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Ignoring science doesn’t solve the problem, climate scientist says

As wildfires continue to rage on the west coast and the Gulf Coast rebuilds from a record hurricane season, the impact of climate change is already being felt. But is it getting the attention it deserves? Drew Shindell, a professor at Duke University joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the link between science and policy, and why climate scientists are struggling to convey their message.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yesterday, we reported on how the changing climate is affecting farmers in North Carolina's coastal regions and how the state is preparing for future extreme weather.

    I recently sat down with Drew Shindell, Nicholas Professor of Earth and Science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for a more extensive look at climate change and the links between science and policy.

  • Drew Shindell:

    I think it's permeated much more than in past elections but I think it still hasn't entered most people's minds that what we do about climate change really affects the job market and it affects our our health.

    And those consistently rank has more important issues to voters but I don't think people really have the sense of how inextricably these things are really linked to each other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, when you mention things that affect the job market and our health. Here we are, all living through a pandemic.

    What can we learn from how people have adapted and understood pandemic science vs. how they need to be treating climate science?

  • Drew Shindell:

    I think one of the things we're seeing is that if you ignore the science and you you wish that it would go away that doesn't really help, that doesn't solve the problem. And so, we have an even harder job as climate scientists. We have to convey to people that there is a real danger but it's a really slow moving, diffuse one rather than right here and now. And so it's hard to convince people already.

    Why I'm hopeful that the lessons from the pandemic will show people both that it pays to listen to science and that if we change, we can get a real response right away. We've seen the air get much, much cleaner, for example, by by controlling our emissions. So some benefits happen very quickly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In this election, the conservatives and the Republicans paint the potential Biden administration as one that will do away with fossil fuels but on stage, Vice President Biden has said repeatedly that that's not the plan, right?

    In a weird way, whether he's trying to thread the needle or not, it seems that fossil fuels are still going to be a significant part of the mix for American energy for several years. Is that changeable, should that be changed?

  • Drew Shindell:

    Well, I think the science is clear that we need to get out of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

    In particular, coal is the dirtiest fuel. So we should be getting rid of coal within the next few years, at most. But obviously, we've got hundreds of millions of cars and we're not going to switch them all to electric within, say, two or three years. We need to build the infrastructure, we need to get people to buy and change out their old cars. So there is a lifetime.

    I think that that the emphasis really should be on not continuing to build fossil fuel infrastructure when we know that we should be moving towards phasing it out. And that Biden is correct. There is a phase out time, even if we want to get rid of fossil fuels. It's not going to happen on a dime other than coal, which really should and could go away very, very quickly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you study this and in the longer arc, where are we? What you know, we sometimes we hear these numbers about here's the window where we can make change, here's the tipping points that we've gone over.

    How are we doing in the type of steps that we need to take to prevent some of these, sort of catastrophic potentials?

  • Drew Shindell:

    Unfortunately, I would say we are doing very poorly and that we have been warming, warning the world for decades now that it's time to take action. And we've now waited so long that we're already seeing the effects of the hurricanes, the wildfires, the droughts and in our country. And so we are in a state where we have waited past the time when we could have avoided most of the impacts, which doesn't mean that we we don't still get a lot of benefit by taking action. But we have waited too long.

    The only positive side to that is that the prices have come down so much that, for example, in the U.S. we've had no real federal policy and yet our carbon emissions are going down simply because costs favor renewables.

    So in that sense, we're in a good spot that we have the technology for electric vehicles that go long distances, Wwe have cheaper ways to generate power. We know what to do now and the economics in our favor. But we're starting from way behind.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, you're in a state that could benefit tremendously from renewable energy. You've got a massive shoreline that can give you a lot of wind energy, pretty sunny state.

  • Drew Shindell:

    Very.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right? But there are still plans to put in gas extraction in the state when it doesn't necessarily need to be that way.

  • Drew Shindell:

    That's right, and we're not a state like Pennsylvania or Texas or Oklahoma where there are fossil fuel jobs here.

    What we really have this problem with vested interests, the power companies that make their money not by selling electricity, but by constructing big equipment. And so, it's a strange setup with a monopoly we have in North Carolina. And it's something that made sense many, many decades ago when you want to electrify rural parts of the state. But now building infrastructure is not what we need the power companies to be doing. We need them to be building clean infrastructure and shutting down dirty infrastructure but they don't have a financial incentive to do that.

    So that's, I think our state really needs to realize this and start pushing to exploit the renewables that we, like you said, we have great potential for renewables. We need to exploit those and move away from fossil fuels.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Drew Shindell, thanks so much.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thank you for having me.

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