I enjoyed guest teaching for the second time this week in a Climate Policy Implications class for senior undergraduate and graduate students. On Tuesday, we watched most of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “11th Hour“. Yesterday, the class first broke into groups to discuss their reactions. I was pleased to hear how many clearly identified the negative emotions invoked by disaster imagery. They felt, as most people do, uninspired to take action based solely on the images in the first part of the movie. I know DiCaprio feels strongly about this issue, and I don’t intend that this commentary as a slight against his efforts. As I told the class, I’m sure designing, shooting and editing a documentary is an expensive, laborious affair. That said, the class agreed that the classic recipe for this type of film needs to change. More on that below.
The smaller groups shared their group discussion’s themes with each other. A couple of students commented that their discussions tend to converge to the same point class after class. I had the same experience when I took the course. I think the reason is the silo-ing effect of same-tribe thinkers. The students are taking a Climate Policy Implications class because, for whatever reason, they are motivated to do something about climate change. After a handful of classes, discussions are likely to repeat and feel stale. The key is for someone to play devil’s advocate – even if they don’t announce that effort beforehand. Thought doesn’t become critical until you face a different viewpoint and are forced to logically defend your own beliefs.
I showed the class some work I did on calculating US decarbonization as part of one of my graduate policy classes. The intent was to drive home the scale of the problem. As I wrote in my last post,
What does 400 ppm mean? 8.5 W/m^2? 2C warming?
More specifically to my project, what does MMT CO2 or MMT CO2/$1,000 GDP mean? These concepts are extremely abstract and our reaction to them is typically to push them aside and convince ourselves that we understand them well enough to continue with the discussion. But we don’t. Sure, experts have highly technical definitions and work with these units, but what about the public whom those experts are trying to convince climate change is a Really Important Subject? How can they understand the scope and scale of the policy goals scientists push with increasing fervor?
Here is one way. Assume the US ratified the Kyoto Protocol (never happened) and is working to achieve both 2020 and 2050 CO2 emission reduction goals. Assume further that the US will not experience any increase in energy demand between 2008 and 2050 (it helps simplify some math). In order to achieve CO2 emission reductions, our fossil fuel dominant energy portfolio needs to change into a renewable dominant portfolio. So I used non-fossil power plants as my final metric by which to measure emissions reductions (again, because MMT CO2 is too abstract a concept). Based on emissions and GDP data through 2008, the US would have to build and operate over 400 nuclear power plants between 2008 and 2020 ( and more than 1,000 by 2050) to achieve Kyoto Annex I 2020 and 2050 emissions goals. Put another way, the US would have to build, install, and operate nearly 400,000 wind turbines between 2008 and 2020 (and ~1.05 million wind turbines by 2050) to achieve 2020 and 2050 emissions goals.
Those Kyoto emissions goals are in line with keeping global annual mean temperatures in 2100 near 2C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. And those numbers are just for the US. In 2008, the US emitted just under 1/5 the globe’s CO2 emissions. Without any increase in energy usage between 2008 and 2050 globally (think that will happen?), scale those numbers up by 5. If developing countries want to develop (they should and they are), we have to scale those numbers up even more. To put it simply, we aren’t accomplishing those goals. Not one country is – even those EU countries who ratified Kyoto and even tried to implement new energy policies that were more aggressive than those in the US.
We aren’t building dozens of nuclear power plants per year or tens of thousands of wind turbines per year or thousands of solar thermal plants per year.
We will not meet 2020 Kyoto emissions reduction goals.
We will not meet 2050 Kyoto emissions reduction goals.
What do those statements mean? To me, the headline take-home message – and I’ve written about this since I convinced myself of it with this project – is we will not keep global annual mean temperatures in 2100 below 2C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. The scale and scope of that goal is – currently – too big. Absent significant technological research investment and innovation, followed by deep and widespread market deployment of new technologies, global temperatures in 2100 will very likely exceed 2C. On our current emissions trajectory, global temperatures in 2100 will likely be between 4C and 6C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures.
That is an important acknowledgment to make, based on sound science and math. And here is where I break with contemporary scientists: I won’t make a normative statement about those projections. They are what they are. Given their likelihood, adaptation becomes just as important to me as mitigation. We of course have to mitigate to the maximum extent we can. But we will increasingly force the climate the rest of this century and into future centuries. That forcing will result in climate change effects that we have to address – there is no getting around that. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make it so.
I tried to convey to the class that while recognizing this scope is sobering, I use it while doing my research as motivation. Where there is challenge, there is also opportunity. It is up to us to reach for that opportunity.
Going back to my first paragraph, I told the class that we are responsible for changing the documentary recipe. I asked if any of them had friends they knew in different university departments: film, creative writing, etc. Could they begin to work with these folks to redefine climate documentaries in an attempt to inspire people?
We are responsible for asking new and different questions about climate change so that we can identify new and different answers and opportunities. It’s also what I want to accomplish with this blog.