Climate Change Solutions: A Science and Policy Agenda




DECEMBER 6, 2004

It is a pleasure to be here, and I welcome the opportunity to address such a distinguished group of science leaders.  I know that a lot of you are here from out of town, and I have to say that I appreciate what you have done to raise this city’s collective IQ, if only for a couple of days. 

I also want to say that I applaud the theme of your meeting, Setting the Agenda for 21st Century Science.  If I accomplish nothing else in my remarks, I hope I can leave you with a stronger sense that one of the most important items on the science agenda for this century is climate change and how we respond. 

Science holds the key not just to advancing our understanding of this complex problem but also to advancing our ability to reduce the very real risks it poses to the world.  Science also will be critical as we try to figure out how best to adapt to climate change in the years and decades ahead.  This is one of the most important issues of our time.  And each of you, together with your organizations and the scientists and engineers you represent, can and must play a leading role in shaping solutions.

Today, I want to talk with you about what those solutions might entail – and about how you and your organizations can help make them happen.  But first, considering that we are here in the nation’s capital, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about how Washington has responded to climate change so far. 

In providing this report card on our elected leaders’ efforts on this issue, I am reminded of the teacher who told the parents of a failing student that they could at least rest assured of one thing.  “With grades like these, he couldn’t possibly be cheating.”

Now I know you heard yesterday from a representative of the Bush administration about its approach to the issue of climate change.  And I am certain that you heard a lot about our government’s hard work in areas from advancing climate science to promoting technology development and working with industry on an array of programs and initiatives.  But the fact of the matter is that the Bush administration’s climate policies represent little more than a “business-as-usual” approach. 

With their limited R&D investments, their reliance on voluntary measures, and their lack of planning for how this nation and others can adapt to climate change, the policies advanced by the White House are simply inadequate.    They reveal a fundamental  misunderstanding of the nature and potential severity of the problem.

The science tells us in no uncertain terms that we need to be doing all we can to, number one, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today, and, number two, spur the investments needed to achieve even greater reductions in the years and decades ahead.  We also need to get real about the fact that climate change is happening now—and that its impacts will accelerate in the years ahead.  We need a proactive approach to adapt to climate change so we can limit the damage, economic and otherwise, that this problem will cause.

The Administration, of course, makes much of the ongoing effort to address the “uncertainties” in today’s climate models – specifically concerning the rate and magnitude of global warming.  I cannot tell you how often my staff and I, in our meetings with members of Congress and other opinion leaders, hear the refrain that the science on this issue just isn’t there yet – and that the uncertainties in the science suggest that action is not necessary or desirable at this time.

Our response is that, yes, uncertainties certainly exist about future trends.   But the certainties and near certainties are equally important.  Today, the scientific community agrees on three key points: 1) the earth is warming; 2) the primary cause of this warming is fossil fuel consumption; and 3) if we don’t act now to reduce emissions, this problem will only get worse.

Despite this concensus among scientists,  our nation’s climate change policies have changed very little in the last several years.  The first President Bush, when presented with evidence that climate change was a problem, pursued a strategy of scientific research and voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  The evidence is much stronger and much more conclusive today, and yet our basic strategy has not changed. 

The White House’s new Climate Change Science Program, for example, has a budget comparable, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to its predecessor during the 1990s, the Global Climate Research Program.  There are the more substantive R&D initiatives embraced by this administration – I am talking here about the Hydrogen Fuels Initiative and FutureGen, the much-touted public/private initiative to develop clean coal technologies. But these initiatives, while of value, represent only modest investments in technologies that are decades away from being deployed. 

The real proof of our nation’s climate policies, of course, should be in the results, and the bottom line is that the United States is not even close to doing what’s needed to reduce our emissions and put on us a path toward meeting the long term objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to which the United States is a party. 
In order to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at roughly double pre-industrial levels (that is the equivalent of 550 parts per million), developed countries such as the United States must undertake a concerted effort to deploy existing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and aggressively promote more advanced technologies as old energy capital is retired.  Allowing our near-term emissions to grow will only make this task more daunting and expensive.  But this is precisely the path we are on, and this is because we continue to rely on a voluntary approach to mitigation. 

The current Administration’s plan to reduce the “greenhouse gas intensity” of the U.S. economy actually will result in an increase in absolute emissions.  These emissions will grow by roughly 14 percent above 2000 levels and 30 percent above 1990 levels by 2010.  Needless to say, this is not the direction in which we want to be headed.

Clearly, we can do better.  We must do better.  I have often said that climate change calls on us to create the conditions for an energy technology revolution.  But a revolution needs two things: an impetus, or spark; and a vision, a vision of the change we want and need to see. 

The impetus for the revolution I am talking about, I believe, will have to come from political will.  We have seen some important gains on this front in the last couple of years, as various members of Congress, together with state and local officials, have developed and proposed policies that reflect a real understanding of what’s at stake.  But an energy technology revolution will not happen without broader support from our political leaders.  It will not happen unless and until industry receives clear and consistent policy signals from government that climate change is a priority – and that reducing emissions and developing low-carbon technologies is not a choice but a condition for doing business in America.   This is going to take a level of political will that we have not yet seen, but that I hope, with your help, we can generate in the months and years ahead.

What about the vision of where we need to go?  At the Pew Center, we recently developed something we are calling the “10-50 Solution” to climate change.  By 10-50, we mean we should be looking ahead and thinking about where we want to be on this issue in 50 years.  However, at the same time that we are establishing a long-term goal, and making the necessary investments that will allow us to meet it, we also need to identify the strategies and policies we can start pursuing in the next 10 years and in each decade that follows.  

The bottom line is that we need a sense of urgency as well as a recognition of the long-term nature of both the climate change problem and its ultimate technological solution.   The United Kingdom for example has set 2 goals, a near term goal of a 12.5-percent greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2012 and a longer term one for a 60-percent reduction within 50 years.  The United States needs to adopt something similar, setting targets that will, in turn, drive the development of the policies and technologies we will need in order to reach our goals. 

After hearing all the hemming and hawing around this issue in Washington, you wouldn’t know that near-term reductions in our emissions are readily available – principally through investments in energy efficiency.  Over the decades to come, more advanced technologies such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and possibly advanced nuclear energy can be tapped to provide for the steeper reductions that are ultimately needed.  These technologies will require policies to both push and pull them to the markets, and over time these technologies also must be made available to the developing world.  But we must start now.  Because of the long-lived nature of greenhouse gases, there will always be a substantial lag between the reductions we achieve and the effect of those reductions on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.   

As we consider how to reach our long-term climate objectives, I believe we need to consider three approaches at once. 

The first approach is based on the notion of targets and trading.  Government cannot mandate a revolution.  But it can create the conditions for one.  By establishing clear and definitive goals, or targets, and then summoning the powers of the marketplace to meet them. 

From its inception, the Pew Center has supported cost-effective, market-based approaches to climate change – chiefly, through an economy-wide cap-and-trade system.  This is a policy that sets targets for greenhouse gas emissions and then allows companies the flexibility to trade emission credits in order to achieve their targets in the most economic manner. 

This is the approach taken in the Climate Stewardship Act introduced last year by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain.  Their bill garnered the support of 44 U.S. senators and prompted the first serious debate in Congress about exactly what we need to be doing to respond to the problem of climate change.

Cap-and-trade works because it enables companies to reduce emissions as cheaply as possible.  We all know the example of how trading has worked to achieve cost-effective reductions in emissions of the pollutants that cause acid rain.  In fact, it was because of the United States’ successful use of trading to reduce sulfur emissions that our country insisted that trading be a central element of the Kyoto Protocol.  And now, inspired by Kyoto, the European Union is on the verge of launching the broadest emissions trading system ever established.

What’s more, right here in the United States, nine Northeastern governors, led by New York Governor George Pataki, are developing a multi-state regional “cap-and-trade” initiative aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.  This effort is proceeding well, and we expect them to complete their work, as planned, by April of next year, with agreement on a model rule.

Of course, it will likely be some time before we establish a national, economy-wide cap-and-trade system in the United States—the politics (or the spark) isn’t there yet.  But what might be possible is a series of interlinked trading systems – the east coast with Europe and perhaps with Canada and the west coast as well. Such a “bottom-up” system could be robust enough both to achieve some environmental benefit and keep costs down.  And it would be a valuable learning experience for both sides on this issue, hopefully one that would show that taking action on this issue is both practical and affordable.

The second pathway to the future that I want to focus on is the need for sectoral solutions to climate change.  Simply put, any effort to address climate change must include greenhouse gas reductions from all sectors.  The two biggest sectoral sources of these emissions are transportation and electric power.    Transportation alone accounts for more than a quarter of U.S. energy consumption, and more than a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.   And the electricity sector is responsible for almost 40 percent of emissions.

If we want to achieve progress in reducing emissions, we have to achieve major reductions from these two sectors – and that means serious (short-term) efficiency improvements followed by major technological changes. But not surprisingly within these sectors there is real resistance to this kind of approach. 

The advantage we have in addressing transportation emissions is that the auto industry is highly concentrated – and global as well.  The 10 largest manufacturers account for 74 percent of the global market.  The vast majority of cars are produced – and used – in a relatively small number of countries.  Major fuel producers are also relatively small in number.   What we really need here, and what should be achievable, is an effort to bring all the key players together and chart a path toward a zero emissions future in, say, 30-50 years. 

This is not a proposal to dictate specific technologies – each major manufacturer seems to be going down a different technology path, and they should be allowed to do so – but I believe we will be most successful and efficient and if we adopt a set of globally consistent performance standards. 

No, it wouldn’t be easy, and many will argue that it is simply too hard.  But is it easier, or smarter, to tackle the problem nation by nation, or state by state? At the moment, there are different auto efficiency or CO2 emission standards or goals in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan.  And now here in the US we have a proposal from California to establish greenhouse gas standards for vehicles – a proposal that, if it goes into effect, will doubtless be followed by other states.   I wonder if the time isn’t close for the private sector to decide that a rational, long-term effort, in which they are “at the table” and can help set the milestones, might not be better than the alternative.

The power sector, for its part, is very different.  Power supplies are much more distributed -- there are hundreds, if not thousands of players (far too many to put into a room, let alone around a table), and there are many different ways to generate power.  So here we might focus on selected energy sources, the most important of which, both politically and in terms of emissions contribution, is coal.  There is no denying that coal will figure heavily in our energy future.  It is globally available and it is cheap.  Virtually all of the new power plants being planned here in the United States will burn coal.  China is projected to add as much as 300 gigawatts of generating capacity over the next 10 years, nearly all of it coal.

How then do we continue to provide power but minimize the impact on the climate?  How do we shift investment away from traditional coal plants to newer technologies that will be compatible with the efforts underway to capture CO2 emissions and sequester them deep in the ground?  Here, too, I think we need a combination: a global R&D effort, and a clear set of mandates to pull new and better technologies into the market.  Many in the coal industry are beginning to see the need for a more proactive strategy, and if they can be assured a place in the future, they may  be willing to give up the technologies of the past. 

To put it simply, I think every sector that is a part of the problem has to be a part of the solution – including agriculture and forestry, as well as power and transportation.    

The third pathway to the future that I want to talk about is one that integrates both climate and development.

 We cannot expect developing countries to become full partners in the climate effort if it continues to be seen as a purely environmental issue, a constraint on economic growth and development.  Frankly, this is true in developed countries as well.  We need policies that speak both to climate and to core development priorities.  The place to start, I would suggest, is with national energy policies.  Each nation needs to accept that climate change must be one of the drivers of energy policy, as the UK has.  Along with security of supply and price, we need energy policies that will not only power the global economy and raise living standards, but that will also help us in our efforts to stabilize the climate. 

Similarly, for economies to grow, and for individuals to have the mobility they desire, we must find ways to make our transportation systems more sustainable and more climate friendly.  Charting these paths forward will be crucial if we are to succeed in meeting our long-term climate objective.     

And to meet that objective, we need your help. 

As scientists and engineers, you make decisions about how this nation’s vast technical resources – including human resources – are mobilized.  You decide what research problems to focus your attention on and what solutions look most promising. You are responsible for training and nurturing the next generation of scientists and engineers.  How grant monies are used, how scholarship funding is allocated, even how course curriculums are designed – all of these questions play a role in setting the stage for the technology revolution we need to address the climate challenge. In a sense, our future is in your hands.

Some of you may be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy has issued a “Grand Challenge” to the scientific community to work on the critical issue of hydrogen storage.  While the Pew Center prefers to be “technology neutral”, I would say that there are at least two other “grand challenges” that the scientific community needs to become more engaged in over the next 10 years.  These are:

· First, the development of low-cost and reliable technologies and processes for carbon dioxide capture and geologic sequestration; and
· Second, the development of low-cost renewables and the infrastructure and storage technologies that will enable them to become widespread.

All three of these challenges – hydrogen storage, carbon capture and storage, and low-cost renewables – are currently at different points on the RD&D spectrum.  But they can all benefit enormously from your brains and your help.
This is why I was so delighted to be invited to speak with this group today.  We need your engagement on this issue.  Obviously, some of you and your institutions have been working tirelessly on climate issues for a long time.  But the level of human, institutional and monetary resources that are currently dedicated to these challenges does not fit the magnitude of the problem. Within your universities, your research institutions, your organizations and the broader group of NSF (or “grant-making”) funding committees, there needs to be significantly greater attention to the challenge of a low-carbon energy future – and research resources need to be allocated accordingly.

And it is not just the challenge of reducing the potential severity of climate change that we need to focus on – as I stated at the top of my remarks, we also need to figure out how to adapt to climate change. Unfortunately, because of the momentum of the climate system and, perhaps more importantly, our own economy and technology, we are beyond the point of preventing climate change. 

For example, if we were to somehow cease all greenhouse gas emissions today, we would still be committed to additional global warming of about one degree Fahrenheit over the course of the 21st century.  If we set a more realistic, but still ambitious, target of limiting atmospheric CO2 to a doubling of its pre-industrial concentration, we’d likely experience at least an additional three degrees of warming on average globally, with some regions, including the United States and the poles, expected to warm more. 

This is not a doomsday scenario – quite the contrary, this is one of the most optimistic outcomes we can expect.  But even with such valiant efforts to reduce our emissions, climate change will pose many challenges to our natural ecosystems and resources, economy, and human health.  In fact, we’re already starting to see the effects.  Therefore, we must find a way to adjust or adapt to these challenges – in other words, we need to prepare ourselves for that level of climate change that we can no longer prevent.
Here, too, scientists and engineers have important roles to play.  To adapt to climate change, we must first understand how our environment will respond to the changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level that are currently projected. 

How will our water resources be affected?  Which coastal communities lie in harm’s way?  Which species are at greatest risk?  Then, we must devise methods for preparing these systems for a changing climate – new water management strategies, new coastal development plans, new wildlife conservation efforts.  And, we must do all of this against the backdrop of an ever-growing U.S. and global population, using more resources, more land, and further altering the global environment. 

Although we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we can engineer ourselves out of this problem, prudence dictates that we seek ways to improve our resilience to climate.  The loss of life in Europe during the summer heat wave of 2003, or the death and destruction we witnessed in the Caribbean and the United States from this year’s hurricane season, are the harbingers of what we can expect in a world of continued warming.   

I’m sure many of you currently collaborate with colleagues from all over the world.   But how many of those colleagues are from developing countries?  Building bridges with scientists in the developing world is invaluable for enhancing the capacity of other nations to assess and respond to the challenge of climate change. 

I have talked about a number of priorities today.  I have talked about the need for an energy technology revolution.  I have talked about establishing a long-term goal of achieving a low-carbon economy.  I have talked about three pathways for achieving that goal – through targets and trading, sectoral approaches, and integrating climate and development.  And I have talked about adaptation. 

This is complex stuff, Albert Einstein famously stated that people do not truly understand something unless they can explain it to their grandmother.  Well, the unfortunate fact is that people don’t truly understand the problem of climate change.  All of us need to do a better job explaining this issue in a way that resonates with people – grandmothers and grandchildren alike. 

In a recent paper for the journal Global Environmental Change, scholars Maxwell and Jules Boykoff reported on their analysis of 14 years of climate change coverage in four major daily newspapers: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.  During the period they covered, 1988 to 2002, a clear consensus emerged among climate scientists that climate change was real—and that human activities were a principal cause.  And yet, in the newspapers, the majority of articles (nearly 53 percent) gave roughly equal space to this consensus view and to the view of climate-change skeptics that any warming we have seen is the result of natural fluctuations.

This is the challenge we are up against.  Science has produced a clear case for action on this issue, but people, including some important government leaders, are still are not getting the message.  And I encourage all of you, in your communications with the media and the general public, to make every effort to convey to people what is truly at stake here.  At the same time, I encourage you, as scientists, to help us debunk all the junk science that’s out there and help people focus on what we know to be true. 

The junk science on this issue comes from all over, but there appears to be a cottage industry of industry-funded think tanks that trumpet every objection they can find to the consensus view that climate change is happening and will only get worse.   

So I am asking for your help:

  • If you or someone in your organization is talking to the media about this issue, please emphasize the clear and overwhelming consensus among scientists that this is a very real problem we need to begin addressing right now.
  • If you see or hear policymakers stressing the uncertainties in the climate science, please also set them straight about the certainties and what they tell us about the need for real and serious action.
  • The same goes for media reports on climate change that give equal weight to the scientific consensus on this issue and to the claims of the skeptics.  It is important that scientists become engaged, with letters to the editor, op-ed articles, radio call-ins, whatever it takes. 

It will take some time and persistence, but as the compelling, robust and irrefutable evidence of the human impact on the earth’s climate continues to accumulate, it will become impossible to ignore. 

As scientists, you have the credibility to challenge this nation to step up to the problem of climate change in a manner that reflects the seriousness of this issue.  And, together with your peers throughout the country, you have the capability to come up with the new ideas and the solutions that will create a safer world in the decades to come.  This is your mission, and it is our mission at the Pew Center as well.  And I hope we can work together so that future generations aren’t left wondering why we did so little – when we knew so much.

Thank you very much.