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Carbon Conversation 

A 30-year veteran of the climate battles considers the possibility of a clean-tech future


WBOTTOM LINE: 'Everybody will pay more money,' Dr. Schneider says of future fuel prices predicted for climate change management. 'But we're already paying money in the form of burned-down forests and children's asthma. That's what we call "external cost." You've got to make the price of energy include all the costs.'

Dr. Stephen Schneider is a climatologist, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and a 1992 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient. He has been in the trenches of the climate change battle since the 1970s and has advised presidents from Nixon to Obama on how to manage the threat posed by global warming. The insanely busy Schneider (the following interview was cobbled together from four separate phone calls during which he was at the airport, grabbing a bite to eat, waiting in a doctor's office and rushing to class) is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. His new book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate, will be published next month by the National Geographic Society. Writer Jessica Lussenhop caught up with him to discuss the 350 concept—which refers to reducing our current carbon dioxide load to the sustainable figure of 350 parts per million—and more.

How long have you been on board with the 350-parts-per-million figure?

Stephen Schneider: Since back in the 1970s. We were well below 350, and I was trying to get us off the pathway of the mega-increases, and we failed. The issue will [now] be, how much are we going to overshoot the safe target? There's no doubt we already have, and we will go far before we go back.

As we look to reduce that number, what new technologies are you excited about?

We have to work across a whole spectrum and see who wins. I call it a "learning-by-doing feeding frenzy." Let's see how much carbon we can take out of smokestacks and coal plants so that we have a smooth transition toward renewables. And can we put it underground permanently and safely? Not clear. Let's work on that. How about putting it in high concentrations into algae, and the algae can be used for biofuels? Great idea. How about bio-char? Let's take agricultural waste or forest plantation waste, cook them at 300 degrees for an hour and get the natural gas off of the top, and then get char—which is sort of charcoal at the bottom—which you can add to the soil and sequester carbon.

There are even crazy ideas to build artificial trees, a chemical process where you run water by certain kinds of chemicals. And then there's a little company in Silicon Valley called Calera, and they're going to try and actually see if they can make real cement by a different chemical process that, instead of giving CO2 up when it hardens, it takes it up.

So now, will it work? Will any of these things work? We don't know yet, but we've got to give all these clever ideas a chance. Problem is, can you scale it up from the thousands of tons in current demonstrated experiments to the hundreds of billions of tons it has to be to offset a significant fraction of potential CO2 emissions eventually? So the big problem is the s-word: scalability.

What are some ideas that you're not so excited about?

I'm un-excited about throwing dust in the stratosphere. It's called "radiative forcing offset." Instead of controlling the CO2, you're controlling the number of watts per square meter beating on the earth. The reason it's very unexciting to me is there is a degree of inadvertent climate modification. The second problem is, who do you trust? We now know that the extra CO2 we have in the air—a significant amount of it, 20, 30 percent—is going to last a thousand years in the air. That means we have to have a group of climate controllers for centuries. Do you think that we can trust this planet to have world peace for that long? I mean, to have cooperation, where there's not going to be a lapse? And the final reason is, it doesn't stop ocean acidification.

The only way I could conceive of why they would want to do radiative forcing management would be if the world proves to be so morally bankrupt and does absolutely nothing in the next 25 years, and mega-catastrophic outcomes start to occur. You know, super-hurricanes and all that stuff. People say, "Oh my God, what have we done?" It takes another 30 years to slow down the supertanker, and then we used this kind of stuff for a few decades while we invent carbon-removal geo-engineering. I might reluctantly say, "Well, if you have a heroin addict and you initially get them on methadone on the way to the hospital, it's probably better than dumping them."

What about solutions on a policy level?

One is performance standards. California has the lowest energy use and the lowest carbon dioxide footprint per capita. It's a big footprint, but per capita it's the lowest in the United States. Europe and Japan are around California. So how could that happen?

There's always been a culture of public protection. California has had, for the last 40 years, rules, and these rules are very strict building codes on double-pane windows and insulation and air conditioners and refrigerators and lots of other things. The states have to set up an energy commission, and the energy commissions set the rules. The U.S. must do this, the rest of the world must do this. It's what we call the low-hanging fruit. It's the cheapest way.

Then there's the tax on carbon. That's the market solution. It could be a direct price—meaning you just have a tax, $50 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted—or a shadow price, which is a cap. You've heard of cap and trade. What cap and trade means is that you cap the emissions, x number of million tons for the whole economy. Now that means every power plant and every other person has some limit. And you're not going to cap an individual driving a car, so what you're going to do is cap the gasoline purchasers. It's got to be mandatory—either cap or price. I prefer price, I could live with a cap. I'll manage.

The last part of it—for me, I will pay more money. So will you. Everybody will pay more money. But we're already paying money in the form of burned-down forests and children with asthma. That's what we call 'external cost.' You've got to make the price of energy include all the costs.

There's one side of the problem. We've got a world used to the current price, and for those people with low incomes, it's going to be very difficult. For me, it's going to affect the quality of the Pinot Noir I drink. A poor person, it's going to affect the quality of the protein their family eats. So not only do you have to protect the commons by having a fee for dumping your waste in the atmospheric sewer, but you also have to deal with the people who would be differentially hurt. I do not believe you hold the sustainability agenda of the planet hostage for poverty. You've got to cure poverty, but not by artificial low prices and energy.

So what you would have to do is two things: protect the commons through increasing the price of energy, and then deal with poverty through, say, vouchers for people to buy a very highly efficient new hybrid car, free or low-cost improvement to the energy efficiency of their homes or a cash return.

We have to deal with equity, and we have to deal with environmental effectiveness, and this means two acts of good governance in a world that has trouble getting one act of good governance.

So I'm not pretending what I'm saying is easy. But there's no defensible reason we couldn't do everything I just said. The only thing is political will and people's awareness.

Do you see that kind of political will in the Obama administration?

Dramatically. Relative to the past, dramatically. Remember, in the previous administration we were going in the wrong direction. In this administration, what we've got is the political will to get things done. They've put their money where their mouth is. They got with the stimulus bill $100 billion—that's a lot of money—for green-tech development.

They still have congress in bed with all the special interests in their districts. Every coal mine, every power plant, all the farmers who want to use fertilizer at the lowest price—these people only think about their own bottom line and their own backyard, never concerned about the country and less about the planet. So the difficulty is, he's got to fight with the pork-barrel lions in congress, including Democrats, and it takes major leadership. He's got to make compromises, but he's got to turn the ship around. You don't turn a tanker around quickly.

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