Extreme Heatwaves, More Wildfires, and Dying Trees
“We would not be seeing the sort of record heat that we are seeing now, the extensive drought, and as a result of the heat and drought unprecedented wildfire in the western U.S. and regions of the world, we would not be seeing those things if it were not for human-caused climate change,” said Dr. Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University.
Earlier this month, carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole surpassed the threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in 4 million years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The atmosphere has not seen that level of carbon dioxide since the dawn of humankind, in millions of years,” said Mann. “So what it tells us is that we are engaged in this uncontrolled and unprecedented experiment with the one planet that we have, the one planet that we know that can support life, including human civilization. That’s a dangerous game to be playing.”
Mann also said that societies can implement already-existing technologies and policies to further avoid catastrophic consequences of climate change.
“Voluntary measures alone aren’t enough. We need to incentivize that behavior in the marketplace through a price on carbon. And if we do both of those things, we can solve this problem. There’s still time to do it,” said Mann.
NADIA KANJI, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Nadia Kanji in Baltimore.
An extreme heat wave has fueled more than a dozen wildfires that threaten hundreds of homes across the Western United States. In California, firefighters are battling two fast-moving wildfires, and over the weekend at least six people have died from heat-related causes in Arizona. Other records are being set, with carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole having surpassed the threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in 4 million years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We should also note that May was the 13th straight month of record heat.
But can we all tie all of this to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions? Here to help break this down is Dr. Michael E. Mann, who 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. He is also director of the Penn State Earth Systems Science Center. Welcome back to the Real News, Michael.
MICHAEL E. MANN: Thanks, it’s good to be with you.
KANJI: So let’s start with the heat wave and the wildfires that are still burning out of control. Can we say with some certainty that they can be linked to climate change, and can we expect more of the same?
MANN: Collectively, yes. We would not be seeing the sort of record heat that we are seeing now, the extensive drought, and as a result of the heat and drought unprecedented wildfire in the western U.S. and regions of the world, we would not be seeing those things if it were not for human-caused climate change.
If you look at the heat wave that we have right now in the western U.S., it’s sort of a classic pattern that the climate models say is becoming more common, and will become even more common, as we continue to warm the planet. It’s this dome of high pressure that gives you these unprecedented high temperatures. That pattern is precisely the pattern the climate models tell us is increasingly likely to prevail in the western U.S. and other regions around the world as we continue to warm the climate.
KANJI: And can you talk about that, the significance of carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole now recently surpassing that symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in 4 million years? Is this more than a symbolic number?
MANN: It is. 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, the atmosphere has not seen that level of carbon dioxide since the dawn of humankind, in millions of years. So what it tells us is that we are engaged in this uncontrolled and unprecedented experiment with the one planet that we have, the one planet that we know that can support life, including human civilization. That’s a dangerous game to be playing.
KANJI: And it seems like American public opinion is shifting. According to a recent Gallup poll back in March, a record 65 percent of people now blame human activity for rising temperatures. So for those other 35 percent, how do we know that rising temperatures is linked to human activity, and not, as one viewer commented in relation to your last interview with us, that the earth’s climate has always shown massive variability, both before and since humans came on the scene?
MANN: Yes. So, you know, if you go back 100 million years, the time, the early Cretaceous period when dinosaurs roamed the planet, it is true that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were even higher than they are likely to be in 50 years if we continue to burn fossil fuels. So they were higher than even where we’re currently headed.
Now, if we continued to burn fossil fuels through the end of the century, we will be coming close to those levels that prevailed 100 million years ago. Now, here’s the thing. Earth, through natural cycles, is able to bury carbon below the ground, what ultimately becomes fossil fuels, over tens of millions of years. And so over 100 million years, all of that CO2 that was in the atmosphere making the age of the dinosaurs so warm slowly got deposited below earth’s surface.
Now, what we’re doing is we’re short-circuiting the natural process. We are literally mining all of that carbon that got buried beneath the earth’s surface and we’re releasing it back into the atmosphere, not on a time scale of 100 million years, as nature does. Over a time scale of about 100 years, a million times faster.
So what’s unprecedented is the rate at which we are putting CO2 into the atmosphere, and the rate at which surface temperatures are rising and climate is changing. There is no precedent for what we are causing today.
KANJI: And I mean, right now, in terms of the political climate, we have a public climate change denier as a possible president in the United States. What gives you hope that we’ll find the political will to reduce fossil fuels to the level needed to prevent global temperatures rising above 2 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris climate agreement?
MANN: Well, you know, climate change deniers, like the fossil fuels that they’re encouraging us to continue to use, are fossils themselves. They are basically trapped in the past, in an age that no longer makes sense to us. It no longer makes sense for us to continue to mine fossil fuels and degrade the planet, because we have these plentiful alternative sources of energy, renewable energy sources, that are increasing exponentially. We are seeing amazing increases in the market share of renewable energy, around the world and here in the U.S. We’re seeing all sorts of changes happen.
Now, they’re not quite happening fast enough for us to avoid dangerous impacts on the climate. If we are going to see that transition to renewable energy take place fast enough to prevent us from locking in dangerous changes in the climate, we’re going to have to incentivize that process that is already underway. We’re already seeing the change.
KANJI: How do you do that?
MANN: Well, so what we have to do is put a price on carbon. Right now, renewable energy is playing sort of on this unlevel playing field, where fossil fuel energy gets these huge subsidies and yet is doing all this damage to the planet. What we need to do is level the playing field by taking into account the damage that the burning of fossil fuels is doing, and sending a market signal. Putting a price on the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. And when we do that we will accelerate that trajectory that is already taking place, that transition that is already taking place from fossil fuel energy towards renewable energy.
KANJI: And should we go beyond market incentives?
MANN: Well, there are really at least two things we ought to be doing. Part of this involves personal responsibility. We all ought to be doing those things in our personal lives that we can do to reduce our carbon footprints. I have a hybrid vehicle, I purchase all of my electricity from renewable energy, wind energy. And there are all these things that we can do that actually save us money, in many cases, they make us healthier, and they decrease our carbon emissions. Why wouldn’t we do that?
At the same time, that alone is not going to be enough. Voluntary measures alone aren’t enough. We need to incentivize that behavior in the marketplace through a price on carbon. And if we do both of those things we can solve this problem. There’s still time to do it.
KANJI: Okay. Michael Mann, thank you so much for joining us.
MANN: Thank you.
KANJI: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.