Professor Chris Williams of Pace University says we would need to shut down the fossil fuel industry over the next 20 years to achieve carbon reduction targets
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
This week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is convening in Copenhagen, leading up to the release of the long-awaited synthesis report on Sunday, November 2. The synthesis report is the culmination of a five-year effort by 830 authors, 1,200 other contributors, and 3,700 expert reviewers, drawing on more than 30,000 pieces of research and 143,000 expert comments to produce a unprecedented body of scientific evidence to show climate change is happening now, it is already impacting on people everywhere, and that it is being caused by human activity, such as burning of fossil fuels. The facts are so conclusive that there is no wiggle room.
Why is this document so important? The UN hopes to deliver a new global treaty on climate change at a meeting in Paris at the end of 2015. The IPCC synthesis report will, in the eyes of many people, play a critical role in that treaty.
With us to discuss the upcoming IPCC report is Chris Williams. Chris Williams is joining us from New York, New York. He is a longtime environmental activist and professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University and the chair of the science department at Packard Collegiate Institute.
Chris, welcome to The Real News again.
CHRIS WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM: Thanks very much for having me on your show.
PERIES: Chris, so we have this new report from the IPCC coming out on Sunday. What do you think will be the biggest takeaway from the report?
WILLIAMS: Well, it’s putting together, as the name implies, the three different pieces that have come out over the course of this year to examine the physical science and the implications of the physical science for climate change on the world. And the draft report stated what was rather chilling, as well as different, was the impacts were already being felt, and if they continued and the fossil fuel emissions continue to grow as they are, then the impacts would be “severe … pervasive” and “irreversible”, in the words of the draft report. And so this is for the first time the kind of stark language that is coming in, being introduced by the IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up to investigate this question 25 years ago.
And so I think what will be very interesting is if the report retains the information from the previous three and from the draft about the carbon budget, about the fact that we have already emitted two-thirds of what we can if we want to stay within a 2 degrees C limit. And in other words, we have to close down the fossil fuel industry over the next 20 years or so and take our emissions on a downward path, instead of the accelerating upward path that they are currently on. So what will be key in the finalized report is if that language is retained, because many countries are trying to–some of the biggest emitters, as you can imagine, are trying to get that removed from the final report to reflect their negotiating positions and their own industries.
PERIES: Chris, after some 400,000 people demonstrated in New York and rallied against climate change in New York, and also after Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN, held the climate summit, is there any more fire in the bellies of the leading states to address it? Is there a sense of urgency?
WILLIAMS: I mean, I think it’s difficult to talk about a sense of urgency after two decades of negotiating, particularly as they’ve gone backwards from their starting positions. I mean, in 2011 they agreed to maintain the maximum increase in temperature above what has been true for the whole of human civilization of 2 degrees C above the average, and yet they’ve taken no action to actually deliver on those promises. So I was kind of surprised that Ban Ki-moon was even part of the protest, because the UN is not doing anything in terms of bringing down the emissions. The individual countries, the major emitters, what was left out of the draft report was that 70 percent of world emissions come from just ten countries, 50 percent from just two, the United States and China. So I don’t think those countries are showing any kind of urgency, and actually are two of the countries most determined to keep us on the current completely unsustainable path, which will lead to an absolutely disastrous situation for millions of people around the world, and of course the extinction of thousands of species, and the destabilization of the whole climate as we have come to know it and as many other species have come to know it and evolve into. So I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of fire under international leaders of any kind other than the amount of money cascading into the coffers of governments around the world from the fossil fuel corporations.
On the other hand, there’s plenty of fire from the 400,000 people who were in New York City, which was a fantastic step forward for the United States climate justice movement and the world to see that so many people in the United States really want the government supposedly we elected to represent our interests, and not the interests of the corporations and the U.S. military and so on, but represent the interests of all the people who are going to be impacted by climate change, i.e. us.
PERIES: Right. And the 400,000 people that protested can definitely benefit in terms of their advocacy, their organizing on the ground, and hopefully invigorating more change at a local level. What are some of the takeaways that they can actually take from this report and use effectively to make changes locally?
WILLIAMS: I mean, I think, I mean, the city that I live in, New York, was inundated a couple of years ago. The anniversary is now, two years since Hurricane Sandy. And we saw not only the complete breakdown of transportation, of people’s homes being flooded left, right, and center–of course not equally, because climate change is as–in an unjust world, climate change affects people inequitably. And Superstorm Sandy should have been, I think, a wake-up call to reimagine all of the coastal cities around the world and pour billions of dollars into thinking about how do we make communities more resilient. And there’s a lot of work on the ground in New York City and around the world on that, where local communities are working to change the transportation systems to be more public-oriented, and to think about how we can better cope with what we know is coming already, and at the same time not just do that, but also fight for some political change to minimize how much change we’re actually going to see down the road. And so I think that the 400,000 people, as they went back to their communities all over the country, will be a huge force for change that is currently not reflected in the current political makeup of the government or the opposition, such as it is, to the U.S., because the Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same thing. But on the ground, there is a movement growing for really effective political and social change and really trying to knit together the two things that are going to facilitate that, which is not just the ecological question, but also the question of social justice: how do we make sure that we are addressing both at the same time? ‘Cause I think without trying to do both social justice and ecological justice, we are not going to get either in fact. And so we have to look at the inequality in the social world as a mirror for the inequality and injustice within the natural world that we are both part of.
PERIES: Chris, ahead of the meeting in Copenhagen, the European Union announced a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, I believe. Are there such commitments being made from countries around the world? And I asked you offline before this meeting, you know, who are the countries that are leading the charge at the United Nations, and you said it was countries that are most affected by it–the island nations that are seeing their landmass disappearing, countries that are seeing sea levels increase, sea levels affecting their livelihood in their food supply. It’s probably countries that’s really experiencing the increase in the ocean temperatures. So some of these countries are some of the poorest nations in the world. Tell me more about that, because I think people don’t understand the gravity of the problem here.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, a lot of the small island states, this is a not a problem for the future; this is an immediate and urgent problem, as they are inundated by higher seas because they’re barely above sea level as it is and it is a reality, or if you go to, for example, the indigenous communities along the coast of Alaska where the permafrost is melting and so villages or towns are being relocated away from a crumbling coastline. So I think that it’s being felt all around the world in some of the most vulnerable communities in the Global South and in the North, in indigenous communities, for example, as I mentioned, in Alaska.
And so some of those states, like the small island states that you mentioned, are the ones at the forefront of saying, why aren’t you doing more, why are we the ones who are paying the price, even though we are the least responsible. And even though a climate fund was set up to facilitate a transfer of investment to developing countries to help then skip over the fossil fuel age and move into a more sustainable, renewable era of energy generation, that fund that was established with the agreement of the developed countries–they’d said that we will put in $100 billion a year–is empty. They have not put in hardly any money. And $100 billion a year sounds like a lot of money in many respects, and obviously it is a lot of money, but in the context of the global environment or in the context of the economies of countries–for example, the U.S. gives $800 billion to the U.S. military every single year–it’s a drop in the ocean. And, unfortunately, some states are going to drop into the ocean unless they start getting some more money.
So this technology transfer and investment in that technology transfer from the rich countries, who are all rich because in part they benefited from using fossil fuels, which is now causing the problem, has to be part of the demands for an equitable answer to the climate crisis, which means that billions more money has to be sent, rather than taken, to the Global South from the North based on the historical responsibility for emissions, equity, morality, and the basic idea that they won’t be able to do it and can’t do it without some of the money that has helped to make the rich world rich, or at least 1 percent of the top 1 percent of the rich world rich. And so I think that this is an urgent question that unfortunately is not being addressed, because the countries who are pushing for more radical action are not large enough economically to make a change in the UN, which we know is really just dominated by the Security Council, the five permanent members.
PERIES: Right. And, Chris, we know that the UN itself is a fairly ineffective body, in terms of coming up with a binding agreement that can be monitored, evaluated, and so on, and all kinds of exceptions are always negotiated. For example, the Kyoto agreement excluded the military carbon emissions of certain countries, like the United States, which means that the report, in spite of the fact that it was a massive body of literature reviewed and the conclusions drawn from them, it still excludes quite a bit of emissions that might be there. So is the problem graver than it is described by the IPCC report?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think we’re–people are experiencing around the world the gravity of the problem. And that’s one of the reasons that 400,000 people were on the streets of New York. It wasn’t just that–I mean, we’re not getting very much information. The mainstream media in the U.S. always presents it as a two-sided story, and yet it’s not. The scientists are saying it’s not. It’s unequivocally /ɑːzən/. We are in the middle of climate change, not some future problem. So people want to do something, because they’re seeing it in their lives, particularly anybody who’s connected to the land and trying to use, for example, bio indicators to know when to plant, when to sow, when to reap. It’s becoming very difficult, because plant species, animals are moving their ranges. And so what was true historically is no longer the case. So I think that that’s one of the things that is galvanizing people.
And it’s also in part changing the minds of scientists, because I think there’s always been this idea among scientists that if we just present the science to world leaders, they will act. And yet even as the science has got more and more definitive and the reports clearer and clearer about the depth of the problem and the extent to which this is a crisis of global civilization in the making, our world leaders have shied further and further away from taking action. So it’s clear that science first, or the idea that we can just present some facts as scientists and leaders will listen, is becoming, I think, increasingly seen as an obsolete idea, which is a good thing, because really what we’re talking about is not just purely or even mostly, when it comes down to it, technical, scientific solutions, although they stem from science; it is actually a social and a political question. Who has power and who doesn’t and how might we rearrange that equation, I think, is something that has to be addressed at the same time as figuring out, well, what are good solutions from a scientific, but also a social perspective, and one that is based on equity and sustainability and justice.
PERIES: Alright, Chris, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.
WILLIAMS: Thank you very much for having me on your show.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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