Environmental expert offers dire climate change outlook during Seminars at Steamboat talk (with audio)
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One of the country’s most preeminent environmental experts told a Steamboat Springs audience there’s no stopping climate change brought on by human behavior, and it’s just a matter of slowing it down and helping people adapt to changes in the ecosystems where they live.
Dr. John Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard University and former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spent the first 20 minutes of Monday’s Seminars at Steamboat lecture explaining the science behind the rapid increase in global warming, caused mostly by burning fossil fuels. He showed how greenhouse gases are natural in the atmosphere — like water vapor and carbon dioxide — and how they intercept heat from the surface and send it back down.
“Without natural greenhouse gases, the surface would be too cold to support life,” Holdren said.
But he said industrialization fueled by burning wood, oil, gas and coal has caused the atmosphere to collect excessive greenhouse gases, like CO2, and it’s radiating too much heat back to the surface.
“The good news is human influence has averted the next ice age,” said Holdren. “The trouble is, we over-compensated.”
It was one of the few laughs he got from a relatively sober audience listening to his talk, “Meeting the Climate Change Challenge: What we Know. What We Expect. What We Can Do.”
Aided by charts and graphs, Holdren showed the audience how CO2 emissions have grown in proportion to fossil fuel use and deforestation.
Holdren talked about spending his eight years in the Obama administration working with companies, government agencies and other countries on better technology and ways to adapt to a warmer climate, while also trying to slow down global warming.
That work ultimately culminated in the Paris Agreement, in which nearly 200 countries agreed to combat global warming and help poorer countries adjust to extreme weather and its influence on their societies. He said President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, has stopped a lot of the aid to poorer countries and has even cut research and development for clean energy and climate science.
Holdren said China and India are taking advantage of the U.S. government’s current lack of leadership on clean energy.
“China is deploying more renewable technology than any other country,” said Holdren.
He said the world is expected to spend $30 trillion between now and 2035 on clean energy.
“The question is, do we want U.S. companies to have a share of that $30 trillion business or do we want to buy that technology from the Chinese, Japanese and Germans?” Holdren asked.
He said both China and India no longer deny climate change caused by humans and recognize it is killing their people and damaging their environment.
“Since 1984 … I’ve met with all the Chinese leaders,” Holdren said. “The Chinese are saying climate change has changed the monsoon seasons … impacted their agriculture.”
He also said Indian leaders have told him they don’t expect to build any coal-burning power plants after 2025.
They predict “solar and wind with battery backup will be cheaper than coal in India after 2025,” Holdren added.
With scientific facts presented on a huge screen, Holdren showed how extreme weather has increased significantly in the past decade from bigger hurricanes and monsoons, longer and more intense droughts and bigger wildfires. Mosquitos are bringing tropical diseases further north, and locally, pine bark beetles are reproducing faster.
“We’ve lost millions of acres to pine bark beetles because of this culmination of conditions,” Holdren said.
“One of the sleepers of climate change is worsening wildfires. The upward trend is astonishing,” said Holdren, who explained how a warming world produces more lightning, the number one cause of wildfires.
Not all is lost, Holdren said. He cited public polls that indicate about 70% of Americans believe the rapid climate change is human-induced. He also said 600 CEOs sent a letter to Trump objecting to his withdrawal from parts of the Paris Agreement.
When asked how people can object to the scientific findings, Holdren said politicization of global warming started in the 1990s when the GOP realized Al Gore would be the nominee for president.
“He was Mr. Climate Change … so the other party used it politically,” Holdren said.
Then in 2002, conservative pollster Frank Luntz sent out a private memo to GOP leaders warning that government would use global warming as an excuse to implement heavy regulations. Holdren said Luntz encouraged Republicans to criticize global warming scientists and use the phrase “climate change” instead of global warming.
Holdren said until the federal government is all in, everyone else can reduce their own carbon footprint, from recycling to driving less. But he said another big idea that almost every economist agrees on is a carbon tax.
In January of this year, 45 of the top economists in the country penned a letter in the Washington Post claiming, “A carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.” These economists were from the entire political spectrum, Holdren said.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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