN I'm confident that the American people working through the political system are concerned enough about the environmental issue that we will solve this problem and meet and maybe even beat the Kyoto goal. Remember, in 1986 when we discovered that there was a problems with the ozone hole, we had an international agreement to cut ozone-depleting chemicals and we have cut now 100 percent of our ozone-depleting chemicals and we've done it at a fraction of the cost that the technological pessimists said we would have to pay in order to get there.

ROBINSON We can do it with a will.

GOLDSTEIN We can do it with existing technology. What can we do by 2010? How many people plan to be driving their 1998 cars by 2010? A lot of new cars.

ROBINSON I'll probably be driving a 1992 car in 2010, but. Harry, you've already said the 7 percent cut in emissions is impossible. Where do you think emissions will be in 2012?

ROWEN Well, it's conceivable they won't be 34 percent above the 1990's: it's conceivable. But not very much below it. The, at present, it looks like the President's not going to send the Kyoto Agreement to the Congress at all. He won't send it there.

ROBINSON His political model says this one's a dead one.

ROWEN And it's dead on arrival. It goes there and so he's not going to send it there, therefore in the short term nothing will happen.

ROBINSON A repeat of Rio? Nothing happens.

ROWEN In the short term. Nothing happens.

ROBINSON And in the longer term? What's your guess?

ROWEN I don't know. But not enough by then. It's not going to change fast enough to effect 2010 very much.

ROBINSON All right. Gentlemen, thank you very much. Global warming and the Kyoto Treaty. There are two clear sets of opinion. There are those who, like Henry Rowen, believe the Kyoto Treaty would be virtually impossible to put into effect. And then there are those like Donald Aitken and David Goldstein who believe either we put the treaty into effect or we can all trade our cup of mocha for a mai tai. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

More from Uncommon Knowledge