Leading climate change expert, Dr. Joe Romm, discusses U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s State of the Climate report which confirms new records on global warming, greenhouse gas, and sea level rise
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. It’s official, 2016 was the hottest year on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 27th Annual State of the Climate Report. More than 450 scientists from over 60 countries contributed to the NOAA report that details several other record breaking events in 2016, all this under the Trump administration, who is still in denial over the existence of human caused climate change. Joining us now to discuss the NOAA report in our current political climate is Dr. Joe Romm, who is a physicist, climate expert, author, and the founder of Think Progress, which is an organization and it has a blog called Climate Progress, which he writes. Time Magazine called him the Web’s most influential climate-change blogger. He is also an author of many books including Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. His latest article published in Climate Progress is titled 450 scientists present stunning rebuke of Trump’s climate science denial, which is a second report which we are going to talk about as well. I thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Romm. JOE ROMM: Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Romm, first let’s discuss some of the key findings from the NOAA report that concerns you the most. JOE ROMM: This report says that 2016 was the hottest year on record, and it beat out 2015, which had been the hottest, and 2015 had beat out 2014. It’s quite clear in the report that not only are temperatures at a record level but so are greenhouse gas emissions, and the report is fairly blunt that record greenhouse gas emissions equals record warming. This is directly at odds with what the Trump administration has been saying, that humans aren’t causing global warming or we’re not a major cause of global warming, and there’s nothing to worry about. SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Romm, is there evidence in the new report that the rate of warming is accelerating? JOE ROMM: Greenhouse gases, let’s focus on carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas and it comes from burning coil and natural gas, and deforestation. It is at record levels. It has passed 400 parts per million. That is a level that has not been seen in millions of years. The last time that it was at this level, we had much higher levels of warming. There are delays in the system. That’s the thing to realize. We haven’t fully felt all of the warming that we’re going to just from the current levels of emissions. We keep adding 30 plus billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year. We are just adding more and more heat trapping gases, and we are going to be setting more and more and more temperature records. The science predicts that CO2 levels will rise faster and faster unless we really cut CO2 emissions sharply. People should understand the distinction between CO2 emissions and CO2 levels. It’s kind of like in a bathtub, the CO2 emissions are like the water coming out of the faucet, and the CO2 levels are like the level in the bathtub. Even if CO2 emissions don’t rise, there’s still water coming out of the faucet, and the water level in the bathtub is going to keep rising. The fact is the only way that you can stop the CO2 levels from warming and to stop temperatures from warming is if the amount of water going into the bathtub is equal to the amount of water leaving it through various things. In the case of a bathtub, it’s the drain. In the case of the climate system, the CO2 gets soaked up in the oceans and by some plant matter. You really have to have deep cuts in global CO2 emissions before you’re going to see CO2 levels stop rising. SHARMINI PERIES: Apparently the report also points to the average sea surface temperatures, which was also apparently the highest on record. Tell us more about that. JOE ROMM: People should know that over 90% of all of the heat that gets trapped by greenhouse gases ends up in the ocean. That’s where we’re seeing a huge amount of accumulation of heat. That’s one of the reasons why of course we’re also seeing some of Antarctica melting, because our Antarctica, which contains 90% of the landlocked ice in the world, is melting from underneath, which is to say it’s melting from the water, from the ocean eating away at it. Yeah, people should be very concerned. SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Romm, the surface sea level temperatures are rising. What impact does this have on the actual sea? JOE ROMM: As the surface temperatures rise, that also spreads deep down, so the entire ocean warms. One of the big impacts of the ocean warming is more water vapor in the atmosphere because the warmer the ocean is, the more you’re going to see evaporation. That means you’re going to see more intense rainstorms. We have been seeing more intense rainstorms. The other thing that happens as you warm the oceans is tropical storms get their energy from the ocean. The warmer the ocean is, the more intense the tropical storms are. That’s why we are seeing around the world more intense … The most intense tropical storms are becoming stronger, and they’re spinning up faster. Those are a couple of the effects that we’re seeing. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, now the report also pointed to sea level rises, and that is also the highest on record. There seems to be a varying debate though among scientists about how fast the sea levels will rise in the next decade. Are we already seeing the effects of it in the US? When you look at these summer storms and the land masses slowly disappearing in coastal areas, are these the kinds of things or times to come? JOE ROMM: Yeah, sea levels have risen several inches in the past few decades. Remember that every storm surge we get, Superstorm Sandy or any, is on top of the sea level rise. Already Superstorm Sandy was more destructive because there had been over eight inches of sea level rise in the past century, and that was added on top of the Superstorm Sandy storm surge. As sea levels rise, you’re going to see obviously more coastal flooding. You’re going to see more coastal flooding even on clear weather. This is the so called king tide that we’re going to be coming to in September and October in places like Miami, which can flood even on a perfectly clear day simply because sea levels are rising and the water creeps through underneath the ground because the ground is porous limestone in South Florida. The greatest fear, obviously, is this is going to keep happening, and we’re going to see considerably higher sea level rise, upwards of several feet potentially by the end of the century. Even a foot is possible in the next few decades. If you’ve been to South Florida or many other places in the United States, New Orleans, Norfolk, Virginia, these are very low lying coastal areas, and they are going to be devastated by just another food or two of sea level rise. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dr. Romm, let’s pick this up in our second segment. There’s so much more to talk about about the findings of the report, also about the political reaction to all of this in Washington. Please join me again. SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back to my conversation with Dr. Joe Romm who is a physicist, climate expert, author, and the founder of ThinkProgress climate blog titled “ClimateProgress.” Time Magazine called him “the web’s most influential climate change blogger.” He’s also the author of many book including Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. His latest article published in ClimateProgress is titled, “450 Scientists present a stunning rebuke of Trump’s climate science denial.” We’re going to discuss that in this segment as well. Thanks again for joining us, Dr. Romm. JOE ROMM: Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Romm, one of the key findings in the first report we talked about is the rate at which Greenland is melting. Can you tell us more about that? JOE ROMM: Clearly, the first thing people should know that we’ve had global warming globally of about a degree Celsius, 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times. But in the Arctic, temperatures have been rising twice as fast, and there are feedbacks that cause that, one of which is, is that the warmer it gets, the more ice melts, and the more ice melts, you’re replacing reflective ice with either the ocean, which is blue, or the land, which is dark, and that absorbs more of the sunlight. So you get this feedback. So the great concern is that as the Arctic speeds up warming, ice melts, and it warms up faster. So we’re seeing the Arctic Ocean becoming covered with less and less ice, and we’re seeing the Greenland ice sheet covered with less … That is melting at a record rate, and it has been speeding up greatly in the past 10 to 15 years. It contains enough ice to raise sea levels over 20 feet. Now, the good news is it can’t melt all at once, but the bad news is it is speeding up, and there is great concern that between Greenland and Antarctica, we could see several feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, particularly if we don’t restrict greenhouse gases. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Dr. Romm, according to the NOAA report now, 12% of the Earth endures severe drought. Is this a record as well? JOE ROMM: Yeah. In 2016, there was severe drought over 12% of the planet at any one time, which is a record. One of the things that you expect from climate change is that as it gets hotter, wet areas are going to get wetter because you’re evaporating moisture from the oceans, and it comes down in more intense deluges. But the dry areas get drier so that when you have a semi-arid region like the U.S. Southwest, as it gets hotter, the ground dries up, reservoirs dry up, lakes and streams dry up, so it just gets drier and drier and drier. So you see more intense droughts, and of course, we just came out of a five-year drought in California, the worst drought in over 1,000 years. So these types of droughts are becoming more and more likely, and the prediction is if we keep just dumping carbon pollution in the atmosphere, then these droughts will last longer, and we can see droughts that last 10, 20, 30 years, so much worse than humans have experienced in recent memory. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. When you say that we’ve just come out of a drought in California, is this a good indication that things will get better, or this is just a fluke that it’s let up a little bit? JOE ROMM: Well, look, the point is that as areas get less rainfall and get hotter, then they’re more prone to drought, so whereas they might’ve only had, let’s say, a one-year drought before now, they might have a five-year drought. But as we hotter and drier, then your regular climate makes drought much more likely. Eventually, of course, the climate shifts entirely, and you simply become a desert. The semi-arid regions of the country like the U.S. Southwest, Southern California, these are regions that are very close to desert-like conditions, and they don’t require much to simply turn into permanent dust bowls. SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Romm, the New York Times just wrote about a leaked draft of the National Climate Assessment last week, which concluded that climate change is caused by human activity. I have two questions for you. One is why are we still talking about human-caused climate change? Isn’t it been proven over and over again that it is human-activity-caused? And second, what is the story around the EPA’s Scott Pruitt as saying that his staff will review this report for its accuracy? What are the political implications here? JOE ROMM: I think you’re certainly correct. The science is overwhelming that humans are the primary cause of climate change. Study after study has said that. The science community has said we are certain of that fact as we are that cigarettes are harmful to your health. So just as the scientific community recommends that you stop smoking if you don’t want to get sicker, we need to reverse and ultimately end carbon pollution. But there has been a massive disinformation campaign for decades funded by the fossil fuel industry. As a result, there are many people who have received misleading or outright incorrect information, and there are a lot of people in this administration from Donald Trump to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt who have been misleading or lying to the public about our scientific understanding. Now, the report that you’re talking about, the National Climate Assessment the New York Times did a story on, that is a Congressionally-mandated report to examine what is going on with the science. What does the science say about climate change now, and what is projected to happen in the future depending on whether we take action to reduce carbon pollution or not? So this assessment, which was censored, it was modified, watered down during the Bush administration, and then it was publicized and given its full attention during the Obama administration, the next version, now we’re at versions that the Trump administration is going to have the ability to edit at the political level. So the draft that you can find online, it’s the final draft report of the National Climate Assessment. That report is extensively peer-reviewed already. The National Academy of Sciences, which was set up under Abraham Lincoln to provide the best scientific advice to the country, has already peer reviewed the National Climate Assessment, which itself was done by the scientists at 13 federal agencies, so it is a pretty rock-solid report, and I certainly urge people to read it. It is now in the hands of political appointees in the White House and other agencies like the EPA, so there is the opportunity for them to water it down even if it means changing scientifically-correct statements into incorrect statements. Thankfully, the report got leaked so we will at least be able to see whatever censoring or watering down occurs. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Even given the watering down or tampering they may have with the report, Dr. Romm, is it too late? Has there been so much damage to the environment? And both the assessment and the NOAA report all indicated we are on a collision course in terms of the impact of climate change in our daily lives and how we live and so on. So I have two more questions. One is, is it too late? And if not, can some of this be reversed? JOE ROMM: Well, look, we still do have time, and the National Climate Assessment and all of the recent science makes that clear. It’s important for people to understand we are stuck with a certain amount of dangerous warming because we have doddled for 25 years ignoring the ever louder warnings from climate scientists. So, yes, we are stuck with worsening heatwaves and droughts and floods. The question is, are the nations of the world going to do what they unanimously committed to do in Paris, which is to keep reducing carbon pollution and keep total warming to under 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit? If we could do that, we could minimize the chances of the worse impacts occurring. On the other hand, as I’m sure your viewers know, Donald Trump has said he’s going to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. We’re not going to fulfill our pledge. We’re not going to do more in the future. So the very real risk is that we go back towards more worst-case scenario. So we’re really at a crossroads. We’re at a very decisive time in human history, and if we go down the path of the Trump policies, the policies of the climate science deniers, then the kinds of impact we’re talking about are going to be devastating. We’re talking about routinely seeing heatwaves of 130 degrees or more. I just did a post on ClimateProgress on that. We’re talking about very high levels of sea level rise this century — six, seven, eight feet. These are worst-case scenarios that we can avoid if the world acts together, but it does require the world to act together, and we’re the number two emitter, so you can’t achieve the better scenarios unless the United States reverses course and joins the rest of the world. So I think people need to understand, and that was one of the reasons I wrote Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, which is a primer that Oxford University Press put out, everyone needs to know we’re stuck with a certain amount of dangerous climate change. But because of this clean energy revolution that’s also occurring, we have a chance if we act now and aggressively enough to avoid the worse-case scenario, which is a very grim thing, and people need to understand how bad it could get because that’s motivation to avoid it. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Dr. Romm, I thank you so much for joining us, and I urge everybody to tune into Dr. Romm’s blog on ThinkProgress.com called “ClimateProgress.” Thank you so much for joining us. JOE ROMM: Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.