Asia and Africa: Living on the Edge

Joe Romm

Rajendra Pachauri

Joseph Romm is a physicist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

A physicist who studied physical oceanography, Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and writes the blog Before that, he spent five years at the Department of Energy in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a $1 billion program responsible for much of the nation's clean energy and greenhouse gas research and development.

In this interview with producer Chris Durrance, Romm describes his four biggest climate concerns, and why he says the solution to global warming “is the straight application of money.”


CHRIS DURRANCE: How much time do we have to act on climate change?
JOSEPH ROMM: If we stay on our current path for 10 years, it will be all but impossible to avoid what I consider to be catastrophic global warming. The things people should be most worried about are the so-called carbon cycle feedbacks. Right now, when you burn fossil fuels, you emit carbon dioxide. About half of it goes into the atmosphere. About a quarter goes to the land, the vegetation, and about a quarter gets taken up by the ocean. But the ocean sink for carbon dioxide is becoming saturated. It's a very worrisome trend because, if the ocean is going to take up less carbon dioxide, the atmosphere is going to take up more.

We're also starting to see places like the tundra, the permafrost, which store huge amounts of carbon -- especially in the form of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas -- starting to melt and defrost like your freezer. And the carbon there is going to come out as either carbon dioxide or methane. So I think that if we don't reverse course soon on our emissions, we are going to get into something close to an accelerated greenhouse effect that will be exceedingly difficult to stop.

And it's man-made?
Yeah, I mean there's no question that the climate has varied in the past, for natural reasons. But current warming is being forced by human emissions of greenhouse gasses. Heat-trapping gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane, have accelerated wildly in the last century.

In particular, in the last six or seven years, the rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions has tripled. It was about 1 percent per year. Now it's about 3 percent per year. A lot of that is due to the U.S. refusal to take action on global warming, and a lot of it is because China is building coal plants at a rapacious rate. It will be up to the United States and China to either solve this problem or take the brunt of the blame if we end up with some of the worst-case scenarios.

This acceleration you're talking about -- this came well after the Kyoto Protocol, well after the world theoretically came up with a pact to tackle the problem.
Well, Kyoto was a first step. It never could solve the problem. But, very similar to how the Montreal Protocol dealt with chlorofluorocarbons to save the ozone layer, the Kyoto Protocol formalized a deal that the rich countries would go first because they were responsible for most of the legacy problem.

They would develop technologies to solve the problem and then transfer the technologies to the poorer countries. And that was how we saved the ozone layer. The Western countries are responsible for something like 80 percent of the cumulative CO2 emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

So I do think the rich countries have to go first. But, that said, very shortly thereafter we have to bring China on board, and India and other countries. But right now it is China that is really building coal plants and dirty power plants at a rate that is absolutely unsustainable.

But at a rate they would say is absolutely necessary in terms of the growing wealth of their population. How do we deny hundreds of millions of people electricity?

There are alternatives. In fact, one of the reasons why China was not a very big problem until the last decade is that, in the '80s and early '90s, they had a very aggressive energy efficiency program -- as aggressive as the state of California's. They abandoned that about 10 years ago, and their emissions have soared.

There is no question in my mind that you can develop in a green fashion without destroying a climate. I'm not saying it's easy, but I do think it is straightforward.


Over the last 30 years, the state of California has kept electricity use per capita flat while it's gone up 60 percent in the rest of the United States. And it's done that through aggressive energy efficiency efforts: light bulbs, insulation -- not sophisticated stuff or breakthrough technologies. But it does require a lot of political will. It will require that China not just build traditional coal plants.

Any country that cares about the next 50 generations, that cares about the future at all, has to stop building traditional coal plants. And no country that is building them at a significant rate is acting morally. There's no other way to put it. They are destroying the future for the next 10 billion people who walk the planet.

And that's primarily the United States and China?
Right. In the Kyoto Protocol, everyone else in the industrialized world, with the exception of Australia and the United States, agreed to substantial reductions. 

You have to stop emissions from growing before you can make deep cuts. I think it's clear that Europe and Japan are ready to take action. I think it's also clear that, if the United States took action, then everyone in the industrialized world would be happy to do whatever we were willing to do.


We've spoken to CEOs of some of the big utilities. You're talking about having 10 years to act, but they're talking about 10 years at least before any commercially viable technology is available to make some of these solutions feasible.

Well, that's certainly not true. We have the technology to substantially reduce emissions. Some of it costs more: There's no question about it, right? Coal is cheap. Natural gas is expensive.

We used to be the leader in wind power. We gave that up to a number of other countries. Parts of Denmark and Spain get 40 percent of their power from wind. Overall, the United States doesn't even get 1 percent of our power from wind.

But until recently energy prices have been low, and they have not been a core focus of major businesses. And, of course, carbon dioxide has no price at all. So until carbon dioxide has a price, there will be no incentive to capture and store it.

Do we have a sense of how we could make that work?
There are two ways to get a price. One is a direct tax on carbon or carbon dioxide. I think that, politically, that won't work in the United States.

The second way is to do in the United States what we did with the Clean Air Act and sulfur dioxide: set up an emissions cap and a trading system so that revenue doesn't flow to the government but is traded so that the marketplace sets the price for carbon dioxide. Ultimately, that's the most efficient way to do it. That's what the Europeans have done, with some fits and starts.

And this would be just a U.S.-wide system?
The goal under Kyoto was to have all the signatories, all the industrialized nations, trade amongst themselves. That would ultimately be even more efficient because it would ensure that the money flowed to the lowest cost-reduction strategies. Europe has such a system; the United States needs one.

It sounds enormously complex: the verification you need, the monitoring you need, and just the costs in terms of setting up a system and making it work.
Avoiding catastrophic global warming will be the single greatest world achievement. I am in the camp that thinks that if you do it right, on net, you'll create a lot of jobs. You'll reduce your dependence on oil from vulnerable sources; you'll reduce your air pollution, and you'll have many other benefits. And the total benefits will definitely exceed the costs.

But we are talking about changing the entire energy system of the planet over the course of a very few decades.


What are your biggest climate concerns?
I have four main concerns. One is the melting of the tundra and the permafrost, causing an accelerated greenhouse gas effect. The second is sea-level rise and loss of the Arctic ice. That may lead to losing Greenland and west Antarctica, which could cause sea levels to rise 20 to 80 feet. That would obviously be catastrophic.

I am very worried about the spread of droughts. What has been predicted in the literature is very serious.

And lastly, I think anybody has to be worried about the oceans, because we are heating them up. We're cramming dioxide in them.
When you put carbon dioxide into water, you end up with carbonic acid; you just acidify the oceans. And ocean life doesn't like acidity, because the coral reefs will be destroyed if the ocean gets too hot or too acid.

What sort of acidity changes are we seeing?
I don't remember the exact numbers, but the ocean has gotten measurably more acidic. It is clear that, after a certain threshold, which we're approaching, it gets very hard for the phytoplankton to form their little calcium-based shells. 

Just as we have seen massive heat waves on the land, you get thermal heat waves on water, which have caused massive destruction of the coral reefs. Many of the coral reefs have bleached and died.

There’s an area of currents off the coast of Namibia, one of the few noncoral fertile areas in the oceans. There’s been a massive collapse in fisheries there, and scientists are trying to understand what's going on and what prompted that.
Well, I think it's important to understand that it’s very unlikely that global warming is the only cause of a lot of things that we're seeing. But it does add a terrible stress on overfished areas. Clearly, we have population growth. You also have temperature change, which makes things less hospitable and therefore makes diseases more likely in fish, and then you have the overfishing, so you cross a threshold, and you get a collapse.

Unfortunately, once you've changed the climate, it becomes very hard to un-collapse. And it may be that some of these changes are irreversible. But no one knows the full range of impact because all human civilization has lived under a pretty tight range of temperatures over the last 10,000 or 11,000 years.

And we are either at or within about 10 years of going beyond a temperature range that human civilization has never exceeded. By midcentury we will hit a temperature that homo sapiens have never experienced. So we are out of the bounds of historical experience.


Is there a disconnect between the urgency that you are describing and an understanding in boardrooms and in Congress?
There’s no question about that. Sometimes people have called my presentation "Al Gore on steroids." I think the people who are most alarmed about global warming are people who understand both the science and the reality of the energy system in the world.

On paper, it's very easy to say, "Oh, we'll reduce global emissions 50 percent in 40 years." But, in reality, we're going to see 3 billion more people. We’re going to see a rapid growth of the middle class in the developing world, to a point where they want cars and computers.

But the solution to global warming is a straightforward application of money. It will require people to change their behavior. They'll drive different cars. They may actually like these cars more than the cars they have today because they won't go to the gas station as often.

Utility regulations may seem incredibly mundane, but they have to become the centerpiece of any climate strategy. Anybody who doesn't talk about utility regulations in the context of global warming is not serious about the solution. Electricity will have to be virtually carbon free. In the United States and other rich countries, the only fossil fuel that I can think we will be burning for electricity will be natural gas in very efficient power plants.

But traditional coal plants -- there will be virtually none in 2050. We just can't have them.

What energies are most likely to replace coal?
I expect we will still have nuclear plants. I'm not certain that we could have a big expansion of nuclear in this country because of the various problems associated with it, including where you're going to store the waste. And it tends to be pricey. But we will have a mix. My guess is we will have a lot of wind and a lot of types of solar -- probably solar-thermal. We will have some biomass. I hope we have some carbon-captured storage with coal, because it's very hard to see how you solve this problem if you can't use coal at all. But the grid is going be almost pollution free by midcentury.

So are you an optimist, then?
I am optimistic that the problem can be solved. It's not too late. I don't see any point in being pessimistic about it. If you come back and ask me in the year 2020, I may have a different answer.

People forget what this country did in World War II. I usually tell documentary producers to dig up some of the footage. Most Americans do not remember that we went from building 3 million cars a year for consumers in nine months to building all the tanks, trucks and planes. And we actually stopped making consumer cars during World War II.

I'm not saying we want to be in that kind of world. I'm just saying that, when the United States has gotten serious, it can turn its industrial base on a dime. And if we wanted to switch from dirty, polluting, inefficient technology to clean, efficient greenhouse gas-reducing technology, we could do it in a few years. I would prefer to do it through the marketplace over the course of 10 or 20 years, but for the United States to get serious about a problem requires action on a scale that we have not seen for 60 years. But we've done it.

Will China, not the United States, be the driving force in this?
China is clearly in a position to become the leader in renewables, the leader in fuel-efficient or electric cars, given the way their industrial base operates. They already have significantly tighter fuel economy standards than the United States. And I think it's worth pointing out that China stands to suffer as much as any country from climate change.

However, the United States is going to suffer as well. So much of our wealth is along the coasts. We are so vulnerable to droughts and wildfires. It’s a very big mistake to think that action on global warming is something we should do to save poor countries. We should do it to keep the United States livable.

If we don't stop catastrophic climate change, then the United States, and probably China, will become pariah nations. The most-blamed nation will be the richest country in the world, which refused to spend what I would say is maybe 1 or 2 percent of GDP on cleaner technologies. That's all it takes. Our GDP is now $10 trillion; 1 or 2 percent is $100 to $200 billion a year -- a tiny fraction of our overall wealth.