What makes the issue of global warming a significant one, in your
A co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global
Change, he explains in this interview why global warming is so very different
from previous international issues which threatened the world's
environment or security. He also discusses the political challenges in
cutting fossil fuel use in the future and what the impact would be on
developed and developing nations.
We don't really know how serious it is yet. But the potential is that it might
be quite serious. That is, the change in climate, temperature, and
rainfall...the potential for changes in storminess, extreme events like
droughts and floods and the like...the potential over the century is
substantial. We don't know, but the potential is there. And since we're
building up this stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and they don't go
away fast, it makes a big difference when you start to deal with it. It's a
substantial long-term social problem, in my opinion.
But from a policy standpoint, it's difficult to get people to care when
there's no imminent threat. We don't even know the signals here, do we?
I often say, if we'd sat down and spent a day trying to think of a problem that
we couldn't deal with, we'd have had a hard time designing one that's worse
than this, because you're talking about changes that are long-term. If we have
emissions going on over the last 100 years, the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years,
the effects of that are not really effects on us. They're on our children and
our grandchildren...long-term future effects. And it's uncertain. So there's
not the urgency, let's say, of breathing dirty air today. We're doing something
today that's going to influence the conditions in the future.
And then it's even made worse by the fact that there's not a really convenient,
easy villain here. The villain is us and the level of economic development we
have and the energy and other chemicals that we use to support our standard of
living. And it's not a problem that any one country could fix. United States
can't fix it. Rich countries can't fix it. You have to have some sort of a
cooperative agreement that brings lots of nations--not all the nations but lots
of nations--to play, in order to deal with it. Well, making cooperative
agreements across people with very different interests over long periods of
time, for a problem that's uncertain--it's hard to imagine a worse problem than
The world has come together in other examples--to try and prevent the spread
of nuclear weapons, or with pollutants like CFC's. Why is this
Well, let's take those two examples. It's different from the nuclear weapons
case, first of all, because nuclear weapons was a more immediate, a more
immediate and devastating threat. But also, the nuclear weapons was really a
matter of us and the Russians. There were two players. There were not fifty
It's different from the CFC question in a couple of ways. First of all, the CFC
issue was cheap. We were able, thanks to the technology that was available, we
were able to find substitutes for CFC's and go right along. Most people are
unaware that we did anything about CFC's. It was possible with public pressure
and learning and creative negotiation and public response, political response,
to actually solve that problem. But it was cheap to solve problem.
The other thing that made the CFC issue different from climate is that there
was an "aha" moment in the CFC question. That is, at one stage it was
discovered that the ozone was disappearing in the Antarctic in certain seasons
of the year. It was not understood exactly why that was happening, but not only
was it happening, it was possible to take satellite pictures of it. So all of a
sudden there was a silver bullet. There was the clear indication that
something's happening, and the science to link that to what we were doing. And
I think that had a big effect on public perceptions. The public perceived we
are doing something to change an important balance in the earth--in this case,
the ultraviolet radiation balance-- and that provided a political push.
In the climate area it's much more complicated than that. The climate system
is very noisy. It's very hard to know what's going on. What might take place is
taking place over decades to a century. So the climate issue doesn't or has not
yet provided a clear, kind of unavoidable, signal that it's happening.
The smoking gun?
The smoking gun. Right.
It's different in another way. Carbon dioxide is not a traditional
pollutant. It is central to our way of life. This is a byproduct of fossil
fuels. This is very, very challenging because it emerges from everything we do,
Yeah. I mean, modern industrial society is driven by energy. Now, there are
lots of sources of energy. There are renewable sources of energy, and there are
fossil-fuel sources of energy--lots of ways we can generate energy to support
the modern industrial society. The cheapest way--certainly over the last
century--to do that has been with fossil fuels. So electric power,
transportation, a lot of space conditioning--appliances, that is--the things
that make for the modern wealth life are driven by energy. That is, we've
substituted fossil and other energy for human energy. And it's possible to
imagine driving those systems with energy that's not producing so much carbon.
That's possible. It's possible to imagine living at the level that we're
living--with less energy. That's also possible, by being more efficient. But
it's not possible to live the life we do, moving around the way we move around,
without a substantial use of energy. And the cheapest way to do that is with
fossil fuels. So that the way we live is going to generate CO2 until
we devise some other system to do it.
But these fossils fuels, it's not just that they're cheap, is it? They are
very convenient. They're very concentrated sources. You can move them around
easily. They've made society possible. Cars, for instance, have been made
possible by petroleum.
Sure. I mean, the fact that they're in concentrated sources, like oil wells,
coal mines--not spread out all over the landscape. Let's say, if you're growing
trees and trying to use them as a source, or use other kinds of biomass
sources, which the economies were based on, let's say, from 200 years back--it
was based on those sources. But all that which you described--easy to move
around, available in concentrated sources...that's all part of what I mean by
being cheap. That is, they are the least-cost way to develop, to generate
electric power or to move vehicles or to run appliances.
What kind of threat, potentially, does this pose, first to the developed and
then to the developing nations? The idea of having to decarbonize or having to
do something about this.
If you're going to try to decarbonize, you're going to have to drive up the
price of energy. So, the main thing is that they would face the development of
industries and, you know, development of housing and other
amenities--transportation and the like--with much higher energy prices. And
that would be, to some degree, not devastating but, to some degree, a drag on
economic growth...to have to achieve that with much higher energy prices than
But it would be a drag for the developed nations too. How important are low
energy prices to modern economies?
For the modern economy, like the United States, Europe...we're rich. We could
stand higher energy prices. The price of energy in the gross domestic product
is very small. It's less than 5 percent. We could stand that because we're
rich. I mean, there are people of lower incomes who are affected. You can't
raise their gasoline and fuel prices without them seriously feeling it. But
compared with the rest of the world, we're, of course, very, very rich. A lot
of the world is not rich. And for them to try to develop with fuel prices that
are much higher than the ones they have now would be a drag on their economic
A serious threat to their development?
I don't think a serious threat. I mean, the notion "serious threat" sounds like
they couldn't develop, or their growth rates might be cut in half or something.
That's not the case. But their rate of growth could be slowed down. It's hard
to say how much it would slow down, because it's hard to specify the
restrictions we're talking about. But if you thought that you were going to try
to restrict their energy growth to something like what it is today, or twice
what it is today, it would be very, very difficult for them to achieve the
economic growth we've had. They couldn't do that.
What about the international political process that has led us to where we
are. What, in your view, is the driver for having international action in the
beginning? The Rio conference and so forth.
A lot of international concerns with what we're doing to the biosphere and
other aspects of the environment came together in Rio, combined with a whole
set of issues about income distribution and north-south issues and the like.
So, Rio was a kind of a collection point for issues ranging from forest to
biodiversity to climate to income distribution to urban cities and such. So a
lot of concerns came together there. The Rio conference became a convenient
deadline for completing the climate treaty. It kind of got on the train...it
was coming into the station at Rio. And that drove the climate negotiation
process to produce the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Now, a lot of things had gone on before. There'd been studies by this
international or intergovernmental panel on climate change. That had been going
on. Negotiations had been started earlier on this issue among the nations. And
Rio provided a convenient closing point for that.
The motivation for it was that there was growing scientific evidence that this
might be a problem. There were weather events --like the drought in the United
States in the late 1980s--that raised public awareness of it. There were
important political leaders who became convinced that this was something they
wanted to carry as a part of their own personal platforms and the like. And
that all came together at that time. And since then, we've been struggling to
try to figure out what they might mean, since the treaty doesn't actually
require anybody to do anything. It's a framework. It's a structure within which
they can agree to take more stringent action.
Early on, the world was divided into two groups, annexes?
There was a division at the time the treaty was made into what's called Annex I
and Non-Annex I. Now, the Annex I countries were the rich countries,
essentially--the OECD countries--Europe, United States, Japan, Australia and
New Zealand, Canada. They're supposed to do something first. For geopolitical
reasons, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were also
put in that group. They're much lower-income, in general, than the OECD
countries, but they were put into Annex I as well. So there was a division
between Annex I and Non-Annex I. Non-Annex I you can think of, roughly, as the
developing countries, although some of those developing countries--(like
Singapore--are richer than some of the Annex I countries--like Romania, for
instance. But that was roughly the division.
So the argument at the time was that the Annex I countries were the rich ones.
We were the ones that had put the CO2 and other gases up there that
are there now. We had created that problem. We were supposed to go first. And
then later there might be something that would involve the Non-Annex I
countries. But right at start in the negotiations, the developing countries
insisted that they be treated differently, that they not be asked to take any
commitment--or even any implicit or contingent commitment--to actually reduce
emissions, although they made some commitments to provide data and to
participate in other ways.
But their feeling was they hadn't caused the problem? Or they just didn't
need to be burdened with this?
I think, both of those. And there is a strong feeling they didn't create the
problem. They're poor. We're rich. The gases that are up there are not their
gases. They're our gases. We should do something first. So there is a sort of:
"You go first; you did this" or "You did this thus far" kind of mentality.
There's another sense in which it's just not high on their political agenda. I
mean, we have environmental problems. This one fights for attention among other
environmental problems, like particulates and toxic waste and water pollution
and the like. But in developing countries, in the very poor countries, this is
farther down on the list of things that they want to be concerned with. You
know, you have countries that are still dealing with leprosy and malaria and
such. Climate change is not high on their agenda.
Is this, in your view, a fundamental decision that makes a lot of things
flow from this, dividing the world into two camps? Take that original
conception. Can the Annex I countries solve this problem by themselves?
No. I think, in a sense, there's a kind of a tragedy here, in that this
division was probably unavoidable because of the global politics of wealth and
north-south issues. But, in a way, to make such a clean division right at the
start was a mistake--created a big problem. Because you now have two classes of
countries: those classes are somehow obligated to do something, and those that
are not obligated to do something. But under the climate treaty, you're not
even supposed to put on the agenda to discuss what they might do when they get
rich. That is, the discussion is completely split. And that's very unfortunate
because you cannot solve this problem with the developed countries.
Why not? Prove to me that you can't.
If you take the developed countries and the underdeveloped...within the next
fifteen years or so, the Non-Annex I, the less developed countries, are going
to surpass the developed countries in total contribution to emissions in the
Within twenty-five to fifty years?
Less than that: fifteen to twenty years. And you have relatively stable rates
of population in a lot of the developed countries. In Europe, population growth
is near zero. It's quite low in the United States, and falling in some areas
of the Soviet Union, or potentially falling. Growth rates have been satisfying
in the United States and Europe, though not so good in Japan. The growth rates
are quite a bit lower per capita than they are in the developing world. So in
the developing world you have both higher rates of population growth and higher
rates of economic growth, which means they have a huge potential growth in
greenhouse emissions as they develop their electric power systems, their
transportation systems, and the like.
So even if we take dramatic changes in the developed countries, it doesn't
solve the problem because the growth in the less developed world is so great.
The split between the two creates a big problem. They don't want to do anything
unless we go first. But it is also reasonable for us to say, "Hey, wait a
minute. It doesn't help for us to do this unless we have some kind of agreement
with you that when you get to particular levels of income and ability, you will
also join in." And that's the kind of impasse that's in this discussion now.
You can analyze it from an individual point of view, a per-capita point of
view, and say: The average American produces five tons of carbon a year. The
average Indian, less than a ton or something. Viewed like that, doesn't it seem
quite justified to say: Why expect the Indian to do anything yet?
That's right. Oh yes. It is quite reasonable to say that. That's why I say it's
a tragedy. Both sides of this argument are quite reasonable.
Now, all developing countries are not India. There are lots of developing
countries in Non-Annex I that are a lot higher income than India. So in the
Non-Annex I countries, you have a whole spectrum of countries, countries like
Singapore or Korea or Argentina or Chile, which are growing quite rapidly and
are achieving better standards of living. At some period of the next ten or
fifteen or twenty years, you would expect them to reach an income level where
there was some obligation for them to join--to get on board as well. The
problem is not India.
We've often done calculations when we said--sort of hypotheticals--what would
happen if developing countries took some responsibility when they got to half
the income of Europe today? Now, that's Portugal. When they got to the level of
Portugal today, they begin to take action. Your forecasts are, of course,
uncertain. But India doesn't get to that till way into the second half of the
next century. China doesn't get to that stage until near the middle of the next
century, by our forecasts. But a lot of other countries are already there. So
what's unfortunate is, we have this division where all the developing world is
on this nonparticipation side of the ledger. What I'm saying is unfortunate in
the clear division between Annex I and Non-Annex I is that--and this really
happened in a meeting after Rio; this really happened in a meeting in Berlin in
1995, where this clear split was made--even discussion of the more wealthy of
the developing countries coming onto the treaty when they reach a certain level
of income is not allowed in the treaty discussions. And this essentially is, of
course, the developing countries holding back and taking exactly the argument
that you're suggesting, which is: You come talk to us when you've done
something, but don't ask us to make even contingent commitments until
you do something. And that's the state of the international discussion
Try and lay out for people, as an economist does, this issue of where carbon
comes from.Tell me why it's so difficult to view this as a national as opposed
to an international problem.
The level of carbon emissions is a function of economic growth and the
technology that we use to fuel that growth. And let's remember that we're not
just talking about carbon dioxide. There are also other gases that are
important, like methane and nitrous oxide. But just focusing on carbon
dioxide...it's convenient to understand the structure of the system, to divide
it into four parts. You start with how many people are. There's the growth in
population. And then there's how much income level there is per population.
That gets you to--
Standard of living?
Standard of living. So there's the total number of people. Then there's the
standard of living.
Then the third component is: What is the amount of energy...what is the energy
intensity of that standard of living? For example, we have a standard of living
that's, let's say, roughly comparable to that of Japan. We're somewhat richer
than Japan, but in world terms, we're roughly comparable to Japan. But our
standard of living is a lot more energy-intensive than the Japanese standard of
living. We drive farther, and our houses are larger, and we spend more energy
cooling them and heating them and such. So that our standard of living is more
energy-intensive than the Japanese standard of living.
So that means we use energy less efficiently? Does high energy intensity
It is both efficiency, but it's also a different structure of the country. That
is, you know, it's a long way from here to Chicago. It's not a long way, in
Japan, from Tokyo to Nagano, or something. So it has to do with the
geographical structure of the country, as well as the level of living and the
kind of style and such. That's the third component.
Fourth component is: We're now down to how much energy there is. Then the
question is: How carbon-intensive is the energy? And some countries have a very
carbon-intensive energy source, and others have a less carbon-intensive energy
source. France is another country that's not quite at the level of income of
the United States, but for this discussion you can say France and the United
States are roughly equivalent. Somewhat less energy per unit of living. But
about 80 percent of France's electric power is nuclear. So France has a much
lower energy intensity, lower carbon intensity of their energy use, than, let's
say, United States, where we generate a large--the major portion--of our
electric power with coal.
So you multiply all those together: population, times the income per head,
times the energy intensity of the income, times the carbon intensity of the
energy. Those are all the components. In the first two, you have the level of
economic growth of the country overall--population and the wealth of the
So take those--
And the second two really are related to technologies.
So take the first two terms. What is the expectation for the world on the first
two terms? So population and standard of living. Do they go up or down?
Oh, I think that they go up. Now, economists get nervous forecasting more than
about two or three quarters. And certainly, five years is, or used to be, a
long-term forecast. Twenty years was really a long-term forecast. So we're now
talking about a century. So you have to kind of hold onto your chair when you
forecast a century, because lots of things can happen. But I would expect--and
I think that most economists would expect--performance something like the last
century, that the rich countries will continue to grow slowly. won't grow as
rapidly as developing countries are growing now. And the developing countries,
many of them have high rates of saving. They have the ability to bring in the
technology that's available in the developed world and get the advantage of
that to get their productivity up.
So countries like India and China and Indonesia and countries of Latin
America, countries of Africa, have the prospect of substantial economic growth
over the next century, and I think people expect not a complete closing of the
gap of incomes, but you expect those countries to be substantially wealthier at
the middle or the end of the next century than they are today. So the level of
income goes up.
So the first two terms in the equation go up fast?
Well, let's divide it, because the population growth in the developed
countries--particularly in Europe, in Japan, less so in the United States--the
population growth is slowed down a lot. And it has slowed down in a lot of the
other countries. We now have 6 billion people. Well, where is this going to
peak out? Where do people think that might go? Well, nobody knows, but it's
somewhere in the range of 10 billion to 15 billion over the next century. So
that we're going to have half again as many people to twice as many people as
we have...I'm sorry...we might have twice as many people as we have now, by the
end of the next century. So population is going to grow. Even if you correct
for declining birth rates and so forth, you just take all the people that are
coming into the childbearing ages and you kind of crank them through...you get
more people. And death rates are falling, for good reasons. So population
And then there's investment and technological change, which is going to produce
a productivity improvement, which is going to produce growth in per capita
income. And countries like China and India and a lot of the countries of Asia
have, over periods of decades, very high growth rates.
Now, Asia's got a problem now, but I think most people--
We would expect these people to get richer as well?
Yes. We have troubles in Asia now. They're deep troubles. But I think people
expect, over the horizons that we're talking about --hat is, we're talking
about horizons of decades to a century--that they're going to straighten that
out. They're going to come back. Those countries are going to find ways to
correct their political circumstances; they have well-educated, intelligent
populations; they're able to achieve quite high savings rates; and they have
the technology that can be brought in from the developed world. And so you
would...I would expect this to be a maybe five- to ten-year problem that they
have, but it's not a problem of a century, for some very large and potentially
rapidly growing countries in Asia. Similarly in Latin America, Africa.
So these economies grow. So people get richer. Do we expect these people to
consume more energy because there's more economic activity, because they've got
more refrigerators, cars? What's the expectation?
Well, if you're living in a hot Chinese city, you want an air conditioner.
First you want a television set, and then you want a fan, and then you want an
air conditioner, as you get more wealthy. And you would do that. I would want
to do that. And once you have an air conditioner, and the television set, then
you'd like to have a car. And it's going to be very difficult for those
countries to take a path of transportation and appliances and sort of standard
of living that is dramatically different from the one we took.
Now, I'm not saying it won't be different. You simply can't put the number of
cars per capita into Chinese cities. But the demand is going to be there, and
there's going to be continual pressure to develop a level of life that's
perhaps not U.S. standard--I don't believe that--but maybe at the Japanese
So the first two terms in our equation are likely to be sharply up.
Let's say, up. Yeah, up.
We're talking about population double, living standards double--
Over the century, yes. And population doubled for many of these countries.
Income may grow by a factor of five or ten. So, yes. You're talking about
income changes that--total income population multiplied by per capita income,
which might be up by a factor of 10. I mean, after all, per capita income in
the United States is something like $10,000 a year. What is it in the poorest
countries? You know, between $500 and $1,000. Maybe less. So they have a long,
long way to go, per capita. And they will close some of that gap over a
So, then, what do we do with the third term? The third term is the intensity of
energy used. Are there some options? Historically, what happens to societies
with this term?
The third term, which is the energy intensity of the economic activity, this is
really the conservation point. That is, you could have more or less
gas-guzzling cars. You could have more or less efficient air conditioners. You
can have more or less efficient building designs. You can have more or less
efficient appliances of all kinds. More or less efficient lighting systems. So
admitting the differences between countries in their structure--that is, the
kind of industries they have, and how far apart cities are and such, how far
people live from work and the like--the major potential here what we
conventionally call conservation, which is possible changes both in the
technology and in the choices we make about how energy-intensive the devices
are that we use.
So a particular example of that is, I can choose to buy a sport utility
vehicle, or I can choose to buy a small sedan to provide not exactly the same
services but similar services. And governments can have some influence on that
through taxation, regulation, and the like. As I say, some of this is built
into the structure of the economy. It's not easy to change. But part of it is
easy to change. And the main thing that it is responsive to is the price of
energy. So the major instrument there to influence that is energy price itself.
And with gasoline at 95 cents a gallon, it's not surprising that people buy big
vehicles. It's essentially free to drive them.
How much scope is there for this, in principle? What kind of bite out of the
carbon problem could we make with this term, if we really pursued it
One of the standard numbers that people have looked at, since it's been
negotiated and discussed a lot, is: Could we, over a period of ten to fifteen
years, reduce our energy and carbon use to achieve something like the Kyoto
targets, which would be not reduce energy use by a third, but essentially to
reduce carbon emissions by about a third from what they otherwise would be,
let's say, 15 years from now. Could we do that?
The answer's yes, I think we could do that. If we started now, we could do that
by a set of measures--mainly by raising the price of carbon-producing
activities. That would require reduction of energy consumption below what would
otherwise be done in perhaps a quarter. And that could be done, sure, by
changes in efficiency, changes in use, changes in patterns of consumption.
I don't like people who use this notion that it's devastating. It's not
devastating. It would be costly in terms of the prices of fuels, prices of
electric power, and particularly strongly affecting some sectors and regions of
Now, if you don't like to do it that way, you can control the carbon with the
fourth term, can't you? You don't have to do it all through efficiency. You
could, in principle, do it with the carbon-intensive--
That's right. The third way would be fuel substitution. And substitution of
non- or less carbon-intensive forms of energy. Now, what are the obvious
choices there? The most obvious, and certainly the first, target is the use of
coal in producing electric power, because it would be possible, in the United
States in particular, with the sources of natural gas that we have from the
United States and from Canada and Mexico, to do a substantial shift of electric
power generation from coal to natural gas. Now, natural gas has much less
carbon emissions per unit of electricity generated than coal does. So that's
one example of substitution.
You could substitute other low-carbon sources: wind, solar. They're going to be
small, but we should forego them if they're economically competitive. Nuclear
is another noncarbon-emitting opportunity.
And finally, something that is being studied a lot now is that it would be
possible even to use coal and natural gas in electric power generation and to
capture the carbon, to not let the carbon go into the air. And there are
technologies to do that. It's possible to generate or to create automobile
fuels that are made from coal or natural gas or oil, but where you capture the
carbon and don't let it go into the air. Now, those, right now, are expensive,
and they are a subject of R&D, but that would be a way to use energy--that
is, a total amount of kilowatt-hours or BTU's of energy--but release less
carbon along the way. And the question is: How soon could we do that? How much
are we willing to pay to do it? What would it cost?
Now let's talk about what Kyoto asked us to do, and what it would take to
actually solve the problem, because they're two rather different things. Kyoto
is just a freezing at a 1990 level or a few percent below, isn't it?
First of all, why do people scream and shout when you suggest something like
that, which is modest compared with what you really have to do to solve the
To achieve Kyoto in a short period of time is going to [involve] substantial
cost. According to the calculations that we've done, you would need a price of
carbon of somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 a ton. If you converted that
into a price of gasoline, that would be maybe 50 cents a gallon. If you
converted it into price of electric power, it's substantial. The price of coal
would go up by a factor of three or more. The price of natural gas would go up
substantially. The price of oil would go up. So that the prices that people pay
for oil, coal, natural gas, and electric power would all go up.
Would that cause the economy to go into a recession?
No. This is not the kind of circumstance that intelligent policy would
impose--in a shock. It would be imposed gradually over time. So that it would
have some dragging effect on the U.S. economy. You're diverting resources that
we could be spending on consumption. We're spending it on getting rid of the
carbon, so it's going to drag the economy down some.
Most estimates show that by 2010, achieving Kyoto would yield a lowering of
consumption in those years by about 1 to 2 percent. But it requires
increases in the prices of energy. That, of course, is more difficult for
people of lower incomes. It has particular effects on particular regions of the
country. If you're in West Virginia or the coal-producing regions of the West,
it could have quite a substantial effect on you. And then there's the question:
How do you achieve that? It's got to be achieved, in some way, by either
regulation or prices. These then involve political changes in the way we run
our economy, which a lot of people oppose, or they're worried about the
intelligence of the policies that might be followed.
How are we doing with regard to our Kyoto target here in the United States?
The answer is: not. By the year 2000--which is, you know, the day after
tomorrow--we will be something like 15 percent above 1990.
And we're supposed to be?
We're supposed to be at 1990. The original commitment that was made--
Aren't we [supposed to] be 7 percent below 1990?
There's a budget period two. The average over the period, 2008 to 2012, we're
supposed to be 7 percent below. Right now, I forget the number for 1999. But
for the year 2000, the forecast something like 15 to 16 percent above 1990. By
the 2008 to 2012 period, we'll be something like 25 percent above 1990 if we
follow the path that we're on. So you take the 25 percent above 1990, add the 7
percent that we're supposed to be below 1990, and you've got something over 30
percent, near a third, that would have to be cut.
So we're not doing too well.
Now, what happened...the reason I say "not" is that in the original Rio treaty,
there was a very loose commitment to return to 1990 emissions by 2000. It was
not a firm legal commitment, but it was a statement that nations would try to
do that. And Europe and Japan...a lot of other areas signed that. The Bush
Administration refused to. When President Clinton came in, on the first Earth
Day, he committed to that target, in 1993. And there was a plan to do
this--without any teeth, but there was a plan to do this. And it had... I don't
say it had no effect, but it had very small effect on lowering the rate of
growth of greenhouse emissions. So we're substantially above now, and
continuing to grow. So we really have very little, in effect, now. It's not
that we're doing nothing. We're doing some research. There are some voluntary
programs that have had some effect. But having an effect is not the same as
lowering emissions by a third.
Why, in simple terms, are we so high, and a country like Russia or Ukraine are
well in compliance? What's going on there?
Well, we're high because we're rich. And we're high because, in relation to
some other countries, we have had a design of our tax system. In general in
this country, we've taxed income; we've taxed property. We have not taxed fuel
as a major element of our tax system. Others countries have different tax
systems, so they've had higher fuel prices because the tax system used fuel,
not for environmental reasons, but for fiscal policy reasons.
Russia is less for two reasons. First of all, Russia is a poor country. Russia
was a relatively poor country in 1985. but then you have not only the collapse
of the Berlin Wall but the collapse of the economies of places like the Russia
and Ukraine. So you actually have falling real gross domestic product in those
countries. So that they are way below their 1990 level of emissions, just
because people are too poor to drive around, or a lot of inefficient industries
have shut down. So that's one way to cure the greenhouse problem. But I hope we
don't have to go through that kind of process.
Given that we're not really on the track to meet Kyoto, what are the chances of
it being ratified, in your view?
Not good. I think that there is substantial support for ratification in Europe,
so we have to talk about different countries. I mean, I think that many
countries will ratify Kyoto. The treaty does not go into effect until a certain
fraction of all the countries ratify it. And the way that number has been set,
the treaty doesn't go in effect until the United States ratifies it. So the key
is, will the United States ratify it, which I take to be the origin of your
First of all, I want to say that it's difficult to predict politically. It's
difficult to [predict] politics of the country, so you don't know what's going
to happen. But certainly, I don't know anybody who believes that it would even
be suggested to the Senate that they consider this until after the election in
the year 2000. Now, would it be ratified then? My guess is that the answer is:
probably not. Even if you had a sympathetic Senate, it would not be ratified as
it stands, because the Kyoto Protocol--which is what we're talking about--has a
commitment of this drastic reduction, now, of emissions in the United States.
Now, suppose it was submitted to the Senate. Most optimistic scenario:
Submitted to the Senate, let's say, in 2001. It takes them a couple years to
deal with it. Then it's 2002, 2003. By the time you're in , you're so
close to the deadline that you can't imagine turning the economy around in a
short period of time. It's too late. Even though there might be a strong
sympathy --which is questionable, of course; that's a political question which
we don't know--in the Congress for ratifying it, it's really too late to ratify
if you seriously mean to achieve it. So I think we're more likely headed for a
renegotiation of it.
It's probably dead.
I think "dead" is not quite the right word. It doesn't die. A lot of nations
have a lot of stake in this treaty, and lot's been put into it. So maybe not
dead, but it certainly is going to have to be resuscitated in a modified form.
Because by the time we get to this point, it's too late. [There] is not enough
time to do the investment to turn around the capital stock. It's not believable
if you wait until 2003, 2004 to start this.
Kyoto really makes very little difference to the problem, in terms of
atmospheric concentrations of carbon. If you really want to turn those around
and prevent the doubling, tripling, quadrupling, you have to reduce radically
the carbonization of the energy sources of the entire world, don't you? And
that's a very huge problem, isn't it?
Yes. Kyoto is a small step. I mean, it's not insignificant, but by our
calculations, if you take a forecast to the year 2100 of the temperature
change, let's say, this would reduce the expected warming by about 17 percent.
So it's not big. But you have to start somewhere. And so Kyoto may or may not
be the right level. Most people feel like Kyoto is too strong a turnaround in
the short run. But it's not really fair, I think, to say that Kyoto doesn't
solve the problem. Of course Kyoto doesn't solve the problem. Kyoto is a step
which might begin to change a bit the trajectory that we're on. Solving the
problem is going to require things that are not in Kyoto, that are not part of
that agreement. Perhaps they should be, but they're not.
For example, forms of agreement that will bring serious discussion of extending
this commitment, if the developed countries make it, and extending it gradually
to the developing countries as they get more wealthy. And my own view is, if
this turns out to be a really serious problem, we have to stabilize the
atmosphere. There is no hope of doing it without substantial technological
So Kyoto is really a first step. It's really not fair to say it doesn't solve
the problem. Even the people who are in favor of it don't think it solves the
Right. Do you think they really grasp the nature of what's involved, when you
talk about technology, that new technologies will need to be there at some
I think largely that the way it's covered in the press doesn't make clear that
whatever we do first, if it's Kyoto or something less than Kyoto, is only a
step on a path that may require much more stringent things...make much more
stringent things later.
But worse than that, I don't think that a lot of the public discussion is clear
about the fact that it's going to be costly, and it's going to require changes
in the nature of taxation and/or regulation in the United States.
So a lot of the public presentation of this by, I think, by the
Administration, certainly by advocates, makes it sound like that we can do this
with conservation. It'll all be easy. And I think that's misleading. I think it
would be much more useful for people to understand that this is potentially a
serious problem, and we have to be ready to deal with potentially disruptive
policies to deal with it.
Now, we don't have to take those policies now, but we need to do something now.
We will revisit this over time, because a lot of the uncertainty that we have
now, people expect, will over the period of decades--two or three
decades--gradually be resolved. We're not making the whole decision now about
what to do about climate change. We're only deciding the first step now.
Is this a problem that technology ultimately gets us out of? Or do we have to
change how we live?
Well, ultimately both. That is, if this turns out to be a really serious
problem, and there is a serious commitment to stabilize the atmosphere, to not
let the carbon dioxide continue to increase, then that's going to require both.
It's going to require some change in the way people live. Now, to say the
change in the standard of life sounds like that we become poor again...no, no,
no. We don't become poor again. But we may drive smaller vehicles. We may buy
more efficient devices. We may have different types of lighting.
Now, if we get to really serious reductions, as might be required, like cutting
the amount of energy per unit of gross domestic product by a factor of what we
are now, cutting it in half, or cutting it by two-thirds, my own view is that
unless we develop technologies that are competitive with fossil fuels, that
don't put the carbon in the air, we can't do it. So my own personal view of
this is that getting the political commitment, getting the international
agreements, working out the policies to do this, is going to be very, very
difficult. And it's really only going to be possible--if it turns out we need
to do it--with dramatic technical change. So that I think that's really the
only hope in the long run.
If you had to put your bet on areas where you should be investing now
technologically, where would they be?
First of all, we have a lot of fossil fuels in the world, lots. There's lots of
gas and lots of oil, certainly for centuries. And there's lots of coal for
multiple centuries. And there's a lot of what people call nonconventional oil.
So we're going to use it. My first and highest priority is the development of
ways to use that fossil fuel but not release the CO2.
That's sequestration. That can be done by various kind of chemical processes
where you just remove the hydrogen and put the carbon away, and use the
hydrogen as a fuel. It's possible to burn coal in a power plant, and we remove
sulfur from the stack gases. We can also remove carbon dioxide from the stack
gases. It's expensive, but we could do it. So I think that's my first one.
I also think that, in the long term, a high priority--and one that's now not
being followed in the United States--is to find a socially acceptable version
of nuclear power. I think one of the great tragedies of current R&D...it's
not a tragedy necessarily that we're not building more nuclear power, because
there are a lot of social reasons to worry about nuclear power. The problem is,
we're not doing the research that would be needed to search for a nuclear power
option that would be socially acceptable. So those are my two top options.
Now, one of the things to say about this, about energy, is that there's no
silver bullet. There's no single solution. There's no single technology. There
are a thousand technologies. So, then you have to look for a lot of high-payoff
smaller things: in appliances, in transportation, in lighting, in industrial
Last question: When people are skeptical about this issue and say, "Don't
bother me. This isn't going to happen in my lifetime," and so forth, how do you
make a connection with them? Why should they care about this?
Well, there are two, I think, at least a couple of things. There is a feeling
that I have, and I think a lot of people share, that you do care about your
children and your grandchildren. I mean, I don't have grandchildren, but I
might soon have grandchildren. And this is in their lifetime. It is distant,
and for that reason, difficult. But it's not so distant. I mean, if I have a
grandchild today, my grandchild born today will not be as old as I am until
2062. It's not that far away, in in terms of generations of people that are
around. You can care about this issue because of people you know. That's one
Another is a more distant, kind of vague, and goes back to a point we made
earlier about a kind of a reservoir of moral energy here. There is a sense of
not messing up the world--more responsibility for stewardship for things--which
is also, I think, people's motivation for caring about this issue..
Do you think we'll solve this problem?
I wouldn't bet we can solve it. I think it is extremely, extremely difficult,
and also because of all the political difficulties of dealing with it. I think
that with the right technological breakthroughs we might be able to solve
My point is that though I don't know whether we can solve it or not, it's very
important to work on it. It's worth our effort to really work hard to try to
find a ways to solve it. Whether we can, I'm not sure.
> the debate
> carbon diet
> stories in ice
> beyond fossil fuels
> water world
> program excerpt
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