The IPCC climate report once said a 3.6 degree F rise from the pre-industrial era could be disastrous. New research drops that threshold to 2.7 degrees F and says that the point of no-return could be as early as 2040
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you with us.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or as it is more widely known from its acronym IPCC, issued a very alarming report. Science told us that once the world heats up to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures, the world would face irreparable harm. The latest report now drops that dire warning to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius. If it happens by 2040, which they write about, it could cause catastrophic damage, some irreversible.
The consequences are coastal flooding, tens of millions of people fleeing food shortages, our climate being turned upside down. There are drastic critical measures that can be taken to ameliorate what we face. To save trillions we need to spend billions. To save lives on the earth and more, we have to have a carbon taxing right beyond what President Obama said we needed, while we also face a president who thinks we need less than that, and who not only denies this science, but wants to pull the U.S, out of a climate accord. We can control our destiny. How we respond to what we face is what we’ll explore as we look at the IPCC report in this conversation.
And we’re joined by Daphne Wysham, who’s director of the Climate Justice Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy and is an environmental activist. And Daphne, welcome back. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Good to be with you.
MARC STEINER: So no one expected this drop all of a sudden. I mean, this came as a shock to everyone. Can you talk a bit about that? I know you’ve probably read chunks of the report, not the entire thing by now, but what was your reaction when you read what the report was saying?
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Well we knew that this report was coming. It was called for in particular by the small island states. They have been advocating for a hard target of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. The Paris Climate Accords suggested that 1.5 degrees Celsius was an appropriate target, but they thought that it may not be achievable, and they were suggesting that 2 degrees Celsius might be an upper limit of warming that we should shoot for. So this report was commissioned to determine just how feasible it would be to keep the temperature from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. And essentially what we’ve learned as a result of this report is that it’s an enormous wakeup call.
Because I think people were somewhat complacent, both about, “Well, 1.5 degrees probably isn’t going to be that cataclysmic for the planet, and besides it’s not really feasible.” Well, this report actually says the opposite, that 1.5 degrees Celsius will in fact result in very serious harm to the to the planet, to endangered species, to people in developing countries as well as here in the United States, and that we cannot afford to be complacent. We must take action now to bend the greenhouse gas emissions curve downward. Essentially, in order to reach 1.5, we would need to reduce pollution by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
So this is a very ambitious target. However, what is the good news from this report is that it is feasible, that there are technological solutions out there, there are appropriate technologies and measures that can be taken now to bend the curve downwards so that we don’t shoot beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. The only barrier, and this is not an insignificant barrier, is political. The other thing that I think that the report calls out and something that we should be very concerned about is that once we get beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, there is a very high probability that we will cross critical thresholds and will begin to trigger tipping points, such as a massive release of methane from the permafrost.
One example from the report suggested that an area the size of Mexico would be thawed in terms of permafrost thawing. If we went as high as 2 degrees Celsius, whereas if we limited it to 1.5 degrees … of course, we are already seeing some permafrost melting and releasing the methane beneath the permafrost and of course methane is a much more potent global warming gas than CO2, but we would see much more widespread permafrost melting, and that in turn would create a feedback loop, like many other feedback loops, that could result in runaway global warming.
MARC STEINER: So let’s talk for a minute about the politics of all of this and what we face. I mean, what the report talks about is this massive rise in a carbon tax for the world. We’re facing both the president of the United States now who doesn’t even believe it should be as high as what Barack Obama thought, at 50 dollars, and they’re calling for something much larger here, with 27,000 dollars per ton by 2100, which is just a huge number.
And you’ve got this president maybe in Brazil who also denies climate. They’re the seventh largest polluter on the planet. China and the U.S. will not be so sanguine about raising taxes and spending all this money. Some of the politics of not dealing with this reality because of what it will do short term profits, what it will do, they say, to prices in the marketplace. So I mean, I wonder what kind of conversations that people have to have to challenge that and to push a different agenda.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Yeah. Well actually, what I saw in the IPCC report buried in the text was a quote that stood out to me. It said, “A price on carbon can be imposed directly by carbon pricing or implicitly by regulatory policies. In other words, there are ways of achieving the same goals of a carbon tax by pushing what we call, for example, in California they call them complimentary measures outside of the cap and trade regime.
And in fact, recent research suggests that these so-called complementary measures such as renewable energy standards, portfolio standards, fuel efficiency guidelines for cars and trucks have resulted in a lion’s share of emissions reductions in California, and that the price on carbon that has been imposed is artificially low under cap and trade in California and has resulted in a lot of carbon offset schemes, the vast majority of them in the forest sector. And all you have to do is look at the forest fires that have been ravaging California and the rest of the West to know that storing carbon in forest is not a permanent solution.
So I would call into question – yes, I did see that quote in the New York Times and elsewhere about a price on carbon as high as I think 27,000 dollars per ton. But I wouldn’t suggest that. I mean, I think what they’re suggesting is that if we began to internalize the very real costs that are now playing out that we are all paying for, just look at the front page of The New York Times, how we are paying through FEMA for the clean-up of record numbers of storms and flooding and then actually rebuilding, in the case of this prison in Louisiana, rebuilding infrastructure right in the path of future hurricanes and sea level rise.
This is insanity, and this is actually what we are doing with our taxpayer dollars. What we should be doing is discouraging this sort of construction to make sure that people are not at risk as sea levels do continue to rise as they have in North Carolina, despite the state trying to pass a state law saying that sea level rise wasn’t happening. We need to move people out of the path of danger, stop subsidizing these forms of denial, stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry and start putting in place regulatory policies that restrict fossil fuel infrastructure as we have done successfully here in Portland, Oregon.
We’ve put in place the strongest restrictions on new fossil fuel infrastructure in the nation. We’ve also set targets for very ambitious renewable energy targets. All of this without a carbon tax. So I’m not saying that a carbon tax is not necessary. I think it is important to have a price signal, but I think we have been a little too obsessed with market-based solutions and not obsessed enough with what government can and should do to protect us all.
MARC STEINER: So here’s a question I have for all that. And I understand that, and I don’t disagree with a lot of what you’re saying, Daphne. And I was thinking about what the political response is. And as a woman who’s been doing this for a long time, and you ran for political office and these were part of your issues when you ran for political office, which I thought was a really wonderful campaign that you ran. But the question is, without a carbon tax or something like that, where do you get the money to build the infrastructure you need for renewable energies and where does that money come from to invest in that?
Then you also have the argument that many unions make, and other people make, that these jobs in renewables, because they’re non-union, don’t pay what jobs pay the industries like coal and oil and atomic energy. They just don’t pay the same. And so with unions, losing their clout. So I’m really interested in politically how you counteract that, what the argument is to say, “Look – this is what we have to do, this is what we have to do in order for people to get to this new place.” Yes, it will cause some problems, but what does the government have to do to make sure those problems don’t really destroy people’s lives because they don’t have enough money and prices are too high because so many things are oil based that we buy.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: I’d love to answer that question because we are actually experimenting with a mechanism that would address that issue directly. And it’s something that we have written up on our website, sustainable-economy.org, that we call fossil fuel risk bonds.
MARC STEINER: Fossil fuel risk bonds.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Yeah, fossil fuel risk bonds. I mean, you can think of it this way: we know now that the risk at every step of the way, from extraction to transportation to storage to combustion of fossil fuels is significant. We have earthquake risks wherever fracking is happening. We have water contamination risks from fracking fluids. We have trains derailing, as they did in Mosier Oregon with oil onboard and the risks that are being externalized on nearby communities. We have the risk of explosion should there be an earthquake in Portland, as we are expected to have a 9.0 earthquake anytime in the next … It could happen any day. And our fossil fuel infrastructure is currently situated in an earthquake subduction zone, which is just insane.
I mean, we saw what happened in the tsunami in Indonesia with liquefaction. That’s where our fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland is situated. It is in a zone that would become liquid very quickly. So we’ve got an eager set of elected officials here in Portland, eager to take on the risks that they are actually responsible for in terms of protecting the local residents from this risk. And we’ve proposed this concept that we call fossil fuel risk bonds, which would essentially require the polluter, in this case the fossil fuel industry, to post a bond equivalent to the worst-case disaster scenario. And this does two things. It addresses both what it would take to mitigate that risk or eliminate it entirely.
It puts the burden back on the polluter instead of on the public and on the taxpayer, and it begins the process of addressing how it is we are going to dismantle much of this fossil fuel infrastructure that currently is very much in harm’s way. It’s in harm’s way in Houston. I mean, we heard recently that the oil companies wanted the taxpayers to pay for a berm to protect their fossil fuel infrastructure in Houston from continued hurricane Harvey’s, which – talk about the irony of ironies. The fossil fuel industry is causing the climate crisis and now they want the taxpayers to pay for protection of their infrastructure from the problem that they have primarily contributed to. So we’re beginning to generate significant interest in this concept, both in Houston and in the Bay Area and in Minnesota and in Seattle and in Portland.
And so we’re beginning to look at it through the lens of how do we protect health and safety using the constitutionally protected police authority that local elected officials actually have? It’s protected under the Constitution. How can they use this authority to regulate these very hazardous industries and require them to pay the price locally to either clean up or shut down? So that’s the answer that I have right now because I’ve come to the point, after looking at this for several decades, of understanding that we in the United States, until we unbundle the money from the political process we will not see a carbon tax passed at the national level. We may see something like this passed at the local level though.
MARC STEINER: I mean that’s kind of the next question I was thinking about as you were speaking on this and the question I asked earlier. I mean, when you think about the date given in this report of 2040, I will be old I’m still here.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Yeah, me too.
MARC STEINER: But my children will be here. And your children will probably still be here, and they’ll range between the ages of 40 and maybe 50, whatever that age will be. And they’ll be smack dab in the middle of this. 2040 is not that far away. So the question is, while I think a lot of the answers may come from local struggles, of local people building a political base to do things where they live, that the answer really has to be so … for this to really happen, has to be national, has to be universal for it really to have an effect to not allow us to reach this crisis point in 2040.
So it seems to me that also there’s a measure of some kind of political organizing, making people realize what we’re facing without just being always Dr. Doom every time we open our mouths. And you know what I’m saying? And when you look at how it’s being faced, you’ve got groups like the International Energy Association who are just kind of trying to back people up and say, “No, that’s not the reality.” So I’m curious politically, watching what’s going on around in the country, we have to have a different message out there.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: We do. And I was in Morocco at the climate negotiations the night that Donald Trump shocked the world by being elected president. And I remembered the immediate … I mean, people just went from absolute shock and dismay to pivoting to, “Okay, the next country that needs to lead us is China. The United States has proven over and over again that it cannot play a leadership role in the climate negotiations.” And I think China, despite there are a lot of things that they are still doing wrong, but there are a lot of things that they’re doing right. There are big developing countries like India and China that I think we hope will step into the leadership void that the U.S. has absolved itself of as soon as Trump was elected.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take action here in the United States, and that’s one reason I’m so hopeful about what we can do at the local and state level. Because if anything, elected officials at the state and local level, they realize they can’t wait for the federal government and they are taking action now. Is it ambitious enough? No. We absolutely need to keep the pressure on our cities and our states to do far more. Here in Oregon, our biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions is the timber industry and we haven’t even gotten the state government to admit that fact, much less begin to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from the timber industry. So we’ve got an uphill battle here in Green, Oregon that is comparable to taking on the coal industry in West Virginia.
But that doesn’t mean we stop. In fact, we are definitely going to continue to challenge this flawed methodology that they’re using both at the state level and at the international level, that allows the timber industry to get away with enormous greenhouse gas emissions globally. There are many ways to get involved, and I would also add that eating a plant-based diet is probably one of the most significant things that individuals can do. Of course, riding public transit, getting an electric car if you must get a car, getting to renewable energy as quickly as possible in your home. But in terms of engaging politically, I think there is great hope at the state and local level.
MARC STEINER: Well, Daphne Wysham, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Great ideas, just the beginning of our discussion. I look forward to talking to you again, and others as we explore what the consequences are and where we go politically and socially, fighting for our environment and our future here. Daphne, thanks so much for being with us.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Thank you for having me. Great to be with you.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for being with us. We’ll talk together soon. Take care.