UI prof discusses implications of U.N. climate change report

UI prof discusses implications of U.N. climate change report

Regardless of who's responsible for climate change, the urgent question now is "how to fix it," says a University of Illinois professor who helped draft the latest United Nations report on global climate change.

A report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that governments are not doing enough to avert the potentially catastrophic effects of climate in coming decades. But the experts also said there's time to head off the worst if nations act quickly.

The report said greenhouse emissions are rising faster than ever, but meeting the target of keeping global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels is feasible with an intensive push to cut emissions over the next 15 years.

Without it, global temperatures could rise by 9 degrees by the end of the century, leading to dramatically higher sea levels, melting ice caps and more extreme weather, the U.N. report said.

Cutting emissions aggressively would reduce global economic growth by up to 0.14 percent during the century, the report said, but renewable energies like wind and solar and other efficiency tools are becoming much more affordable, the experts found.

Don Fullerton, professor of finance at the UI's Institute on Government and Public Affairs, was among the 250 scientists contributing to the report. He co-authored a chapter on the social, economic and ethical issues related to climate change.

Former deputy assistant secretary of the treasury from 1985 to '87, Fullerton joined the UI faculty in 2008 as a finance professor and focuses on government regulation, taxes and tax policy. He spent 14 years as a professor of economics at the University of Texas and served on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of Virginia and Princeton University.

The News-Gazette spoke with Fullerton about the report and its implications:

Q: What does the report say about who bears responsibility for addressing climate change?

A: We don't reach any decisions about that, but there's a lot of discussion about a couple of different approaches.

One thing to worry about is whether we owe a responsibility to future generations to avoid dumping our garbage on them. There may be some responsibility in that respect.

But it's also true that those generations are probably going to be richer than we are anyway because of economic growth over time.

So in some sense they could afford to bear some of the brunt of it. But of course we don't want to leave it to them to deal with. That would make it more expensive. The only way to stop major climate change and potential catastrophe is by starting now. ... Some argue that there are benefits to future generations if we're going to save them from catastrophic climate change, that it might be fair to expect them to pay for it.

There's a different set of ethical arguments or debates about the role of different countries. From the vantage point of the United States, the other countries should not expect us to do something about it if they're not doing something about it — a kind of "I will if you will" attitude, which requires an international treaty, which they've been trying to negotiate for decades now. That's not really working very well.

From the point of view of the United States, we're not going to do something unilaterally and put ourselves at a disadvantage because it's going to benefit other countries. Most of the damage from climate change will be to other countries.

From the point of view of the other countries, however, they have an ethical concept of historical responsibility, which is basically the developed countries, the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world — you caused it, you fix it — because climate change is a consequence of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, most of which were emitted by industrialized nations over the past 200 years. ... The United States says that's all water under the bridge, nobody knew that was going to be such a big problem when they were doing that. Besides, that was earlier generations, you can't hold us responsible now for what our ancestors did long ago.

The question is how to fix it, how to get on with it.

Q: What do you believe is the best solution? How should that responsibility be shared?

A: The experts writing the report for the IPCC are supposed to clarify all the pros and cons, not to recommend any "best" solution. We are supposed to provide information for the policymakers from each country to bring to the international negotiations. It is up to them to agree on what each country will do or not. The current bargaining positions are not really compatible with each other. The developing countries believe in "historical responsibility" so they think the industrialized nations should pay for all of the cost of mitigating climate change. The industrial nations like to take the current situation as the starting point, and they point out that all nations will benefit from greenhouse gas emission reduction, so all should help pay. When push comes to shove, however, many of the poorest nations of the world really just can't afford to bear any of the cost; they have no money. So if the rich countries want anything to be done about the problem, they may have to pay for it.

Q: Given the politics involved, and the economic cost associated with alleviating climate change, do you think countries will act on the recommendations? Will the U.S. buy into it? Is there political will to do it?

A: At the moment, I am pessimistic about whether the many nations of the world will be able to reach any meaningful agreement. The U.S. is not very committed to do anything. Emissions will not be reduced substantially, and so we will experience climate change. The only question is how much, and the projections vary. We could experience from 2 to 6 degrees Celsius increase in average temperatures, which will make the summers in Illinois pretty hot, maybe 5 to 8 degrees Farenheit — raising summer temperatures from 90 to 95 or 98 on average. Plus sea level rise, loss of natural habitat, reduction in biodiversity, crop loss and other costs of climate change.

Q: In your opinion what are the most important steps the U.S. could take? Are there a range of options that would help?

A: Every little bit helps. If the U.S. does anything now, it could help reduce that increase from 5 degrees Farenheit to only 4 degrees Farenheit. That may not seem like much, but the real problem is not the mean but the variance. The hottest days will be over 100, and just one extra degree on average could mean fewer deaths from heat stroke. And instead of 5 feet of sea level rise that could impose huge burdens on New Orleans and New York, only 4 feet of sea level rise might be not quite as difficult.

The U.S. Congress is in no mood for a carbon tax, or cap and trade, so President Obama has suggested using executive authority under the Clean Air Act to start to take some steps to require energy efficiency and less carbon-intensive fuels. All of us could at least turn out the lights when we leave the room. Using less electricity means less carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Q: What do you think are the report's three most urgent messages?

A: Politicians have announced that they want to keep the average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (about 4 degrees Farenheit). If major steps are started now, then that target might be possible. But that target is becoming increasingly difficult to reach. The longer the world waits to get started, the more difficult it will be. Waiting 10 years could make that target impossible.

Q: Were you surprised by any of the findings, or did the various modeling studies confirm what you and other researchers already theorized?

A: Most of the authors have been keeping up with the literature, and so are not too surprised, but the point is to get the information out there to the rest of the world — to whom it is more surprising.

Q: Do you expect the report to sway critics who either don't believe in global warming or believe that it's not man-made?

A: Some of those critics have their own reasons for entrenched beliefs, so I do not necessarily expect to convince them. We are hoping to reach those who still have an open mind and are willing to learn about the status of the Earth and its future.

Q: The report talks about the dire consequences by the latter part of this century if nothing is done to alleviate carbon emissions. What would the Midwest look like under that scenario?

A: Here is a map (above) showing what will happen to Illinois over the next few decades, as it moves south to Kentucky, Arkansas, and then Louisiana or Texas. By the end of the century, Illinois will be just like it is now in Austin, Texas.

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