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The IPCC’s new report is groundbreaking, but it misses crucial points on climate tipping points and feedbacks that could make the crisis even more urgent, says Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor.

This week, a new urgent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has captured headlines. The report shows we could just be 12 years away from 1.5 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and that reaching 1.5 degrees could have devastating effects like sea level rise, mass extinction and coral reef degradation. But our next guest argues that the report, though groundbreaking, has some important omissions, and that the climate crisis is even more dire than the IPCC says.

I’m here today with Durwood J. Zaelke, who is the founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in Washington D.C. and Paris. He also codirects a program at UC Santa Barbara, and he’s one of three coauthors of the op-ed, Climate report understates threat in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Thanks for joining me today.

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: My pleasure.

DHARNA NOOR: So again, in this op-ed you and your coauthors note that the report misses some important effects, the effects of self-reinforcing feedbacks and tipping points on the effects of climate change. These feedbacks are frequently likened to climate dominoes. Talk about how these work and how they could come about, and also how they could change the timeline. The IPCC says we could reach 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052.

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: Well, my co-authors are Nobel Laureate Mario Molina at the Molina Center in Mexico City, and Professor Ramanathan and at Scripps, UC San Diego. And our contention is that the weakest link in the chain of climate protection is the link that we trip over with self-reinforcing feedbacks, where initial warming feeds upon itself without any other climate emissions to cause still more warming. And when that warming accelerates, we can end up tipping over a series of dominoes, ending up with a cascade of further feedbacks and other tipping points that become irreversible, except perhaps in a geological time scale.

The best example, perhaps, is the Arctic summer sea ice. This is a vast shield of white ice that sends a tremendous amount of incoming solar radiation safely back to space today, but it’s shrinking. And in fact, just between 1979 and 2011, that shrinkage and loss of reflectivity or albedo has added about 25 percent as much warming as CO2 has in that period. If you’re into your metrics, it’s about 6.4 watts per square meter in the Arctic, average globally, more like point .22 watts per square meter. That’s a tremendous amount of extra heat.

When you lose all of that shield, and the heat goes into the darker ocean and then warms the ocean and the atmosphere, you end up with the first of the cascades. Then, you collapse permafrost, what used to be permanent frost, which stores a tremendous amount of methane, which is a super pollutant, about 30 times more powerful than CO2 in warming the atmosphere, and there’s some stored CO2 there as well. Then you kill the boreal forest. So it changes from being a sink, which absorbs CO2, to a source which gives it back. And then, it’s subject to lightning strikes, forest fires, that produce both CO2 and black carbon soot. And that soot further darkens the snow and ice, accelerates the melting.

So these all interact, and once they get beyond a certain point, they’ll be out of human control. So this is our great concern, that you add 50 percent more warming when you go from 1 degree Celsius, where we are today, to 1.5. But that 50 percent starts what we also call the wild cards for the acceleration. And then there are about 6 tipping points between 1 and 1.5 degrees. Then when you hit the 1.5 and you’re on your way to 2, there’s another dozen potential tipping points, including the loss of the Amazon forest, which again, will turn an incredibly important sink that pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere into a source that emits it back.

So we’re really in trouble. And you pointed out that the IPCC report says it could be as little as 12 years. Well in fact, it could be less than that because there’s a plus and minus here. And they give 12 to whatever the broader number you gave, but it could even sooner that we move beyond the point of no return. So we’ve got to get this point across to world leaders, to take the fastest conceivable action that can be taken to slow down these feedbacks. And we are doing very well on many parts of climate protection.

DHARNA NOOR: Is it possible to take that sort of political action? The IPCC report, as you know, is pretty optimistic. Urgent, but optimistic. I just spoke with one of the authors of the report, Heleen de Coninck, who says that she still has hope that we can control our future.

HELEEN DE CONINCK: Personally, I think the IPCC report and the results therein, they give me hope, yes. I think it shows that we can still change our future, and I think it also shows that some cities and some regions and even countries are at least pretty much on track to give a good example to the rest of the world.

DHARNA NOOR: You say the situation is even more dire. Do you have hope that we can stay under 1.5 degrees, under 2 degrees, are we just doomed?

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: No, no, no. Please don’t characterize our approach as one where we think we’re doomed. We’re not doomed. It’s entirely in our control right now to slow down climate emissions, slow down temperature increase, try to mitigate the possibility of the self-reinforcing feedbacks taking over the warming. Absolutely, we can still do this. I was in, as Mario and Ramanathan were, Jerry Brown’s summit just a couple of weeks ago in California. And there you had this great gathering of entrepreneurs, climate specialists, everybody there was talking about their part of the solution. A very infectious and exciting time.

Of course, Jerry Brown has been one of the great leaders in climate change efforts. And especially since Donald Trump was elected president, we’ve had to use the states and the cities in the United States to do the heavy lifting on climate change. Then I went to the summit that was in New York that is every year when the UN General Assembly opens, and I went to the piece that President Macron did, called the One Planet Summit, with the world’s leaders and finance. And they were equally optimistic that money is shifting faster and faster from the old industries that pollute, the CO2 and the other non-CO2 climate pollutants, into renewables and other clean energy sources and into carbon dioxide removal.

So the IPCC 1.5 report says there are three things we have to do to save the world. First one, we’ve got to manage CO2 on the front end by moving to clean energy sources and reducing demand through efficiency. That’s number one. Number two, you have to cut the short-lived, non-CO2 super pollutants. These are your fast runners. They can do twice as much avoided warming at mid-century as the cuts to CO2. Then, the third thing you have to do is learn how to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere at scale. We’ve known how to do this for a very long time, because you have to pull CO2 out of space ships and submarines to keep the passengers alive. And so, we know the chemistry, we know the physics. It’s all about driving down the cost. So we know how to solve climate change. Question is, can we speed up fast enough to get ahead of the self-reinforcing feedbacks?

DHARNA NOOR: So when I talked to climate scientist Michael Mann the other day about this report, he too applauded the work of California Governor Jerry Brown for seizing the challenges posed by climate change. And I was actually also in San Francisco during Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit last month, which was, as you say, in some ways very exciting. But I also spoke with many people there, activists, scientists, et cetera, who were critical of the emphasis in the summit, and generally from Brown and other civic and business leaders, placed on market-based solutions.

ANNIE LEONARD: So they’re looking at things like cap and trade, which is a market-based mechanism that is supposed to reduce carbon emissions, but has not actually proved to do that, thinking that the very market forces that led to this problem are now going to solve it. I mean, it’s really crazy. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, is to continue doing what you’re doing and hope for something else?

DHARNA NOOR: What’s your response to people who say, generally, market-based solutions aren’t the answer, and that the people who are being applauded as climate heroes aren’t really enough?

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: No, they aren’t enough yet. And I’m also a critic of the so-called market based mechanisms. Sometimes they may work, but we’re in an emergency and we need to do much more direct governance approaches. When something is bad for the planet and threatening irreversibilities, you have to say, “Stop doing it on this schedule.” So I use the example of the Montreal Protocol, which is the treaty that has put the stratosphere ozone layer on the path to recovery, solving the first great threat to the global atmosphere, as the best example. That’s a mandatory treaty, every country in the world is a party. Every country has mandatory obligations to phase out the refrigerants and other chemicals under that treaty.

So it started with the CFCs and HCFCs, and most recently, the HFCs through the Kigali Amendment. And the combined effort to slow down and eliminate these factory-made gases has solved not only the first great threat to the global atmosphere of ozone protection, but also done more for climate protection than any other treaty or any other governance approach, solving an amount of climate change that otherwise would have equaled what CO2 is causing today, which is more than half.

So you have to look at that treaty and say, “Damn, that’s good.” It’s solved the first problem, and it’s done more to solve the second problem. How does it work? How do we recreate that? And one thing we have to do is look at a sectoral approach where we take a bite out of the climate problem, develop a governance approach that learns how to solve that particular bite, and then take the next one. So for forests, you have REDD+. For shipping, the IMO. For aviation, you have ICAO, and so on. So I think it’s a very important distinction that people are making, like Annie, that the market-based mechanisms … maybe they work in certain instances.

So if you had a hundred dollar carbon price and you applied it just for electric utilities, you’d probably pretty quickly move them to 100 percent renewable, because renewables are so cheap now, they’re crowding out natural gas, which crowded out coal. So maybe there’s a place for those mechanisms. But transport, if you did a forty dollar a ton tax, just as an example, that’s about 38 cents a gallon at the pump. And we’ve seen gasoline prices go up to five dollars a gallon, and it barely budges the way people drive. So a 38 cents increase is not going to change the transport sector. So we have to do much, much better than that. I’m with Annie on that, we need the much more direct governance approaches.

DHARNA NOOR: But even some of the solutions that you just mentioned, REDD+ for instance, critiqued by many environmental advocates, Indigenous advocates, environmentalists, for allowing land to be seized from traditional people, from Indigenous people to create carbon credits. You’re saying that the market could take care of these things because of the price of fossil fuels being driven. But under his time as Governor, Jerry Brown has approved something like 20,000 new oil and gas permits. So I don’t know, what’s your response to critics who say that, again, these kinds of things aren’t enough?

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: Yeah, no, they’re not enough. I’m not saying they’re enough. I’m saying they’re illustrations, where when you see something that works, like Montreal Protocol, you study it and you figure out how to do more. REDD+ has yet to mature into an effective agreement, I agree with that. But it is a sectoral approach, and we should learn how to make it work. Jerry Brown has a great record on climate change, but not a perfect record. He’s made political compromises, you can argue whether they were the necessary evil that he had to do to get what he did get. I don’t know. But I do know that he set the pace, and the California Air Resources Board under Mary Nichols has shown the world how to do many individual solutions that can be copied absolutely, immediately by other jurisdictions. They don’t have to go through a training ground, they just look at what California’s done.

So it’s a beginning. We don’t have a governance approach yet that’s ready to save the world. That’s is the point. It’s not the Paris agreement, either. In the Paris agreement, we’ve danced around the world. I went to the very first climate negotiation many, many years ago. I think we’re up to COP24 now, so well before 24 years because we started with the IPCC in 1989. So we’ve danced around the world for about three decades, and we ended up with a voluntary agreement that says we’re all going to try to stay well below 2 degrees, aiming for 1.5. That simply doesn’t cut it.

We’ve got to have something that is much more affirmative, much more mandatory. It’s got to have some muscle there that says all of us are going to do these things. We’ve got to go to a war footing. So the illustration that we put in our op-ed is from World War II. The U.S., from Pearl Harbor to D-Day, spent three and a half years changing its industrial production forever. And that same three and a half years, that’s maybe what we have. Maybe it’s twice, maybe three times that, but we have to go to a war footing. And we have to do this by getting other major countries.

So we need President Xi, we need Prime Minister Modi, we need some leadership here. And President Macron in France has stepped up, is becoming the new Obama. And maybe those three can turn the G20 into the action engine that we need. Because the G20, the 20 major countries that are responsible for about 80 percent of our emissions, could save the planet. 20 people sitting around a table could agree this is necessary to do. We do know how to do it. And the truth is, there will be a lot of people who make a lot of money. There will be new industries created. The oil companies are either going to change to energy companies that produce energy safely, or they’re going to go out of business.

It’s not just that are some of their assets are going to be stranded, their business will be stranded. So they’re right at the crossroads now, and they’re going to have to change their approach. Climate litigation is a very good way to get their attention. And I think over time, the California cases, the New York case, the Rhode Island case, Boulder, Colorado case, some of these cases, maybe all of them, will eventually be one. And the liability is going to start piling up on the oil companies, and they’re going to have to switch strategies. They’ve got great engineering, they’ve got capital, they’ve got management expertise, and they just have to get a vision that saves the world instead of trying to get a little more profit out of a dying industry.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, as we see what happens with the coming COP conference in Poland in December and continue to see the reception of this important IPCC report, we’d love to speak with you again. So thank you so much for coming on today.

DURWOOD J. ZAELKE: My pleasure.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.