Alright, my job for this talk is to really speak primarily at the global scale, and I know during the course of the day so far I’ve been over to a number of the sessions, and we’ve been working on these topics from local to global scales, and so what I’m going to look at is particularly what we as Earth Systems scientists know, and what we can measure, and what the consequences are policy-wise in global climate and global carbon emissions. I’ve actually been really pleased today to see that we didn’t have to start by arguing about whether global warming is real or not. And for many years, it seemed like a conference like this first, I had to spend the first day arguing back and forth whether climate change is real. Well I’ve got it down to one slide now. There’s the slide, I would think in this audience, everybody has seen all the details. Obviously, we have two or three slides for each one of those arrows, and I’m not going to spend my time talking about that. We’ve tried to distill all that data into one single climate change index, a group I work with in Stockholm, and so, to try to make it an easier digestion to the non-scientist, of where is the Earth system going.
And, I think you can see in the year by year progression, of this climate change index, is that climate change and impacts are just relentlessly going up. I like this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is probably the best science spokesman in the country nowadays, and you can see, when asked whether I believe in global warming, I just replied, “Do you believe in gravity?” I mean, to us in Earth Science it’s that fundamental. We’re talking about pure physics of the Earth’s systems here and so there’s not to us, it’s as fundamental as gravity. The sort of things that we look at. And I thought this was actually a quite remarkable event a couple of months ago, that the Senate voted 97 to one that climate change was in fact real.
And so, a small bit of progress, even in our national political leaders, now of course I should say that about ten minutes later they had a vote on whether global warming was human driven, and the vote was way different, but I am not going to tell you what it was. All of this started with this single graph. The Mauna Loa measurement of CO2 started by Dave Keeling in 1958, he came to U of M all the time, there he’s riding up the snowball chair lift with me at a conference we hosted a few years ago. You can’t overstate the significance of this data set. It’s been called the most important geophysical data set of the century, and it simply showed for the very first time, that humans were having a global impact, before this graph, we could kid ourselves that we were just tiny little dots on a gigantic planet, and we couldn’t really be having all that big of an impact. This one graph showed that that was wrong. And of course you might have seen this news in the last year, that we’ve now hit 400 parts per million in that Mauna Loa measurement of atmospheric CO2. Just relentlessly going up.
I find it interesting that Dave Keeling himself wrote this in 1968. “The rise in CO2 is proceeding so slowly, “that we probably won’t perceive a problem in our lifetime.” Geez I wish that had been true. And before his death, he knew darn well that this wasn’t true either. That it was in the beginning of our knowledge. We thought that this issue would take maybe a century to unfold, and now we know it’s unfolding already. So here’s… Here’s actually the choice humanity has for the century. What we’re looking at here, let’s see do I have a laser on this? Let’s find out, yeah I do, okay. So here we are right now, 2014. What are we looking at? Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning, and here we are right now, and so these are direct measurements, and of course what is this mess? This is the climate models trying to figure out what’s going to happen for the rest of the century.
And this is not uncertainty about physics, this is uncertainty about what humans will decide to do. Now the business as usual curve, which really means just continuing on the path of energy production and consumption that we currently are on. The business as usual takes us to, this is known as a resource concentration pathway. It takes us to the top of this curve. The most wildly optimistic view that the Earth scientists could come up with, takes us to this RCP 2.6. And so you’re looking at global warming by 2100, by the end of the century, of something like one to two degrees under the best case scenario we can imagine, and in the business as usual scenario, that blowing up to somewhere between and three and five degree overall global warming. Now what we have tried to do in the scientific arena, is think this through from you might say a mass balance approach, and basically say alright we know the climate we currently have, we know the global carbon cycle we currently have, and we can connect the carbon dynamics and the climate dynamics, this is what these giant models do, that there’s a couple of dozen of these global Earth system models around the world. And so what we’ve now tried to do is say well how much more carbon can society emit? And particularly what has been given to us somewhat by the political leadership is, how much more carbon can we emit and stay below a two degree warming? And this two degrees is a threshold that has been actually suggested originally by an economist in the 1970’s believe it or not.
And it has been over the last few decades kind of agreed upon in a general sense, as the highest we dare go in global warming and expect our Earth system to still basically still be stable. And so the political leadership both around the world, and the scientific leadership have agreed upon this as a useful target for strategic planning purposes. So, what we’ve done is say, “Well how much carbon emission can “we still undergo in the coming decades “before we’ve reached that two degree threshold “where we think things could really unravel?” Now in order to do a projection like that we start with the emission trajectory we already have. So here’s another look at carbon emissions through time. And you see just relentlessly up. We did discover that economic collapse is an effective way of limiting carbon emissions, and maybe that’s the best answer, I hope it isn’t, but we don’t have any alternatives that have emerged so far.
And so here’s these last few years. Just relentlessly up, and then a continued trajectory to the end of this decade that you see up till 2019 where we end up with 43 gigatons of CO2 emission per year. And I know things like these gigaton numbers mean nothing to probably any of you, it barely means anything to me, and I study this all day every day, and so I won’t dwell on the gigaton stuff, as much as the trajectory of these graphics. Now here’s the graphic that I hope if nothing else you remember for out of this half hour, this is where the carbon emissions are coming from, and cement production believe it or not, has a measurable emission point. Gas, oil, and of course in the last decade, what has just gone through the roof is coal consumption. And so you see now that 43% of the carbon emissions worldwide are coming from burning coal. And I think it’s not a surprise from the sessions earlier today in this conference, that the carbon emissions we for a long time were the winners, here’s the U.S.
, but we have just been blown by China in the last half dozen years. Now in case we want to start getting smug about that, I think it’s appropriate for we Americans to recognize that our per capita carbon emissions, that’s the carbon emissions per person, that we are emitted for our American lifestyle, are still at least double what China’s are. Actually closer to triple, you’ll notice we’re triple what European carbon emissions per capita are. And so rightfully so, the rest of the world looks to us for leadership on this. Because despite the fact that in the last half dozen years, China has burst ahead as the largest carbon emitter on these last few years, the long history of this issue comes back to the U.S. more than any other country. Now things are getting interesting, and I think a number of our speakers this morning I was able to be here through most of the session this morning, and I think a number of them said over and over again is that the global energy dynamic is getting wild, and it’s going to get wilder.
And looking backwards at energy over the last 30 years is not going to be a good look at what the next 30 years is going to be, and I think everybody already has a sense of that, and so, despite my slide, two slides ago, that the emissions from China were going through the roof, then you see China’s coal imports dropped for the first time this century, happened just last year. The U.S. China bilateral agreement. This comes, you’ll notice where I got this one from. The White House. This agreement in principle, for the two largest carbon emitters to start to put together a strategy for reducing emissions was the single biggest policy event of probably the last decade on this topic. I’d have to say that the climate negotiations were absolutely at a stalemate since the Copenhagen disaster in 2009, those negotiations been going nowhere. And my friends that are in the middle of those climate negotiations were feeling, why do we even show up? Nothing’s going to happen.
This bilateral blew that wide open. And now people really see there’s a possibility that at the highest level of national leadership, we’re at least thinking towards a plan. And not at all to suggest that we have a plan in place, but I think now the negotiations for Paris in December are being taken very seriously in a way that a year ago they weren’t, they really weren’t. So here’s what back in the lab, the carbon cycle crowd has attempted to do. And say alright, here’s the cumulative carbon emissions by society over the, and so here we are back in gigatons and so, up till right now, we’ve emitted about 2,000, they imagine that, and this is important, that at about 3,200 gigatons of total emitted CO2, that is about the threshold that the climate models tell us is when we will hit that two degrees.
I hope you can follow this, so we look first to the climate models to say how much CO2 can our atmospheric system absorb, and the number they come up with is somewhere around 3,200, and we’re at 2,000 right now. It’s pretty easy arithmetic to then say alright, we’ve got about 1,200 gigatons left to go. And at our current business as usual trajectory of global carbon emissions, you can do the arithmetic. We end up that we have something like 20 to 30 years of carbon emissions at the current emission trajectory. In 30 years we’ll hit the two degree temperature warming mark, and so this comes from combining the analysis of the climate models and all the energy budget dynamics and atmospheric and ocean circulation of the climate models with the carbon models that look at carbon in the biosphere, that’s the part I work on. Carbon emissions coming from our fossil fuel burning. Where that carbon goes, actually about a quarter of it is absorbed by the oceans, about a quarter of it is absorbed by the terrestrial land vegetation. The remaining half is what continues to drive increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
And so we have two sets of models going on that we’ve put together, to give basically this sort of final bottom line recipe for policy options, if we want to be serious about that two degree warming limit. Now, this is where it gets quite interesting. So if society is serious about stabilizing climate at that two degree warming limit, and we have only 1,200 gigatons of remaining emissions allowed before we hit that two degrees. Take a look at how much of the fossil fuels that have already been identified by the energy industry that cannot be burned. Coal, 80% of the coal that we know already is there can’t be burned, gas, 50% of it can’t be burned. Oil about a third of it can’t be burned. So this is the choice for humanity. If you want to burn this stuff, don’t bother kidding yourself about controlling climate to two degrees, you can’t have it both ways. This is physics, this is not economics, this is physics. So it becomes a very, very stark policy choice, and I don’t deny that this is hard to think through, and get serious about, but we have to recognize that if we choose to not get serious, we will blow by two degrees like a rocket by 2050.
And so this is why there’s getting to be a number of people in the financial industry that are saying that the perceived value of many of these fossil fuel based energy companies is either vastly over-inflated to what they’ll actually be able to ultimately bring to market, or we’re going to blow past two degrees in global warming. And so there’s at least some of these analyses that are saying that if you thought the housing bubble burst was a big deal, wait till you see the carbon bubble burst in the financial worlds. And so we’ll see how this all plays out. Now the International Energy Agency I for somebody that started in tree physiology, I have no idea why I’m reading stuff like this nowadays, but this is most of what I read actually.
They have thought through just in the short-term from now until 2020, what would it take for humanity, and I mean we’re talking globally here, not just the U.S., to stabilize emissions. To at least roll the curve off to where it stabilizing, and not be going up like a darn rocket. And it comes down to four things. A bunch of energy efficiency policies. And most of these are things we already know plenty about. Everything from improved building codes. Getting all the remaining incandescent light bulbs out the door, stuff like that. The improved efficiency of our vehicles. Second, second wedge. Progressively limiting the use of inefficient coal-fired power plants. Third, reducing methane releases from drilling areas, and then fourth, removing fossil fuel subsidies. It’s amazing around the world, how many subsidies the fossil fuel industry gets despite it being the richest corporations on the planet, we’re still giving them more money.
I don’t really get that at all. Speaking just as a taxpayer, I don’t get it. And so, I’ve had a number of the, this is a graph of tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry relative to the ethanol industry. CCS and traditional renewables. And all you have to do is glance at it, and look at the size of each wedge, and you get the bottom line. I’ve had a number of renewable energy groups say, that they would be more than happy to give up the latest wind and solar tax credits if the fossil fuel industry would give up all their credits. If we want to talk real capitalism, not phony capitalism, let’s try a level playing field on energy costs, and they’re very confident that they could compete just fine, because the tax subsidies and other subsidies of the fossil fuel industry gets have been baked into the system for decades at multiple levels, and they, the renewable energy has been pretty late to the game now, and they don’t get anywhere’s near that sort of benefit.
We’ve already seen this graph. I know this morning from the Energy Information Agency, which are a national one, I’m on their website a lot also. That we are starting to drill down in the use of coal for electric power production that was not that long ago, over 50% is now on the order of 37%, and falling. You know I have to just say as I watched this morning’s presentations and I thought to myself, “Why in the hell would this country start exporting “natural gas while we’re still “burning coal for electric power.” Why don’t we use that surplus natural gas to drill down the coal-fired power faster. The public health professionals have been railing against coal for decades.
The American Lung Association, I work with a fair bit, and so apart from the climate issue, there’s a public health issue with burning coal also, that has been very longstanding and very well documented, and there’s also local environmental effects around those plants. Now this one, as a citizen, really sends me off also. Why is it that we allow the oil and gas industry to come storming into some new area and they get in such a big hurry that they don’t have time to collect the natural gas and flare off a 100 million bucks worth a month. I find that personally outrageous. And you know I’m probably going to get fired for this talk, but there’s not much to lose for me anymore, but it just incenses me. (applause) That why do they have to be in such a big hurry that they can’t put in the infrastructure for this resource? Why do we as a nation allow this sort of waste to happen? I mean we can see it from satellites.
This is our satellite image of the Bakken a couple of years ago, it’s bigger, it’s brighter than Minneapolis. So we have strategies, this is from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. We have strategies over the next number of decades that we can progressively whittle down our fossil fuel generated energy, I understand that we can’t do this overnight, I know some of my more radical colleagues want to just slam fossil fuels shut tomorrow, and I understand that that isn’t realistic, or optimal but we have to get on a path towards it, or we’re never going to get there, and we have to be on a path to be progressively developing the alternative energy sources or we’re going to blow past that two degree temperature constraint for sure. Now it’s been interesting to see how in some selected areas like the regional greenhouse gas trading in New England. The states, I list the states down here that are part of this, they’ve just started this in the last half dozen years.
Their state GDPs have stayed constant, and yet you see their power sector pollution reductions dramatically decreased. So this is possible to do. But we have to have clear policies to make the first steps to make it happen. This is really on our climate and carbon graphics this is what that U.S. and China deal looks like. Notice, to the end of the century, here’s that business as usual RCP 8.5 I showed you on the other graph, with the previous pledges that had been rattling around, that would have maybe whittled that down by maybe 10%, this U.S. China commitment drops the trajectory of emissions even lower, by another 20%, but the thing that really matters the rest of the world is waiting for us. For us and China, and if we, if the rest of the world follows the commitments that the U.S. and China make, now we’re talking about seriously putting a dent in that trajectory of future emissions and these I think a couple of the speakers this morning made the comment about how I hate to use the word flaky, let’s just say how really difficult forward projections of decades and decades are, and yet some of us have to do this for a living, or else we’re just flying blind.
And so we understand that what ends up happening could look quite different, but from an emissions point of view, it’s probably going to by the end of this century fit within this wedge that I’m showing right here, and if we end up up here, it’s going to be a pretty serious situation for the planet. What I find interesting to observe now is actually the Fortune 500 companies are getting more engaged in this than our national political leaders. And so I don’t, I’m progressively seeing a number of these companies that pass the ideology and are trying to look hard at what they do as a company, and what their product is that they sell, and how they can position themselves to be winners, not losers in the coming economy. And these are an awful lot of companies whose names you recognize. What I find the most interesting thing right now is the Pope, and in fact, this right here, is from yesterday.
The Vatican had a climate summit yesterday, and which is basically a warm up for a formal and cyclical that he will deliver in June. And he will be speaking to the United Nations in September, and he has timed this June and cyclical specifically to influence the Paris climate negotiations. So this Pope is certainly the most influential moral leader on this planet today, and he is on this topic and for people like me, we’re thinking maybe, finally, we can get past the tipping point, and really seriously get to work in driving down the emissions the way it’s needed. And I have to end with a very blunt message, and it doesn’t show quite well, I hope you can read it. If society’s not willing to stop burning coal, there’s no way we’ll stay within that two degree limit. It’s as simple as that. And I think that’s all for me, thank you. (applause) – So why don’t we just, I’ll come out there with the microphone and give it to you, and why don’t you ask Steve a few questions. – Oh great.
(laughter) This is usually where things really unravel. – [Voiceover] So, who has a question? – [Voiceover] Thank you for your talk. Do you have any confidence in CO2 caps for technology really helping us out? Or I mean I know you’re, we’re all hopeful that CO2 emissions will be cut way back, but do you, I don’t have much confidence in technology saving our ass so to speak. Wonder if you do. – Nope, I have seen almost no evidence of progress in that, I know the coal industry likes to talk about it, but when you try to drill down and see how many like test facilities they’re working on, it’s pretty pitiful, and I don’t see any chance that that can ever pan out. I mean you can do it, but you spend so much of the energy you just generated by re-capturing and re-compressing the CO2, that by the time you’ve done that, you’ve blown your prices up to where solar and wind energy’ll just wipe you out competitively.
– [Voiceover] Yes Steve, I think there’s reason to be even less optimistic than you, I notice that in your talk about the carbon budget and the 3,200 gigatons that we need to stay under, that only gives us a 66% chance of staying below two percent that’s a little bit like playing Russian roulette with two of the chambers loaded. – Oh you’re right, I mean I tried to give a simple summary for a talk like this, but you did spot the statistics correctly on that slide, that this threshold of two degrees at about 3,200 gigatons is not even a guarantee, that still gives us a two to one chance, but if we were to take that to more like a 90% probability, it’d be even lower, the window of emissions that we still have available.
Probably less than 500, which would be like ten years. At current emission rates. – [Voiceover] Hi, there’s been a lot of news in the past couple years about divestment and reinvestment campaigns, and of course we have one here on campus, and I’m wondering what you see as the actual value of those, if any? – Somehow I’m behind the speaker so I can’t hear you as well as I should, let’s try again here. – [Voiceover] Oh, I’ll try to talk louder. – It wasn’t so much loudness, as I’m behind the speakers. And I’m getting old too, that doesn’t help any. (laughter) – [Voiceover] I’m sorry about that. I was saying in the past few years, there’s been a lot of news about divestment campaigns and reinvestment campaigns from universities, seminaries, the Vatican itself. I’m wondering what you see as the actual value of those campaigns if they are successful? – Well they started with some of the statistics I showed, that if humanity is serious about this two degree threshold, then a majority of the already discovered fossil fuels can’t actually be burnt, and so the idea of divestment is a simple financial decision that you know apart from that point of view alone, you would say well I’m going to get my money out of those fossil fuel companies before their investment value collapses.
Now, in the more immediate sense, I see it as an appropriate pressure on our political system, particularly in the U.S. because our national political leaders have shown very little interest in having in developing any kind of national policy, and yet, financial investors that have long-term strategic viewpoints like climate scientists happen to do. They see that in the long run with these fossil fuels, that very much they won’t ever be burned. It brings up a question of why do they continue to spend something like 150 billion dollars a year on new exploration, if we have already found more than we can actually burn, why keep looking for more? I have to say I find these discussions really interesting compared to the old discussions about geez, is global warming real or not? These are the discussions we should have been having 20 years ago, and now we’re finally at least getting to the serious choices that society has to make. – [Voiceover] Are there other questions? – [Voiceover] I did have one card, and then I’ll bring the microphone to you.
And it was about, we’ve heard it a lot today about you know the natural gas boom, due to fracking, and I think the question is is it just as bad as coal burning, but we’re replacing some coal plants with gas plants, is that a benefit or is it just a zero sum? – Well in the short run, substituting coal burning plants with gas burning plants, we gain about half in carbon emissions right there, so as an interim trajectory over the coming decade or so, I think it’s very good that we can retire coal plants, and start using natural gas, now ultimately we will have to get beyond natural gas also, but we don’t need to do that overnight. – [Voiceover] That was basically the same question I had, so if you stop burning coal, and switched over to the other two fossil fuels, it extends that period, but you still have the problem. – We still have in the long run, but..
. I’ve, my career now has spanned 40 something years, and when I look at how the world has changed from when I was an undergraduate, in 40 years, we have time to come up with a lot of new solutions and I think what I feel most passionately about is we have to get started in the right trajectory right now, and I think that right trajectory is to give up coal, start substituting that with natural gas, and as we work our way towards other renewable options. – [Voiceover] So Steve, is that true relative to natural gas even the way in which we’re currently extracting it, particularly with all the flaring off of gases, because I’ve heard analysis done on this that the amount of CO2 emissions is equivalent as long as we’re doing it this way.
– Yeah you’re actually right that when some of the methane leakage and some of the flaring statistics were put together, it really illustrated that I think what we imagine as natural gas once it’s at the plant being combusted, but when you look at the entire, in effect, life cycle of the product, that erodes some of that advantage if they don’t do a better job out on the mine sites. – [Voiceover] Any hands, questions? – [Voiceover] Extraordinary presentation Steve. Thank you, and I just don’t really have a question, but just a follow-up on this gentleman’s last question. The other point to bear in mind, is that of course you have to take into account upstream methane emissions in the like, and determining whether natural gas is more efficient or less carbon intensive than coal, but the other argument that’s often overlooked is that current technology for combusting natural gas will allow us to do so at twice the efficiency rate as is currently the national average in power generating stations, the current national average, what we call heat rate, for generating electricity from natural gas is about 10,000 BTUs per kilowatt hour.
Current technology available from GE and Siemens will do it at about 5,000 or 6,000. So as a bridge, done right, it’s a great opportunity. – [Voiceover] Other questions? – [Voiceover] I was at a talk you did at a church on University Avenue here a couple years ago, and someone tried to ask a question, something somehow bringing up capitalism. Bringing up… Where we are and why, and I remember that you said something along the lines of, you know, yeah people can switch to more efficient mowers, and make better consumer decisions, but if I’m drunk with you in a bar, and we’ve had a few, I’m going to say yeah, it’s runaway capitalism. I guess I’m looking where I can put my force in the world. And I’m hearing these guys talk today, and it seems like we have such clear parameters in place, and that the powers that be can stretch this thing, however long they want, and we just had the shift from is climate change happening, to now it sounds like big business is saying, it is happening, oh but there’s all these impoverished people.
There’s all the people who are still deforesting the world at an increasing rate because they have no food. How do we change the conversation to just saying Exxon, you made 46 billion dollars last year, the offices are paid for, the salaries are paid, the plants are watered, and we’re just going to do what we need to do with that money? And how do you claim relative to history, in the playing out of reality, how long that process should take, between we have the science, we know the parameters of what we need to do, and now it should take this long, when the people at the top are actively doing everything they can to lie, slow down? – Well I think the… What I’m seeing at the top, that gives me the greatest hope right now, is number one, President Obama and the Chinese president making a formal public agreement. And then the Pope, I don’t put that to you as some sort of casual observation. I’ve been watching this intensely for months.
I know when he went to the Philippines a few months ago, he schedules a talk, and 10 million people show up. Can you imagine any speaker that can attract 10 million people for an audience? I mean I barely attracted 100. (laughter) And so I don’t, in classic tipping point logic, I like to hope maybe we’ve had enough preambles of policy discussions in politics, that with the leadership that President Obama is finally coming to, and in his first term he didn’t do much, and negotiations with China, and then add to that if the Pope really makes this sort of moral and ethical argument that I expect that he’ll make, we might see a very dramatic change in public attitude in an unbelievably short amount of time. And you recognize around the rest of the world, most in most of the developed countries this is already an issue that the public has pretty high majority opinion on, and they’re already, you remember the per capita energy consumption in Europe, Japan is a third what ours is, and so we’re the big outlier that everybody is waiting to see really true both public sentiment and our national leaders showing leadership, and of course I’ve given you the rosy side of the picture, then let’s talk about Congress and we have Snowball Inhofe playin’ stunts like he did on the floor of the Senate just a couple of months ago.
So I don’t kid myself that things are really, we’re set for smooth sailing on this. But I at least see finally some very big forces, political forces, both at national and international scale starting to show some promise. – [Voiceover] Steve thanks for the presentation. I was struck by the point you made that in terms of the four major measures that could be taken between now and 2020 to make a difference. Energy efficiency accounted for 49%, so roughly 50%, as much as all the other measures combined. And I will talk about that a little bit tomorrow afternoon in terms of energy efficiency efforts in this region, but I’m wondering in terms of, on a global scale, do you see the focus, the interest in energy efficiency, to sort of match that percentage impact it could have. – Yeah. You see some activities that really show a lot of promise, for example, some of what we saw with the mobile phone revolution in the developing world, they just gave up on their centralized telecommunications, and everybody has a mobile phone, and I’m seeing a lot of similar evidence in the developing world where they see the potential to give up on centralized power production, and simply have things like integrated solar panel systems in their own homes, and so then they don’t have to worry about centralized power.
If you’ve ever been to India, it’s unbelievable the electric power production is so sporadic and undependable that most stores have their own little backup generator, and when the power goes out in a street area, oh my God, they start up these ancient old diesel generators, they’re billowing diesel smoke, but that’s how the store stays open when the power blanked out, and so I’m seeing some evidence that some of the development of the developing world, which is where everyone expects the energy growth to be, may leapfrog the kind of centralized massive production type of power that our generation built, and go straight to a really dramatically more distributed pico power. I’ve seen some really good examples of that. Now the flip side of this of course, when I look at transportation, and I think for example, China used to be the biggest bike riding country on Earth, and I’m a bike commuter myself, and yet of course now China is buying more cars than we are, and so I’m afraid that they’re going to have to go down the path we did to find out what it’s like to have gridlock on your freeways, and then you start deciding, let’s think this through again, and see if we have better options.
So I see some good promise, but I also see some evidence of these developing countries following some of our mistakes, which I hope can be preempted before they go too far. – [Voiceover] So when people are thinking about their next question, I have a question. So you said we have clear parameters. You know what we’re dealing with, and this two degrees C threshold I mean, you know, is that if we stay under it we’re okay, if we go over it we’re not okay, and it seemed, it’s evolution seemed almost a little bit arbitrary in the sense that this economist proposed it in the 1970’s, and so what does that mean actually to us, it’s a number, but does that mean we’ll all be living in a California style drought? Or how bad, what’s the nature of the severity of the problem if we go over two degrees C? – Yeah. In our Earth science community, we argued for a number of years, of whether to support that, that definition of a threshold or not, because we all know that this is really a continuum. That every degree of additional warming, disrupts our climate’s stability more and more. We also know that different parts of the world are going to feel this in dramatically different ways.
In the humid tropics, they’re not going to feel two degrees anytime soon because their systems are so hydrologically saturated. Conversely, at high latitudes, they’ve already seen two degrees of warming in Alaska, and so we’ve argued amongst ourselves for a number of years, should we be more realistic and specific in talking about these sort of climate targets? And we finally got enough feedback from the politicians that if we keep making this more, too complicated, we just can’t convey the issue cleanly enough, and this is really a pretty good approximation, and let’s leave the details ’till later, it gives us a target to aim at that’s reasonable, and I’ve come to understand that.
That I think it is useful for us as society and as policy makers, to have some kind of a target. And that as we move along forward in time, when I put these graphs up to the year 2100, and you know it’s hard for any of us to take those kind of projections seriously, and yet we need to at least be trying to think forward where we’re going, and we find that two degrees to be a useful target for us to start the sort of discussions, like this discussion of how many gigatons of carbon emissions we still have in this window of safety. – [Voiceover] So just to go a little bit further down that path, do you, I’m just wondering, if in recent years, if there’s been any information that would talk about further thresholds like methane clathrates, or carbon in tundra that will be released, you know, before we get to two degrees celsius, after, I mean I just wonder if there’s been any information that’s new that informs that more? – We’re actually quietly scared to death that we may have already exceeded the methane clathrate tipping point, ’cause as we watch the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and so, we’re watching that real carefully, and we recognize that that particular threshold we may already have reached, but it seems like bringing those sort of details into the political arena right now doesn’t help matters any.
And so, we have to make kind of our best estimate of what part of our whole smorgasbord of science that we can offer to the public and to the politicians, and we find that for a number of years we talked about too many things, in too much detail, and so too many people found it easy for us, to zone us out. And so, this is our attempt to try to really pick the most critical topics, that are most clearly understood and really point at those hard. – [Voiceover] Steve. Okay, now this is the Asia-Montana Energy Summit, right? And you’ve been giving us a global perspective that is very important, and very enlightening, but what does it mean to Montana? What do you see as being the relatively local implications? – Yeah, again it must be age. Let me try this from here. – [Voiceover] Okay, we’re in Montana right? – Right. – [Voiceover] Acting locally, thinking locally, and living with it right here. – Yeah. – [Voiceover] What do you see as how the big picture affects us, and what we should be doing? – From a climate point of view, what we see is progressive aridification.
Our winter time’s getting a couple weeks shorter. Our summer time’s getting a couple weeks longer. That’s already happening, and we see no evidence that that trend won’t at least continue, if not accelerate. When I think to the energy picture part of this, which is what this conference is really all about, we have to make some real fundamental choices. Well, in a way we’re only partially part of this choice, and this is about energy in Asia, this conference right here and I’ll tell you every day I ride my bike under a coal train, it’s like my head wants to explode, I’m sorry, and to me, I can’t think of a more illogical thing for humanity to do than dig up coal, haul it 6,000 miles and you know when they burn it, it comes back in the atmosphere quicker than the empty barges come back.
It comes right back to us in less than a week. And so don’t think because they’re burning it there, that it somehow doesn’t matter, it’s all the same atmosphere that we all, and climate system we have. And so, now global coal markets, we don’t control, but I certainly am making it a point myself to warn everybody in Montana, that if we keep encouraging burning of coal, you saw my last slide, and that’s as blunt as I can be. So to the extent that we can help that discussion, that’s what I think needs to be discussed. – [Voiceover] Could you talk a little about mass reforestation, or biological resequestration. How much we can do, and what the time scale would be on, you know, what if we do get 70 million people planting trees? What if somebody does pull off a drone that’s thrown out 90,000 trees in an hour, or something like that? – Alright, this is getting close to the topic that I directly work in myself, this is helpful.
There’s two aspects to the forests and climate topic that I think you touched on, and the first is as forests, as carbon uptake mechanisms, and did you hear the contest that, I’m trying to remember who it was, the Gates Foundation, or one of the big foundations had a couple of years ago, of who could come up with the most clever technological solution to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. And somebody put in a one-liner, and just said, “Isn’t that what trees do every day?” I thought that was just excellent. Because it really is a quite reasonable step for us to be seriously trying to orchestrate a massive tree planting, that’s probably one of the most proactive things we can do, because there would be multiple benefits from that, not only carbon stabilization. Now, the other side of that topic is bio-energy. And we’ve spent some time calculating bio-energy capacity of the planet from our global satellite data sets, and we really don’t think that bio-energy can provide more than something like 10% of global energy needs.
And so, it’s not correct at all to think that we can just roll over from fossil fuels to bio-fuels and off we go, the biosphere just can’t grow trees that fast, and so, we think there’s some role under the right conditions for using bio-energy, we think there’s scope for a lot of potential for tree planting for multiple benefits, but we have to be realistic and work with real numbers. – [Voiceover] Is there one last question? Well I’d like to thank the organizers, Dr. Kim and his crew for putting this great conference together to get this discussion going, and Dr. Running for his excellent presentation. Thank you for coming. (applause) (dramatic soft music).