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Scripps Science Delegation At Climate Change Conference

Audio

Aired 12/14/09

A science delegation from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen presenting findings on the threat climate change poses to the world's oceans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The climate summit in Copenhagen is, of course, dealing with the global impact of climate change. But within the international political deal-making and major statements by world leaders, it's good to remember that California has a role and a stake in what will be become the Copenhagen Protocol. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, long an advocate of limiting pollution and greenhouse gases, is addressing the convention along with leading climate scientists, some from UC San Diego. Joining me from Copenhagen is Professor Tony Haymet. He’s Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences there. And, Professor Haymet, thank you so much for being with us today.

TONY HAYMET (Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences, UCSD): My pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, we are hearing reports that some people fear the climate conference in Copenhagen is breaking down over what the poor nations are demanding of the rich nations and the boycott that’s going on. What’s your assessment?

HAYMET: Well, you’re asking a scientist to comment on international politics but I actually take an optimistic view. I think probably it’s negotiation as usual we’re getting on the first day of the last week. And today, I understand, African nations and some small island states staged a temporary walkout but I think it’s all part of the process. I tend to think they’ve actually done us a favor by bringing the immediacy of the impacts, especially on low-lying states and Pacific and Caribbean Island states that are about to be flooded by our sea level rise. So I think they’ve probably done us a favor.

CAVANAUGH: What is the rift over? It has something to do with the poorer nations would like richer countries to cut their emissions more?

HAYMET: Well, Tuvalu, last Tuesday, asked that everybody at the conference agree to binding targets…

CAVANAUGH: I see.

HAYMET: …and that did cause a split between – in what’s called the G-77, between China and India, who will, of course, get the best deal that they can negotiation and they would prefer not to have binding targets. But Tuvalu quite rightly made the issue – made the point that if China doesn’t sign up, then what the rest of us do doesn’t matter. Of course, the same thing is true with the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And Tuvalu is an African nation?

HAYMET: No, Tuvalu is a Pacific Island state, a very low-lying Pacific Island state, a very tiny country. It has a very talented delegation here and they’ve already been affected by sea level rise, and most scientists believe that that sea level rise, as explained in the recent report, IPCC report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, is caused by human emissions.

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of oceans, this is World Ocean Day at Copenhagen, and I know that the scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCSD are very much interested in that and a part of that. Tell us a little bit about the contributions that you’re making to the Copenhagen conference.

HAYMET: Well, Scripps came here with some students for an educational experience, so they can see, you know, how the world organizes its affairs and I should say I’m very grateful to our donors who made it possible for us to come without dipping into any taxpayers money. We brought three science issues with us, to be a science provider to try to get the latest science on the table. Sometimes the delegations are not aware that the world has moved on since Kyoto and that our scientists are working away late into the night trying to figure out the impact of human evolution on the planet. So we’ve been able to have great access, actually. We’re accredited, we’re inside the Bella Pavilion, where the convention is held. We have great access to individual nations, delegations, and we’ve also had a number of press conferences and media events.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Professor Tony Haymet. He’s Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, and he is talking with us from Copenhagen. And Professor Haymet, do you think that every once in awhile or perhaps more often than that the ocean, the global warming impact on oceans is perhaps overlooked because of what – we’re so obsessed with the air and the climate and what we can feel?

HAYMET: Absolutely. We oceanographers started this mess. Back in 1958, my great predecessor at Scripps, Roger Revelle, hired Charles David Keeling as a post-doc to come down from Cal Tech and do the very first measurements of the CO2 in the atmosphere. So our oceanographers, you know, really started the scientific documentation, the collection of data. Mathematicians and others going way back to Tyndall and Aranius had hypotheses about what would happen if we doubled the concentration of CO2 but you really don’t know in science until you actually do the measurements, and that’s what we started 52 years ago. So we’re to blame or to thank, depending on your world view. 22 years ago, the very same Charles David Keeling started measuring the acidity of the ocean and that’s been one of the focuses of our day today on Ocean Day, to document the 30% percent increase in acidity in our oceans over the last 150 years and the terrible impacts that that has on everything that lives in the ocean, especially anything that makes a calcium carbonate shell.

CAVANAUGH: At Copenhagen, what have Scripps scientists actually presented on?

HAYMET: Well, three things, that ocean acidification. Andrew Dixon, my colleague, has explained the chemistry, why it is that CO2 dissolves into the ocean. It increases the acidity and drives down the carbonate ion concentration so if you’re a coral or a little snail like a terrapod, that’s the favorite food of juvenile salmon, initially, you have a great deal of trouble making your shell and then eventually if we keep going in this ‘business as usual’ scenario, we can actually dissolve the shells of organisms and, indeed, for short periods of time off the coast of Northern California near Trinidad Head, our colleague Dick Feely from NOAA has actually measured corrosive water very close to the coast of California. So this is not a hypothetical issue, it’s not a theory, this is actual measured data. Anyone can go out, collect this water, and put their favorite snail in it and see what happens themselves. So that’s been a great issue. And if you type ‘ocean acidification’ into your favorite search engine, you’ll see over the last 10 days that with – together with many partners here, other universities, IUCN, we’ve managed to bring this issue to the stage. And a filmmaker friend of ours, Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger, have been showing their movie on ocean acidification. It’s called “The Sea Change.” It’s a very gentle movie, it’s not a single graph in the movie, as they like to say. But we have had quite a few showings and after the showing we have a number of Scripps scientists on a panel to answer the audience questions. So that’s one of the three things that we’ve been able to accomplish in the last 10 days.

CAVANAUGH: Now the UCSD Scripps scientists and scientists alone are not the only people from California at the conference. You spoke with California Secretary for Natural Resources Mike Chrisman. I wonder what did he have to say. What was his assessment of what was going on?

HAYMET: Well, Mike also addressed the Ocean Day and, you know, California is widely regarded as a hero in the climate change community because, you know, as everybody knows, we’ve always been out in front of the environmental issues, whether it’s mandating catalytic converters in our automobiles way back in – remember we were told that it would be too expensive and Detroit couldn’t make special cars for us. Well, now every automobile on the planet has a catalytic converter. And so it’s also true that, you know, through our legislation, now Senator Fran Pavley and then endorsed by the governor, our legislation, AB-32, is widely regarded as some of the most important legislation and we’ve set for ourselves what appeared a few years ago to be very tough targets. I think we now realize that, you know, thanks to the innovative atmosphere of California we’re at least going to meet those early targets relatively easy – easily.

CAVANAUGH: And the governor is going to be speaking at the conference this week, is that right? Governor Schwarzenegger? What…

HAYMET: That’s what we’re told but, you know, I know never to confirm that until I actually see our governor in the flesh.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Well, I wonder what’s been the response by the conference participants to what the California delegation, if I may characterize it as such, has been presenting?

HAYMET: Well, you know, if I could paraphrase, you know, Secretary Chrisman and I think Secretary Adams from the California EPA will be here, I think their message is that being good to the planet is good for business and certainly we feel in California that by being innovators, by looking after our energy independence, by freeing our souls from foreign oil, and making most of our energy right in California, that we’ll not only be a more secure state but we will show, you know, profit from the – being able to market our technologies invented and built in California around the world. And I think they bring a very positive message about how we don’t have to fear the changes that are coming to us, we – It’s true that for 150 years, we’ve developed our communities by burning fossil fuels but we now know and we’ve known really since 1965 that an inadvertent byproduct of that prosperity is CO2, and now we’re moving on to another profitable period for our communities where we make our electricity without making CO2. So I think that’s a very positive message that they bring, and I know that it resonates in the international community.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Haymet, I’m interested, as a climate scientist and basically, I suppose, to a small extent as a tourist, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve witnessed so far at the Copenhagen conference?

HAYMET: Well, I inadvertently got in the middle of a demonstration on the metro out to the Bella Center on Saturday night but we had a session, Scripps session, on ocean acidification at eight o’clock on Saturday night. We’re pretty hardworking over here. And two stops from the Bella Center, about 1,000 young people got on the metro and, you know, it kind of reminded me of the late sixties but I just found them charming people. And, you know, I happened to have a tie on because, you know, that’s how you make an impact inside the Bella Center, you know, and they initially received me quite unfavorably but after we chatted for awhile I found them to be very positive, remarkably lacking in bitterness. You know, they didn’t say to me, your generation caused this problem, you know, why are you leaving the planet in such a mess for us. They just wanted to learn what we’ve discovered and then sort of get out of the way and roll up their sleeves and fix it.

CAVANAUGH: We’ve been hearing over there that the Danish police are really cracking down on the demonstrators. What is your assessment of how those demonstrations have been going?

HAYMET: Well, I’ve been inside most of the time but I think it’s fair that the Danish police are pretty serious customers, you know, and I – You know, they probably handle things a little bit differently than we would handle protests in California but one-on-one I’ve had a lot of chance to speak to them while waiting in the endless lines to get through the airport-style security to get into the Bella Center and I find them to be charming and curious about what’s going on and, in fact, quite proud that the whole world, 192 nations, have come to Copenhagen, Hopenhagen, as they like to be branded…

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

HAYMET: …to try and solve this issue.

CAVANAUGH: Now considering that there is now a boycott, it may be simply a political machination but there’s a boycott by the poorer nations of any working groups and so forth, do you think this conference will, indeed, be Hopenhagen? What are the realistic expectations now for the conference?

HAYMET: Well, I’ve been told it’s a temporary walkout. I, you know, again, it’s not for a scientist to go into the niceties of diplomatic language but I’m not sure it’s a boycott. Look, I still think there’s a lot of hope here. The main thing is that, you know, 192 nations are here and, you know, maybe with the exception of Saudi Arabia they believe that human emissions are causing a problem. You know, when Charles David Keeling started 52 years ago, there was probably just a handful of people, so, you know, if you want to find something positive to say about it, you know, that’s quite an accomplishment in 52 years, and the fact it was done right in San Diego County, I think, is a source of pride for us. So I think the fact that those nations are here, the fact that they’re haggling, the fact that each nation is trying to get the best deal for itself, well, you know, that’s what we would expect from our representatives and I’m sure the citizens of those countries feel the same way.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Haymet, thank you so much for speaking with us this morning.

HAYMET: My pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Tony Haymet from Copenhagen. He is Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences. If you’d like to comment on this segment, please do it online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. Coming up, the case against positive thinking, that’s ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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