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Distinguished climatologist Michael E. Mann discusses the dangers of ignoring the conclusions in the leaked draft of the synthesis report

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Fossil fuels are conclusively putting the planet at irreversible risk, says the Nobel Prize-winning group the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A draft version of the upcoming report has been sent to governments, and by all accounts it is the starkest warning yet from the global scientific community of the dangers yet to come due to man-made global warming.

With us to discuss the UN synthesis report is Michael E. Mann. He is the distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and the author of the book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.

Thank you for joining us, Prof. Mann.


PERIES: So, Prof. Mann, this report is synthesizing the information already captured in previous IPCC reports. But can you break down the key findings that has been sent to governments?

MANN: Sure thing. So in a sense there are no surprises, because we know what material is in this report. It’s a summary of the three working group reports that have already appeared, the report on the basic science of climate change, which was followed by the Working Group II Report on climate change impacts, and then there was the Working Group III report, Mitigation, how we can solve this problem. This is the synthesis report. So it brings it all together. And if there is one word or one sort of assessment that I think summarizes what this report has to say, it’s that we really need to get working on this problem now. We don’t have time to waste. We really need to act now if we are going to protect ourselves against what can reasonably be described as truly dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in our climate.

PERIES: What do you think IPCC expects from the warning sent to the governments?

MANN: Well, what’s interesting is that the IPCC, it’s a very conservative organization, because it’s literally made up of hundreds and hundreds of scientists from around the world, experts in various aspects of the science of climate change. And because of that, it represents sort of a scientific lowest common denominator. The report reflects a very conservative viewpoint that can be shared by essentially all of the scientists contributing to the report, who have various views, various findings. So by their nature, the IPCC reports tend to be conservative. In many cases, the IPCC projections, for example, have actually underestimated the rate of climate change that has actually occurred subsequently. And we see that, for example, with the dramatic decrease in Arctic Sea ice. It’s happening faster than the IPCC said it should. The melting of the ice sheets, it’s happening faster than the IPCC said it should.

So what’s particularly interesting, I think, about this latest synthesis report is the stark terms in which the IPCC, a very conservative body, a very staid body, the very stark terms in which they lay out the problem, essentially saying, look, there’s no question the globe is warming, our climate is changing, it’s due to human activity, and if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to be a real problem. It’s already a problem. We are already seeing damages, in many cases way ahead of schedule.

What is interesting about the report as well is that it also makes it quite clear that it is still relatively inexpensive to solve this problem. If we act now, if we bring our fossil fuel emissions down by several percent a year, which is doable, if we scale up renewable green energy to the point where we can meet growing energy demand through less and less fossil fuel based energy, then we can stabilize global warming below levels that are truly dangerous and potentially irreversible. And it would be fairly inexpensive to do so, because we can actually undergo that transition, we can get that transition underway, we can scale up renewable energy, so that in a matter of decades it meets 80, 90, maybe close to 100 percent of our energy needs.

The problem is if we defer that, if we wait to lower our emissions. Then that means we are going to have to make far more austere cuts in carbon emissions in the future. And that’ll be much more expensive economically, and we will have basically entered into a regime where the cost of inaction, the deferred maintenance, the problems that we will begin to see because we didn’t act on the climate change problem in time, will become far more expensive than any measures necessary to mitigate the problem.

PERIES: Prof. Mann, it appears that IPCC report and you yourself agree that it is technically possible to limit global warming. How should governments go about actually doing that at this time?

MANN: Well, fundamentally, we have to put a price on the emission of carbon. Right now, every time we burn fossil fuels, every time we engage in activities that put CO2 into the atmosphere, we are doing damage, we’re doing damage to the planet, we are doing damage to our economy, we are doing damage to food, water, land resources. And that has to be internalized. Right now the problem is that that damage isn’t taken into account.

Corporations, when they produce fossil fuel, corporations when they produce carbon, they put carbon into the atmosphere, they don’t have to pay a price. And so the damage that’s being done is not not incorporated into the marketplace. It’s what we call an externality. We have to internalize that cost by building it into the cost of doing business. When you burn fossil fuels, if you’re a fossil fuel–coal-fired power plant, natural gas power producer, if you’re drilling oil/petroleum, the carbon that is produced has to be priced into the economy some in some way so that other non-carbon-based energy sources, renewable energy, can compete fairly in the marketplace. Those sources of energy that are not degrading the climate and the planet in the same way can compete on a fair playing field with fossil fuel based energy.

So we need to find a way to put a price on the emission of carbon at the international level. It has to be–we need to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill here in the U.S., and that’s an uphill battle right now with the congressional resistance to acting on this problem. But there have been some executive actions that have been taken by President Obama, including [putting restrictions on (?)] coal-fired power plants, tighter fuel efficiency standards, that are helping out. But ultimately we need to pass some sort of legislation here in the U.S. that’ll put a price on the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, and we need to engage in an international treaty, and maybe we’ll make some progress in New York next month with the next UN climate summit. We need to come to terms with an international agreement that prices carbon, that prices carbon so that we can transition, we can make the transition that’s necessary to a non-carbon-based energy economy in time to prevent truly dangerous and potentially irreversible impacts on our planet.

PERIES: Dr. Mann, can you point to some positive things that are going on? Are some countries taking a greater lead in terms of addressing these irreversible impacts?

MANN: Yeah, we are seeing a lot of progress. In Europe, for example, Germany is doing amazing things right now with solar technology, photovoltaic cells. Prices are coming way down, to the point where they’re now actually competitive with fossil fuels already. We didn’t expect that to happen through the efficiencies of continued research and development for a number of years, but we’re already there now, at grid parity, where some non fossil fuel based sources are already competitive with fossil fuels in terms of what they cost. And that’s not even taking into account the damage that fossil fuels are doing. If we put a price on the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, then these renewable energy sources would be even more competitive in the marketplace. And they’re already almost there. So we’re seeing a lot of progress in Europe. We’re seeing progress actually even in places like China, where they are having a serious discussion about instituting something like a carbon tax and where they are investing quite a bit more in renewable energy than we are here in the U.S.

So, ironically, the U.S., we’re a country that used to lead the world technologically, but we are actually falling behind when it comes to dealing with the climate change threat. And we need to get back into a leadership position. Hopefully, at the summit in New York next month, this UN summit, the U.S. will be able to display some leadership. Of course, the administration, as I mentioned, the Obama administration, has taken some bold actions that suggest that they want to move strongly in the direction of doing something about the problem. But we’re going to need the rest of Congress behind us if we’re going to make significant progress in the years ahead here in the U.S.

PERIES: Okay. Michael, thank you so much for joining us today. And we hope to come back to you as this report starts to have more legs.

MANN: I’d love to come back. Thank you very much.

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


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Dr. Michael E. Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).