Stephen H. Schneider


A professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, he's been arguing the dangers of climate change for more than two decades. In the end, he says he's optimistic: "The U.S. is going to do more than the skeptics think, though probably less than the optimists would like." This is the edited transcript of the interview conducted on Aug. 11, 2008.

“There will be a Chevy Volt soon. About time. If instead of fighting us for the last 25 years they'd been developing the car, they'd have a good piece of this market.”

How did it become Republicans lined up on one side of the issue and Democrats on another?

... We have an ideological polarization that's built on people's perceptions of the proper role of government. What happened is if you believe that climate change is real and serious, and you recognize [that] it can only be solved by a combination of public-private partnerships with government rules, but you don't approve of government rules, well, [then] you're going to deny climate change, just as people coming from the ideological left are going to argue that all corporate actions that are not regulated are going to cause pollution -- that they're going to wreck the commons. That's also wrong, because this problem is never going to get solved without corporate participation.

We need a very strong and clever corporate sector to help us to invent our way out of this problem. What corporations need are incentives for investment. That's where the public side has to come into the mix. It can take the form of carrots, such as tax breaks for investment, or sticks, such as charging polluters for dumping their junk in the atmosphere. Personally I think we need both. And it's obvious you're going to get ideological splits on those kinds of policies.

How do you feel about the leadership of the House and the Senate?

I think the leadership in the Congress is vastly better than it was for a long time. There was a temporary moment of climate change Camelot in 1988 when the North American heat waves led to the introduction of many bills to try to control emissions.

Then the fossil fuel industry organized what was called a Global Climate Coalition. Let me [be] blunt: The Global Climate Coalition was a coalition of liars and spin doctors to reposition the debate onto the issue of uncertainty, way beyond [what] the scientific community agreed with. They delayed movement forward for a long time. Then the Gingrich Congress came along, so we had a 15-year lack of any serious climate policy legislation from the early 1990s to the middle of this decade.

After the 1988 Camelot, the oil industry coalition killed any momentum because the coalition no longer thought it was good for it.

Now ... major Fortune 500 companies like GE, Pacific Gas and Electric, Wal-Mart and Duke Energy are saying, "We need a climate policy." They made it safe for that formerly endangered species, the moderate Republican, to come out of the woodwork and join the Democrats. And there's no hope for us to have climate policy if we don't have bipartisan coalitions. You don't have to have everybody onboard, but you have to [have] enough to beat the filibuster, and we're just about there. And when we get a president that wants it very soon, we'll get somewhere. So it's a real sea change.

Let's talk about [candidates]. Do you see any major differences?

In 2003 I was invited to testify to McCain's committee on the McCain-Lieberman [legislation] calling for climate policy right after McCain's Republican president had just pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol and basically wouldn't use the phrase "climate change" in any speech he gave -- and forbade his staff to use it as well.

I go to this hearing, and it's the first hearing since 1981 I've been to that did not have some contrarian, somebody who doesn't have credentials, like those famous professors of climatology, Professor [Rush] Limbaugh and [author Michael] Crichton, sitting there as somehow technically competent witnesses, which is a joke. McCain only had legitimate scientists, and he discussed the seriousness of the climate problem, the impacts and policies.

It was the only hearing I'd ever been to out of dozens in which the party of the chair, in this case, McCain, a Republican, had not one senator present from his own party. All the people who came to support the bill or make comments and ask questions were Democrats. It was stunning. He was being punished for transgressing the party line.

So I give the guy credit for having some guts. And I think on the climate issue, he's very similar in many ways to Obama. However, he's been saying we're going to solve the problem with nuclear power, which I think is very unlikely from the point of view of investment. Nuclear energy might be a small piece of the solution. Also, I don't know who he's going to appoint to do the job. I do know a number of people inside the tent of the Obama people, and they are very serious about wanting to move ahead. And I believe McCain himself is very serious about it. ...

What we're doing in this program is talking about ... whether our system that is predicated on growth and consumption, that thinks toward the next quarter rather than the long term, a political system [that] is heavily dependent on campaign contributions and appropriations -- whether or not there aren't significant obstacles to overcome [for] us to really attack the issue.

My students and many in the media say: "Oh, come on, Steve, this is hopeless. How are you going to overcome the political inertia of those guys who make the Hummers and the SUVs, the coal industry, the ideological opposition to having the government involved in technology development?"

People's absolute insistence on more and more and more consumption, which is driving emissions, we can't reverse that. And I agree: It's a very, very strong obstacle.

On the other hand, we had Hurricane Katrina. We had a heat wave in Europe in 2003 that killed over 50,000 people and got the Europeans onboard for a radical and expensive climate policy. We've got [the] U.S. West with five times more fires in the last 30 years than we had before, which are clearly linked to global warming. We've got sea levels [rising], glaciers melting, the Arctic disappearing. I think that there are factors on both sides that are really going to collide. So which one is going to win is going to depend in part upon how the leadership spins these events.

In the Bush administration, the spin was all about, "Any new energy solutions are anti-consumption and anti-growth and hurt the economy." I think in either an Obama or a McCain administration that there would be a lot more balance, an understanding that the negative side effects of overconsumption really can hurt our quality of life more than the benefits from that very consumption. That's going to take some leadership to convince people, and it's going to take some rules, some building codes, and a lot of investment in alternative technology to help us invent our way out of the problem, because without that we have no hope. ...

The magnitude of our dependence on coal, oil is daunting.

It's daunting how much we have to do to fix this problem. I have friends and colleagues in the environmental movement who think that we can cut our emissions back by 50 percent in 30, 40 years; that we can cut it back by 20 percent by 2020. I don't believe that there's a chance in hell that we can do that.

What I believe we can do is we can use the next 10 to 20 years to really crank up the investment in alternative research and efficiency so that 20 years from now, we can start coming off that high peak of dangerous emissions and come back down toward much safer levels where we want to be.

So we have to not get hung up on numbers like how much can we do in 10 years or 20 years. We have to say how much can we do to make a safer future possible, and then try to implement it as quickly as we can both politically and economically; to do that is probably going to take a generation more.

So I'm not going to fret because our emissions are still on the way up, and they're going to continue going up, and say all is lost. What I'm going to say is, all is lost if for the next 20 years we continue to do what we did in the last 20 years, which is not make the investments in the inventions to solve the problem. That would be a disaster. So let's get on with spending those tens of billions of dollars a year and working with the Chinese and the Indians and the Indonesians and the Brazilians and the Mexicans to try to get them onboard as fast as we can, and try to set up that more efficient economy that may not be implemented till 2020. But if we don't get it implemented by 2020, our emissions will never be anywhere near where we need them to be in 2040.

So just to say we're going to do it is not enough, because it takes a long time. You can't shut down all the existing coal-burning plants; you can't take all the cars off the road. What you have to do is replace them with much better [plants and cars]. So we need a generation to fix this problem. ...

... The targets that have been set say the United States needs to reach a 60 to 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by mid-century. Is that possible?

California has been the leader on this. It's what some of us call "the 2 percent solution." Forty years from now, in 2050, we're going to have cut emissions by 80 percent, so that is a 2 percent reduction [on] average per year. It's an aspirational goal. If you don't have an aspiration, you have a problem. So how did Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger come up with it? He didn't do the economics of the science. I was on his climate advisory committee, and what he did was ask us, "What's dangerous?" And we said: "It's already dangerous to some extent with souped-up hurricanes that affect other parts of the U.S., bigger fires, which are really bad for California and the rest of the West, and the Sierra snowpack which is already melting early which affects the state water supply. We don't want to go much above a few degrees." And he said, "Well, how do you stay under a few degrees?" ... He made the aspirational goal based upon avoiding dangerous change, not upon some cost-benefit analysis with some political calculus. I actually admire him for having the courage to do that.

Can he do it?

You can't do it with California acting alone. California has to continue to play a leadership role [like] it's done on performance standards. California began by requiring refrigerator efficiency standards. Other states and the feds copied it. Now all refrigerators are four times more efficient. We've saved more electricity on refrigerators than the energy you could produce from ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] drilling.

So leadership matters, but it's got to spread to other places. The United States is only one country. We have to spread it around the whole planet. ...

But taking the California example, can California meet that 60 to 80 percent cut in emissions?

California can go a long way toward the 80 percent cut. ... It's not going to be easy to do it. But you start by looking at all the technological capabilities. You look at the fact California has already passed laws which prevent the import of electricity with higher emissions than the California energy niche, which is relatively low emissions. You take a look at all the unimplemented efficiency standards with better housing insulation and better light bulbs. Plus California passed the tailpipe emissions standards, which is in court, but will eventually win, and both presidential candidates have said they're going to endorse it.

There's so much that we can do, that we can go a fairly long way toward the 80 percent goal. We're not going to get there, though, until we make a fundamental shift toward taking carbon dioxide from the [natural] gas and coal out of the smokestacks and putting it underground -- which might happen, too; toward using renewables like wind and solar, with maybe some nukes in the mix, although you can't build plants fast enough to make that much difference.

And nukes are very expensive.

They're expensive -- too much concrete, too many materials. It can make a small difference. It can be a piece of the story.

The economists have the right word for this. They call it a "portfolio," a portfolio of energy options. There is a favorable quote from President [George H. W.] Bush, [who] said, "Let 1,000 flowers bloom." Well, if not 1,000, how about 20? We need to invest in a wide range of technologies and then let the engineering skills and the marketplace sort out the relative winners from losers.

If we do that, on a crash basis like the Apollo program, or like the tens of thousands of airplanes and tanks that got produced in World War II when there was national will, we'll have the goodies available that will be able to go a long way toward that aspirational goal. ...

I spoke with the CEO of one of the nation's largest utilities, and ... he says that the truth is that we're going to burn more coal, not less, at least in the [near term]. All the coal plants are rapidly aging. There's no energy to replace what they call baseload power, so he needs to build more coal-burning plants.

... What do you expect a utility company or a coal company to tell you, that we don't need more of their stuff? They're going to tell you that's exactly what we need: more coal, not less.

We do not have to have the energy growth rates that we've had in the past to grow our economy. When you move electrons around in the microchips in computers, you produce a lot more economic value per unit of energy than you do moving logs around in diesel trucks and through clinging to the old-fashioned, big-car-oriented society. If we get smart and we start basing our economy more on efficiency and information rather than on using materials and energy, we can still for a while have some of our cake and eat it, too -- not all of it, but some of it.

So when I hear from these executives of power companies that the only solution is extrapolating out more of the same, I know that it's not what has happened in other sectors. For example, our cars have gotten more efficient, even when they got heavier.

But we have burned more coal than 30 years ago. We are using more electricity. Even with the efficiency savings, those will be overwhelmed by the increasing demand.

But it's now cheaper to use wind than it is to burn coal. ... And what if we charge the coal industry the cost of sending children with asthma or adults with emphysema to the hospital? If we started charging coal the full freight for the damage that it does to this planet, it's not going to look as attractive as some of its competitors.

But the CEO's argument is that ... whatever other kind of alternative power source there's going to be, is it coming online fast enough to take up the slack for what we need?

You have to define what we need by asking do we really need it? Suppose we insulated our houses, replaced our light bulbs, put in better air conditioners and refrigerators -- do we really need to increase electric supply? I don't think so. I think that there's a lot of room for efficiency to slow the energy growth rate and still maintain a very viable economy. In fact, you can make money doing it.

We do need to produce primary power -- there's no question about that -- and coal will be a piece of the portfolio. ... But again, you have to take the CO2 out and put it underground which means an increase in cost. It's not infeasible. It can be done. It just can't be done the day after tomorrow; it's going to take a decade or two to get those plants built. ...

You can't take a look at the cost of solar now and then say, "Oh, it's more expensive than coal; therefore we're going to build coal plants." Rather take a look at the costs of coal a long time ago. Costs come down with experience. It's a learning curve, and learning curves require investment to fine-tune the technologies and gain market share so they come down in price. And let's face it: Coal and nuclear were heavily subsidized and still are, and therefore we have to have comparable pump priming for the competitors. Otherwise we're not going to be able to get them implemented at the scale that's needed.

So I'm not going to listen to the scare tactics from people in the power industry about needs, because they haven't defined our needs in terms of what's possible by first reducing those needs through efficiency.

I've seen that the banks now are getting very skittish about investing in these [Integrated Gasification] Combined Cycle coal companies that many in the business see as kind of a first step toward carbon capture and sequestration. If the banks are not willing to invest in these things, is there a problem then?

Banks or other venture capital like to see some degree of safety in what they're investing in. ... Here's where we need public-private partnerships. When Chrysler went under, we bailed them out, and eventually, it was the right thing to do. Don't we need to pump-prime these ventures? We need to be able to make some loan guarantees to courageous banks and venture capitalists who want to invest in the kinds of technologies that can help us be cleaner and meaner. And you know what? If one of them really works, somebody's going to get very rich, because not only would we sell the technology in the U.S., but we'll be selling it all over the world. We need a partnership to do that, because you have to get these investors over the hump of their fear that they might lose their investment. ...

The problem is that when people have a return-on-investment criteria which is driven by stockholders who want a 15 percent return per year, or only a few-years payback, yet what they're doing is damaging the society over generational time frames, it's the role of the government to get in their faces and say, "Wait a minute, we have to have a balance between private return and public protection." ...

The argument against that is that the free market is the best arbiter of what is the best place for new capital.

The free market doesn't value protecting the commons. The free market doesn't value species that are lost, sea level rise, children going to the hospital with asthma. It doesn't include all the costs into its calculus of what its returns are. Therefore, the free market has been known now for decades to be an inappropriate vehicle to decide public policy. ...

You said earlier that we need strong and clever corporations to get there, but we're not going to get there without them.

I don't think the government is the best way to invent new technology. What it's good at is setting up incentives so that the private sector can then make investments that have a proper economic return. You can set up negative or positive incentives. You can have sticks like having to pay a fee for dumping your waste in the atmosphere; that encourages people to develop clean technologies and to use less of the dirty ones.

Or you can have positive incentives or carrots: You can give direct subsidies to people for investing in the kinds of technologies we believe are cleaner. Or we can set up loan guarantees to people who invest in safer nuclear options or more efficient windmills or solar machines. There's a balance consisting of a public-private partnership. This country has never been based on only one part of the equation -- either all on entrepreneurs or all on government. That doesn't fit America, and it doesn't fit solving this problem. ...

So we've got to make the investment. I was very, very frustrated when the U.S. went to [the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dec. 2007 in] Bali, and it said we're going to invent our way out of this problem; we're going to invent clean coal, and we're going to invest federal money in a power plant called FutureGen that was going to incorporate carbon capture and sequestration.

As soon as they came home, the half-billion-dollar price tag was too high; they didn't want to spend it in a recession. No wonder we look like hypocrites. ... Future Gen was cancelled. What we need is enlightened leadership where the private sector and the public sector [can] make mutual investments so that everybody wins over time. And the private sector has a real opportunity to make money if they invent something really cool at [a] low price.

But we don't know yet [about] clean coal. They ran a $40 million ad campaign ... last year saying clean coal is the answer.

I hope that clean coal is going to be a piece of the answer. If we don't invest in figuring it out, we'll never know. Cleaner, cheaper solar is going to be a piece of the answer, I hope. If we don't make the investments, we won't know. We've got to make the investments. What are the investments that we're making in a marginal activity for our own national security at a cost of over $100 billion a year? What do we get for that, relative to the $50 billion it would take for us to make investments in new energy technologies? --

You're referring to the war in Iraq.

The Iraq war. ...

So let's say we have a president who's in favor of advancing on the issue. There will still be obstacles in getting business incentives lined up in such a way that we can move toward solutions.

There will always be obstacles. And those of us in the climate business are always going to say that preventable damage was not prevented.

Which ones worry you?

I worry the most about the shortsightedness obstacle where people say, "But what's it going to do for me right now?" "Oh, well, maybe we're going to be saving hundreds of millions of people 50 years from now, but I'm not going to be poorer for that." I think that maybe those people better look in the mirror and make sure there's a moral person looking back at them if they have that kind of attitude. ...

We can solve this problem at a small fraction of the growth rate of the world economic product if we want to. It's just that it means that some other people who would have been a little bit richer won't be a little bit richer, which resulted in the creation of blocking coalitions. Government is just going to have to step in and say, "No."

You're talking about oil companies; you're talking about car companies; you're talking about coal companies.

I'm also talking about ideologues who believe that there should be no interference in entrepreneurial rights.


I would call them impurists, because I think if you put junk in the atmosphere that sends kids to the hospital with asthma, or makes adults with emphysema have a serious health crisis, then you really have a fundamental moral problem if you think that shouldn't be controlled.

So as you see it, it's no different than using lead paint on children's toys.

Lead paint on children's toys, toxic waste in the water supply, air pollutants or food additives that create cancer. This is not a radical view. That's why we have an FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. I don't know very many Republicans out there saying the FDA shouldn't do due diligence on the safety of food and drugs.

We've got these blocking coalitions [of] large corporations that are worth, in aggregate, trillions of dollars. ... You've got to move them off [the] dime.

To move them off the dime you also have to give them an equity side payment, or -- shall I be more crude? -- a political bribe.

A soft landing.

Nobody mines coal or builds a Hummer because they want to screw up the climate, even though screwing up the climate is what they are likely doing. So you can't just say, "All right, we're going to impose a $200-a-ton tax on carbon," and put them out of business, which you would do with that level of tax. You would certainly reduce the risks of global warming -- not completely, but it would be an incremental step. It's got to be fair to these companies as they're not doing this to screw up the world.

What you have to do is this: you can't hold the sustainability agenda of the planet hostage to their kind of work, and at the same time, you can't throw them out in the street. So job retraining, alternative jobs for them to do, public-private partnerships to help set up a softer landing, that's the right approach. ...

So the governor of California passes the Global Warming Solutions Act, ... AB 32, and it is opposed by the car companies.

Car companies sued the state of California. They lost. ...

What was the nature of the car companies' attack on the bill?

They argued that CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards should not be set by states, that they should only be set by the federal government so that there's a homogenous standard country-wide, and that it would be outrageously expensive to make the mandated changes. California had done its due diligence and had already calculated it wouldn't be outrageously expensive -- that, in fact, people would save money by having more efficient vehicles that would reduce the emissions.

And all California had to demonstrate to get a waiver from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] was that it had unique and compelling circumstances that allowed it to have a stronger rule than the federal rule. This position has been upheld 40 times. California has been granted a waiver in the past. It's been upheld in the courts. The first waiver ever denied was by the Bush administration's EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, who went in the opposite direction of the recommendations of most of his own staff after a phone call from the West Wing, I understand, and then said, "No," and sided with the car companies.

Car companies have sued California and lost in court. The only thing left is for the next president to approve the waiver or for the courts to say that the EPA improperly used illegitimate authority. I think both of those will happen.

But what does it tell us about the power of blocking coalitions such [as], in this case the car companies, to determine the future of California?

The car companies couldn't block California. California basically told them, "We don't care about you, we're going to defeat you." The bill was passed, and Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, picked it up as part of his battle cry. Then the companies went back where they had power, back to Washington, and got the Bush administration to temporarily derail it, until they lost in court. They sued California, and it was thrown out. So now it's simply a matter of the courts adjudicating the EPA decision, and both presidential candidates have said they're going to approve the California waiver. There are now 15 states that are going to do the same thing. This is going to be significant. ...

The auto industry now has three to four years to act. If they just sit back and say, "Oh, this is draconian; this is going to destroy us; it's going to hurt our workers who will lose their jobs," you have to ask where have they been for five years? Instead of trying to make efficient cars, they've been out there trying legally and politically to fight change, which they've been doing since 1988. For decades they've been trying to block, block, block, block all the proposed legislated increases in automobile efficiency.

You talked about the power and special interests pulling it one way and then events like Katrina pulling another. ... We have an ethanol policy in this country. ... What is ethanol like?

We should have an ethanol policy concerned with producing fuels from biological materials. Because the biological materials were built by the sunlight allowing them to take carbon dioxide out of the air, when you burn them you just get it back. You're in a stable cycle.

The trouble is, when you use corn, you're, a) competing with food, [and] b) you're using a lot of fertilizer that was created with fossil fuels on the cornfields. You're not saving very much on carbon dioxide emissions, and you're creating other environmental problems when the fertilizer runs off into the rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, killing fish and making dead zones.

The support for corn ethanol is a farm bill. It's not very environmentally friendly, but there are many other ways that you could make ethanol. You can make ethanol with grasses. You can make ethanol with agricultural wastes, with woodchips from sawmills. There's many ways that we can be smart. ...

I think the problem with ethanol is we went down just one path. We went [with] corn-based ethanol because we already have a farm establishment producing corn.

So it was a special interest lobby that got us into making corn ethanol?

It was a special interest lobby, plus the fear of losing foreign oil supplies, although they didn't tell you that corn ethanol can only produce enough energy to supply a few percent of what we use. So what we may need is methanol, or exotic new chemicals to make biodiesel. And we don't need it just from corn. We need it from a wide variety of waste products. ...

And the media is partly complicit here because the media gets one person from the corn industry saying it's great, somebody from the environmental side saying it's terrible, and there's no balance in the reporting. What looks like balance is, "It's good; it's bad." That's not reality. What you have to find out is, whether it has a few good elements and a lot of bad elements -- you have to talk about all the elements. We need some neutral third parties to explain how it really works.

There was this [Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles] back in the early '90s, where Clinton and Gore pledged a billion dollars to the auto business to make an 80-mile-per-gallon car. But yet we're behind.

We have 100-mile-per-gallon cars driving around the streets of California right now.

But they're Japanese.

They're Japanese cars that have been rebuilt by American entrepreneurs who put batteries in the back and turned the hybrid into a plug-in hybrid. There will be a Chevy Volt soon. It's about time. If instead of fighting us for the last 25 years the U.S. car companies had been developing their own car, they'd have a good piece of this market now.

It's a self-inflicted wound. Detroit waited until they got murdered in the market and until the supply and demand just simply drove their monster cars out of public favor before they started to act. Foresight, they need foresight. They want to blame other people. They should blame themselves.

Why were the Japanese companies thinking about the future differently than the American companies?

Europe and Japan both have pushed efficiency much faster than the United States. There were two reasons. They had fewer fossil fuels or other kinds of energy resources by themselves and they had to husband them better, and they also were acutely aware of the security threats to their country if somebody cut off the supplies. The French have nuclear electricity. I think they understood the risks of dealing with North Africa in terms of the reliability of their supplies for gas or other kinds of fuels. That combined with the fact that Europe has had a long tradition of public investment and public protection, and the U.S. has long had suspicion of big government and suspicion of public investment. So you have some political, cultural differences between us and Europe and Japan. ...

But let's talk about Exxon and the other oil companies. Even the ones that have a kind of greener reputation, like BP or Shell, are investing tiny fractions of their profits into renewable-energy research.

BP and Shell are still oil companies. But the fact is that they're investing in alternatives -- they're ramping them up at very high growth rates, and they're at least doing a little bit of the walk while talking the talk. This sets an example for other companies to try it, too. I think it's important to have the right symbols. And the corporate monolith that up until '97 viewed climate change as a threat to capitalism no longer exists. That's been destroyed by the more enlightened entrepreneurs.

Now at least it's safe. You can go out on the golf course with your fellow CEOs, and they're not going to curse you out for saying that it's OK to have public rules and to make some investment in alternatives. That's an important cultural change which I think over a generation will play out into major participation by the corporate sector.

What about this idea that if large corporations invest in energy savings, and then take that money and use it to grow and sell more product, that at the end of the day you're still not solving the problem?

If we keep adding to the world population, keep demanding higher standards of living, and keep using conventional materials and energy to produce it, there's no way to avoid growing, growing, growing, more and more environmental catastrophes, shortages and so forth. So we have to clearly stop that kind of helter-skelter growth.

On the other hand, we can grow smart. We can invest in more efficient processes. We can produce more of our GDP out of information and less out of materials and energy flow. Corporations can get very rich doing it. I don't think that Google's doing badly, and they're in the information business. ...

There's a lot that we can do as we evolve toward where we want to be. We cannot stop it all. At some stage we've got to stop the population growth of the world. We've got to find alternatives to the notion of consumption for its own sake. ... At some stage you're going to have to say we have enough, or we're only going to increase our consumption to the degree that we can save through more efficiency. We're not politically anywhere near there now. But we're moving slowly in that direction naturally, and we have to move faster in that direction by enacting policy. ...

Is nuclear a good answer?

... Nuclear is very problematic because of cost. And also, what are you going to do with the waste? I think that there are technical solutions, but you can't get people to agree on a location. It's very NIMBY ["not in my backyard"], and Nevada doesn't want any of that waste coming from other states. Well, somebody has to have it stored someplace if we're going to be able to have the industry work. Accumulating wastes in barrels is really a very bad strategy; wastes really have to be put in a safer place.

So nuclear has a bunch of obstacles which has the private sector very reluctant to invest in it. Until it looks like there's a higher probability of a decent return on investment relative to the alternatives, including wind, nuclear is not going to be a very large piece of the answer.

I think it has to be some piece of the answer in some places, and it has to replace some electricity in some places. But it's going to have to use the safe recyclables, and it's going to have to deal with the waste problems, all of which I believe are technically possible, but at what cost? ...

So as you look out at the choices -- wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, coal, natural gas --

The cliché in the climate energy business is, "There's no silver bullet, but there's a lot of bronze buckshot." And we have to do a lot of things. I don't think we know yet what's going to be publicly acceptable, cost-effective, environmentally safe and doable. So what we have to do is perform the experiment with a whole bunch of technologies that use several energy sources.

Nuclear has got to be part of it. Coal, with the carbon dioxide taken out and put underground, has to be part of it. We have to have wind, hydro, solar of both kinds -- the rooftop photovoltaic collectors as well as the thermal solar troughs which heat up and make steam. We need geothermal energy. And the single most important thing we need is energy efficiency.

If we don't make our houses better insulated, our windows double- or triple-[paned], don't have better lights, refrigerators, air conditioners and automobiles, then whatever energy system we have, we're going to need too much of it to be environmentally safe. So we need to do all of that, and we can with leadership and with public acceptance.

... I hear candidates talk about great opportunities. I hear businessmen talk about technological leaps that are going to get us to cleaner, more efficient energy, ... And then I hear on the other side a darker kind of scenario which says that the fundamental problem cannot be easily solved given our political economy, that the way we are set up is to think short-term which means that we just can't get there from here. And I don't know where the truth lies in all of this.

... Well, you want me to predict the future as to what the truth is, and there's no truth about the future until it happens. I believe it's not going to be as bad as the pessimists say. I think that people have a good side to their natures and that we'll get kicked in the teeth enough that we'll start acting. But I also don't think that the other extreme, the wide-eyed optimists who say, "Oh, just tell people that there's a problem, and tell them their grandchildren will do badly and we're going to drive 50 percent of species to extinction, and they'll immediately get out of their automobiles," are right either -- I don't think that's going to happen.

What we have to do is get off the notion that we have to answer the problem now. Let's do as much as we can, as fast as we can, as fairly as we can, and then rethink it every few years as we learn more. ...

Schwarzenegger has a legal rule that he got through the state, through the Democratic Legislature cooperating with the Republican governor -- in fact, to diverge for a second, I was asked this question in front of the Congress. One of the congressmen said: "You're from California. How do you have a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature agreeing about climate policy, and we can't agree?"

And I told him, "Because our snowpack is melting earlier, and we've got more fires." There's no such thing as a Democratic flood or a Republican wildfire. It's that we have a common enemy. We've got to do something about it. I genuinely believe that that mentality has moved to Washington. It's getting there slowly; it's taking a stagecoach across the country. It's not happening fast, but it is happening, and it's certainly happening among the presidential candidates. So I'm optimistic that we're going to do more than the skeptics think, though probably less than the optimists would like.

Do we have time?

My students ask me all the time, "Is this going to get solved before I'm your age?" And they're very worried. How much time do we have? And I've heard some of my environmentalist friends say, "We only have 10 years to solve the problem." I don't believe that. I believe we had 10 years to prevent dangerous climate change when about five of us testified to the Senate for the first time in 1979 on why we should have climate policy as part of energy policy.

It's too late to prevent the increase in larger hurricanes and fires, but it's not too late to prevent really big increases in more catastrophic hurricanes and really big fires. There's a lot we can still do. So I don't get hung up on 10 years. I think, let's do as much as we can, as fast as we can, as fairly as we can. Even if it's too late to prevent some dangerous damage, there's plenty of really, really dangerous damage we can prevent. Let's get on with it.

Let's finally come to China and India and other developing [countries,] -- that are [growing] at enormous rates, at rates the world has never seen before.

Just the other day I heard a CEO of an oil company, who's trying to do some progressive things on the environment, say, "Oh, but it's all going to be swamped by two years of Chinese coal-burning growth," thereby implying that they shouldn't be held accountable while China goes this route. ...

They forget two things. Number one, we have a 100-year head start over China, and we use five times more energy per capita than they do, so they have a right to catch up. What we have to do is, a) show some leadership that we will walk the walk for ourselves, because we are the largest economy in the world, and, historically, we are the nation that has accumulated the most tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We can't use China as an excuse to do nothing when we've contributed the most to the problem. ... And b) we have to help provide resources and information to China and India and Indonesia and Brazil and Mexico and even poorer countries so that they can leapfrog right over the Victorian [era] and the Industrial Revolution to clean technologies. ...

The real danger in China is so many millions of people living in mega-deltas with cities near sea level, when sea levels are rising and hurricanes are getting more intense. They are dramatically threatened, and they know it, and they're angry. What they really want is a side deal. They want the U.S. and Europe and Australia and Japan to say, "OK, we know that you've got to cut emissions, but we know that you're way below us in emissions per person, so we're going to help you do it by using some technologies different than we used ourselves."

So instead of internal combustion engines, why don't they leapfrog to batteries and fuel cells? Instead of coal burning, why don't they leapfrog to coal burning where they take the carbon out and put it underground, or toward solar-thermal, wind and so forth? China is already developing, more wind and solar than we are, but not enough. Renewables are only a small fraction of its total energy need. We need partnerships with China and other developing countries, but, we have no credibility if we don't cut emissions ourselves. So to argue that because they're swamping us, therefore we shouldn't drastically improve our own efficiency standards and invest in cleaner, less emitting, energy technologies, is to argue we'll never do it.

But why should we have to pay for it? Basically we're going to borrow money from them to pay for it anyway. ... You're saying that we have to develop the technology in order to show them the way. But in fact, we're broke; they're not.

We already have a debt to the planet because we've dumped so much junk into the air. And we have an obligation to pay that debt back. That's doing our own share. A part of paying that debt back is preventing other people from incurring a similar debt. So we have to help them.

I don't think that we have to make all the investments for China or India -- with more investments for India than for China because China has the cash -- but we certainly have to work with both countries through partnerships that transfer our advanced technologies on concessionary terms. We have to work with them in such a way that they don't just simply follow what we did 100 years ago with five times the population, because the world can't sustain that without very high environmental risks.

China is now the world's largest emitter.

China's the world's largest emitter in bulk of greenhouse gases but not even close, per capita.

What's your standard of justice? Is every country equal? Or is it how much each person inside that country does? Or is it the historical, accumulated emissions by which we're the big winner, [and] therefore, the largest contributor. That you could argue, politically.

But the one thing you can't tell the Chinese or the Indians or the Indonesians or the Brazilians or the Mexicans, let alone the poorest of the poor in central Africa or parts of Asia, which we haven't even mentioned, is that we used the Victorian Industrial Revolution 100 years ago with sweatshops and dirty coal-burning and internal combustion engines to get rich, and we strung copper wires all over our continents with a lot of energy and materials. And now all of a sudden we're telling them, "You can't do it, it's too late. We've already used up all the capacity to the atmosphere to absorb our pollution?"

Then, they tell us that's unfair. We tell them we're not going to make any compromises on consumption, [so] they say they're not going to make any compromises on growth rate, and what have we've got? We've got a planetary catastrophe looming.

This stand-off needs a deal. A deal needs leadership. Leadership needs trust. We're moving there much more rapidly than we have done for the last 30 years, but we've got to go fast.

posted october 21, 2008

heat home page · watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation