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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Book By Science Journalist Details Ways Planet Can Be Wiped Out

 September 3, 2019 at 10:55 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 There are many ways life on this planet can be wiped out. Nuclear War and asteroid strike supervolcanoes a viral disease, rogue artificial intelligence. But the one getting widespread attention finally and most likely to ruin our planet over a relatively short time is climate change and his new book end times a brief guy to the end of the world. Author Brian Walsh writes about all of these threats in an excerpt from the book published in Time Magazine, the veterans science journalists focuses on the climate crisis specifically why it is we won't act now to save the planet's future. And Brian Walsh joins me via Skype from New York. Welcome to midday edition. It's great to be here. Well, the headlines hit us almost daily. Killer storms like Hurricane Dorian, record setting, wildfires, droughts, flooding, dire reports from the world's top climate experts aside from hardcore climate deniers have asked majority of thinking. People realize we must act now to save the planet. Yet we really aren't doing nearly enough. Why? Speaker 2: 01:00 I think there's a number of reasons for that. Uh, one, you know, is, is a political system that makes that kind of action difficult. So even if you have, which I think we have now, a clear majority of Americans who want to take steps, who want to retread carbon emissions, you'd probably want to see legislation passed. It's hard given the mechanics of the u s senate and of course the current OBGYN or the presidency to get that done. Uh, we saw that even with a Democratic president, Democratic Congress 10 years ago. But the bigger issue really is we have a hard time, I think contemplating these problems that feel part of the future. As you noticed, we're having issues with climate change right now. We can see it, we can see the more powerful storms, we can see higher temperatures, we can see drought and other events. Speaker 2: 01:39 But you know, the, the ultimate impact of climate change will always be felt in the future. And that requires us to take present day action, present day, sacrifice, perhaps economically to pay off in the future. And that's something we just don't do very well as people both that way, whether it's a subject, whether it's something even as personal as saving for retirement. So that limitation really makes it very hard to act on this because we don't see the benefits immediately and therefore it's a lot easier to kind of put it out of our mind or it just raises the bar to doing anything. Speaker 1: 02:08 You're right that we have a difficult time empathizing with our future selves in generations to come. Are we just wired that way? Yeah. Speaker 2: 02:14 It seems that that's the case and perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. I mean, the future obviously isn't guaranteed to any of us. Uh, you know, we expect to live a certain amount of time, but we sort of know in the background mind's that's not necessarily the case. Um, and of course, you know, we, we are wired to want instant returns. You know, we see that in the way we, I think the way we eat, the way we do or do not exercise and those kinds of things. So when it comes to something like climate change, where you, where the actions we take now, by which I mean admitting carbon, because that carbon will stay in the atmosphere for decades into the future, even centuries. That means that what we do now will have an impact on that far future. And you know, because we can't live to see it, I think it's hard to make it real. Speaker 2: 02:54 Um, you know, we can say we obviously wouldn't, we would do anything for our children, our grandchildren, but we're talking about going even further that. And so while we may want to, uh, there's always something in the present pulling us for more immediate gratification, uh, whether that's personal or it's political and as a result, I think it just, it just limits our ability to do that. You know, we really have to work very hard as I think any of us know from our own personal lives when it comes to things like this to really work for the future. And so when you're talking about getting the entire country together or really the entire world together, in the case of climate change, that's something that makes it just incredibly difficult. And I think that helps explain why despite all the sciences, but the evidence we're seeing with our own eyes, you just don't see that, that that actually comes together and you see carbon emissions continue to rise and you're right about the social discount rate a way. Speaker 2: 03:36 It kind of was a value of the future. Explain that. How is it, how does that relate to climate change? It's a little bit like the opposite of, you know, an interest rate around an investment. Basically, you know what economists look, they see, they know where they feel, at least in terms of mainstream economics that you'd rather get paid now than see that down the future. So that means if you look to see a benefit in the future or a cost, it's lessened with every passing year and the discount rate is the percentage of supply to it. Usually that's about 5% that's kind of the median sort of arrange. And that may not sound huge, but what that means is that if you look, you know, a century from now, you know, which is a long way off, but you know, people born now will be alive in a centuries time, basically tremendous damage a century from now. Speaker 2: 04:17 If you ask the economist how much should we spend to a verdict today, they'll actually say very little because we discounted that future so much. We really literally in economic terms do not value it that much. And then when you look even further, you know, two centuries say are further along. It starts to go to almost negligible to the point where at least according to mainstream economists, it doesn't pay to do much of anything to overt huge catastrophic trillions of dollars of damage down like a century or even more. Well, in addition to a series of dire climate warnings, the UN's international panel on climate change developed over a thousand scenarios for climate action, but a relative few keep warming below the critical two degrees Celsius increase. What's the nature of those successful scenarios? How could we actually do what's needed to be done? Those actually involve what are called negative emissions. Speaker 2: 05:04 And that means actually removing carbon from the atmosphere. Uh, usually when we focus on climate action, it's what we want to reduce the carbon we're putting into the atmosphere. You know, we'd switching from coal to renewable energy for instance, but in this case it means actually acting to take that carbon out of the atmosphere. And there's a few ways to do that. You can do it with trees, you know, trees do that every day. Uh, so a massive forest street plan possibly could do it even better way would be do it through artificial means, what are, what's known as carbon removal. And that would actually be very useful because it could, it could sort of get around that old problem of, of working for the future. Because if we can actually now in the, in the present day, take action to immediately reduce climate change, which is what it would happen. Speaker 2: 05:42 If we could take that carbon out of the atmosphere, we'd feel the benefits right away and we're much more likely to do something if we get that immediate gratification. The problem, of course is that's not something yet that we know how to do. Not Economically. There are some scientists who have worked on it who have some ideas and theories, but really we need a massive investment program around that kind of a, an Apollo project and Manhattan project, something like that, to get that going to the point where it becomes economically feasible. If we can do that, that's the fastest way to diffuse climate change. Speaker 1: 06:08 Now, we talked about the failure of leadership across the planet here, a at the, at the time being, but what about young people, the 18 to 29 population who seem to get climate change? Can we at least hope that these upcoming leaders can do something today to convince us all to take action now? Speaker 2: 06:24 I certainly hope so. You know, I think when you see people that grew to 13 Berg, the European sixteen-year-old climate activists who recently crossed the ocean on a boat to come here to the United States to agitate for climate action, that makes me feel as if the next generation does really care about this. They really do focus on it. For them. It's equivalent to, you know, I'm, I'm 41 years old, you know, people a little bit older than I am. Remember the Cold War and nuclear war. That was something we were focused on this as an existential threat. Definitely in this case for the younger people, climate change is that, and I would hope and think that as they come to power, they're going to be bringing different attitudes to it. That said, you know, they'll still have to fight that same difficulty of, of, of, of focusing on the future that we all do. I don't, that's not generational, that's human, but I think you can strip be sure that they care about it more. That will hopefully translate into political action and political action really is what will make the difference in the long run. Speaker 1: 07:13 I've been speaking with Brian Walsh, author of the new book, and Time's a brief guide to the end of the world. Thank you very much. Speaker 2: 07:19 Thank you.

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There are many ways life on this planet can be wiped out: nuclear war, an asteroid strike, super-volcanoes, viral disease, rogue artificial intelligence. But the one most likely to ruin our planet over a relatively short time, is climate change.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments