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U.N. Report: Avoiding Climate Change Possible With 'Substantial Emission Reductions'

April 21, 2014 1:31 p.m.


David Victor, a professor of international relations and director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego, is one of the authors of a report. He's also author of the book "Global Warming Gridlock."

Related Story: U.N. Report: Avoiding Climate Change Possible With 'Substantial Emission Reductions'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: You're listing to Midday Edition, I am Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. The effects of climate change are undeniable, but governments are still behind the curve in taking action to slow the spread of greenhouse gases. The United Nation's intergovernmental panel on climate change has just released its fifth report on the rapidly closing window of time to take action on reducing greenhouse gases. David Victor is one of the authors of this report. Doctor Victor is a professor in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is also author of the book Global Warming Gridlock. Doctor Victor, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID VICTOR: My pleasure.

ALISON ST. JOHN: This report was done by a panel set up by the United Nations to advise the government on climate change, tell us who was involved in the research.

DAVID VICTOR: There are about 300 authors of this report, who worked over the last three or four years and roughly every seven years we put out one of these reports. This particular report that we're talking about today is the third in a trilogy of reports released since last September looking at the underlying science of climate change, the impact of climate change and our group,which focused on policies that could control the omissions that lead to climate change.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Give us the layman's version, if you would, of the basic bottom line conclusions. What did they find?

DAVID VICTOR: It was a grim picture. Starting at seven or eight years ago governments focused on stopping global warming, at about 2∞ above pre-industrial level. That already would've produced huge impacts on the climate, naturally ecosystem and crops and so on. But they set the goal at 2∞. One of the things that we did in the new report is the feasibility of that goal, because governments have adopted several policies but those policies have not had any impact on emissions. One of the conclusions from the report is that time is running out to stop warming at 2∞. Two degrees is finished, we are now looking at blowing through the goal and looking at 2 1/2 to 3∞, and even that will be very difficult.

ALISON ST. JOHN: One of the things that you're looking at is that governments need to start preparing for the impact of climate change because it's too late to stop it.

DAVID VICTOR: Yes, they need to do both, they need to prepare for the impacts of climate change which is in many ways inevitable. Like in San Diego, sea level will be rising and oceans will become a little more acidic. A lot of impacts on Ocean and natural ecosystems on the coastline, and at the same time we need to get serious about controlling emissions and that has been very difficult. Governments have been talking about that in international diplomatic talks for more than two decades now, and they are very good at talking, but not good at actually getting much done.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Political conundrum, and the United States is one of the biggest generators of greenhouse gases along with China. How do our efforts, compare to other nations?

DAVID VICTOR: Compared to Europe which has done a lot in this area, our efforts are pretty weak. We have been lucky because we have found shale gas in particular, which has less emission than coal. It is an alternative for generating electricity and has allowed us to lower emissions and we have adopted more efficient energy policies and a variety of other things. But those are really only reducing emissions by a few percent. To put that into perspective, we want to stop global morning at two or two and half degrees, we have to look at it global cut of emissions by 50% by mid-century. That means in some ways richer countries like the United States will have to make even deeper cuts, 80% or something like that. We are not even in the right ballpark in terms of cutting emissions needed to stop global warming.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Which other countries around the globe are doing a better job than we are?

DAVID VICTOR: I would say European countries are doing the most. Some of those countries like Germany, Britain to some degree, France, because of a lot of nuclear power have been doing more than any other country on the planet. Across the industrialized world, the United States, Canada, Australia, we're doing the least. And there are countries in the middle. This is a huge range and that is difficult things for diplomats to deal with because each country will come at the problem with their own individual perspective and capabilities. One of the tricks in making diplomacy work in these areas is coming up with an international agreement that gives each country confidence that other countries are doing something, but have enough flex ability to adjust to individual circumstances. So far that has been really difficult.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right, we do hear a lot about cap and trade, and I understand that is some of the policies that you feel are failing, why and what would be better?

DAVID VICTOR: We looked at all policies governments are adopting, and what we found that the number of policies being adopted in industrialized and developing countries, the number has gone up exponentially since last time we did one of these big reports in 2007. But we add up the effect of all of those policies and the effect emissions, it has been modest to almost zero. One of the reasons that we have been skeptical about cap and trade, governments that have adopted cap and trade systems have not really set the caps tightly. So, have a system in the northeastern United States where the cap is on the relevant, and European countries all have a cap which is still pretty loose. Interestingly the cap in California has been one of the best in the world because we have set limits on emissions. Not enough to make a difference in the world, but at least a down payment.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And I understand there are some other strategies that I have not heard so much about, like storing carbon dioxide underground, what is that?

DAVID VICTOR: There are a lot of different ways to cut emissions, in general you can cut emissions by making the energy system more efficient and better standards for refrigerators, changing behavior, changing diet, vegetarian diet causes fewer emissions than a meat diet. There are a number of options available, and the models used to assess long-term problems like big technologies that can avoid emissions in the first place. Zero emission technology like nuclear power, bioenergy carbon capture and storage. The idea is basically that you grow plants that pull carbon dioxide through photosynthesis out of the atmosphere, and you burn those plants in a biomass in a power plant, and that generates electricity. And you capture the pollution before goes back into the atmosphere and put it underground, so you see you have a power plant that generate something useful, electricity at negative omissions. That is great, but for one problem which is that there aren't any of these plants in the world. That is one of the big challenges, to create the right incentives that firms will go off and test new ideas like bioenergy plants and bring them up to scale, and then demonstrate that they are at least feasible along with the policies needed to encourage firms to actually start building these plants in large numbers.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Right, you're talking about political resistance to some of the changes that could actually work if we just started to take action. What you think will drive climate policy if it is not climate change? Is there anything else that could provide incentive for elected officials of whatever party to take action?

DAVID VICTOR: I think climate change will start driving policy to a greater degree. People are starting to see more of the impacts in the greater world, which are consistent with human caused climate change. That will inspire action to some degree. I think the recovering economy will help, public concern about the environment was very high in 2007 and then came along the financial crisis and people understandably we started focusing on other things. And so, the economy has come back and public concern about environmental issues including climate change is going up. I think technological change will help as well. I think one of the reasons that the government does not do much in this area is that it is expensive, and affects economic competitiveness, and creates perverse incentives to avoid costly action. I think as we test new technologies and demonstrate that they are viable, give firms confidence that it is not going to break the bank, that will make it a bit easier. I am very pessimistic of the short term because all of those things that I've been talking about take a while to unfold. I am optimistic on the long-term but short-term will see still quite a lot of inaction.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I'm talking to Doctor David Victor of UCSD that is part of the recent International Panel on Climate Change. There are still elected officials that don't believe the science, even though thousands of scientists were involved in the study. How can we overcome political resistance blocking any kind of action?

DAVID VICTOR: That is one of the reasons our group, the International Panel on Climate Change was set up in the first place, it was designed to create a consensus statement as best we can. Put A consensus statement from scientists all around the world. It is extraordinary in that regard. I cannot imagine getting 300 of my colleagues to agree on anything and yet here we have 300 scientists working for several years together who agree on core messages of the report. We have governments who agreed to the messages as well, that I think is the biggest value of the IPCC. Sure there are people do not still agree and some people think that scientists are wrong, but there are outliers and people who don't agree with anything. I think that is the nature of Democratic rule.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And the thing is, even though polls show that the general public agrees that climate change is a reality, they are not putting it at the top of the political agenda. We cannot just blame our political leaders.

DAVID VICTOR: No, it is rooted in the public and the fact that concern of problems comes and goes and people pay attention to different things and frankly people are concerned about cost as they should be. When you look at the history of international environmental problems like the ozone layer, ultimately what really solves these problems is the appearance of new technology encouraged by policy. Technologically innovation that results in people willing to do bold things. I am hopeful that we will see that in the energy face. So far we're seeing green shoots here and there but nothing radical and new and until we do we will find this is politically very difficult.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the idea that change starts at the bottom, the grassroots approach, is that even feasible when you look at what needs to happen? How significant are changes in San Diego County, for example?

DAVID VICTOR: I think grassroots is important because it gives people confidence that things can get done. It is important because it puts pressure on political leaders. But we also have to be realistic as to how far individual grassroots efforts can go. California within the United States, California is by far the leading state along with the New York and others in doing things about climate change. But California emissions are still only 1% of the world's total. If we make deep cuts here, it does not have impact automatically on the rest of the world. We have to think in California, San Diego, and all of these initiatives about foreign-policy, not our own strategy for admissions but creating strategies for other jurisdictions around the world to do something serious as well.

ALISON ST. JOHN:) San Diego we have the fact that the San Onofre nuclear power plant has closed down, and you are on the committee to oversee the shutdown. But it has left us with a challenge because it was one of the cleanest way to generate energy, I believe SDG & E is now considering gas powered plants as an attentive, what is your take on that?

DAVID VICTOR: I think all sorts of energy should compete and San Onofre has had its problems and its own financial difficulties, and that is discussion for another day. But if we will deal with the climate problem, we need to create an incentive for these different energy sources to compete while reducing emissions. We in Southern California will replace the San Onofre power with mainly natural gas power which is better than cold but natural gas still causes emissions, and I think as we start to really tighten screws on these omissions and cause the closet global warming will see even stronger pressure for other kinds of energy sources. Whether it is renewable or more nuclear power, maybe you power plants with carbon capture and storage, a lot of energy efficiency. We need to create a market place for these to compete and also where they reflect the full cost and the environment.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Do think that the alternatives for sustainable energy are being pursued adequately in San Diego County?

DAVID VICTOR: I think we're doing our part that I think it is very hard for an individual County or an individual state to make a big dent on the problem, because ultimately the problem requires massive investment in research, development, and deployment of new technologies. Those are what we call global public good, but knowledge around a new kind of plant power plant is something that really benefit the entire planet. And that requires action at the national level and increasingly on the international level. And I think in a think we can encourage the science there. United States and China have a series of partnerships now to develop clean energy sources, and a variety of governments in partnerships now. We're kind of moving in that direction now. San Diego, other cities and counties can play a role but this really requires a big federal and international push.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And you do talk about the cost, that is obviously the big hurdle. But I understand that you think it would be less than it costs to provide healthcare to tackle climate change, is that true?

DAVID VICTOR: Yes, our models show that reasonably well designed climate change policy would cost a couple percent of global economic output of GDP every year, by mid century. The that is a serious amount of money, you can only do 1% a hundred times and you have no economy left. But, it is within the range of what we spend on other important social priorities like healthcare. Healthcare is 10% of the economy and more in some states of than others, and we put it in that perspective. To realize that this is really a major challenge to the health of global ecosystems, and to the current way of economic production, it is worth spending the money.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Yes, it is about our survival. Doctor Victor, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID VICTOR: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure talking with you.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Doctor David Victor is author of the book Global Warming Gridlock, and also one of the authors of the latest report with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.