UN Report Says Climate Change Will Threaten Food Production Worldwide
Climate change scientist Michael Mann discusses the most significant findings in the second installment of the IPCC report, and how the media amplifies minority voices who hold contrarian positions in order discredit the report’s conclusions
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has just issued their much-anticipated report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The conclusions, to say the least, are dire: not only are the effects of climate change already occurring on every continent; the world is ill-prepared for what is to come. The report is authored by more than 300 scientists, and it is part of a series of reports that are considered the most comprehensive assessments of climate change and its impact to date.
With us to help break down some of the key findings of the report is our guest, Dr. Michael Mann. He’s a distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, and he’s the author of the book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.
Thank you for joining us, Michael.
DR. MICHAEL E. MANN, DIR. OF EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE CENTER, PENN STATE UNIV.: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, just start us off. What were some of the most significant findings, for you, in the report?
MANN: What I was struck by in this latest report was the extent to which the report really focuses on us. You know, it sometimes seems that climate change, at least the way it’s presented in some accounts, is some abstract problem, a far-off problem that, you know, maybe will impact polar bears decades from now, but, you know, it’s not a problem for us. And what this report makes very clear is that it is impacting us here and now. And in a sense, we have become the polar bear. We are seeing the impacts of climate change. Whether you are talking about meeting our food needs, water resource issues, land, human health, the health of our economy, the, you know, issues of national security and conflict, across the boards, in every continent of the world, climate change is already having an adverse impact on us. It’s having an adverse impact on us now. And we’ve only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg, in the sense that, as the report describes, if we continue with business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions, decades down the road we will see far worse and potentially irreversible impacts on us and our environment.
DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, if I’m understanding you correctly, it’s essentially that we have coming from this report is that the damage that we’ve already done is still going to mean some real consequences for us, presently and in the future. But the countries that are going to get swamped or go through a drought or get hit the hardest by this, most of the time they’re the most vulnerable countries. So I’m going to ask you a political question. Do you think that there should be some sort of adaptation policies in place? We should get money to deal with consequences from the countries that have done most of the polluting.
MANN: Well, absolutely. You know, it’s sometimes been said that the solution to this problem, how we deal with this problem, with this problem, is going to be some combination of damage, damage done to us, adaptation, and mitigation. And so we have to decide, you know, the balance of those things. How much investment are we going to put into taking adaptive, precautionary measures to deal with the changes that are in the pipeline? How much effort are we going to put into reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing the additional damage done? And in a sense, to the extent that we don’t do what is necessary in the way of adaptation and mitigation, the only other choice is suffering, and obviously we want to avoid that.
And so this report really makes clear that there are adaptive measures that we can already take to try to reduce the vulnerability to us here in the industrial world to developing nations, and that adaptation is not enough. If we look at the changes that we are likely to see decades down the road if we continue with business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions, we will clearly exceed our adaptive capacity, and other living things, ecosystems, animal species, they will exceed their adaptive capacity. The changes that we will see if we do nothing about the problem are far too great for us to simply adapt to.
But there are already some additional impacts that we’ve already locked in. There’s going to be some additional damage done just because of the emissions to date, just because of the additional warming and climate change that is already in the pipeline. And that means that we have to invest in adaptive measures. We have to help developing nations, who, as you allude to, are in less of a position–they have less wealth, they’re less able to take the various measures necessary to reduce their vulnerability to climate change impacts. In many cases, the developing world, the tropics in particular, are going to see worse changes than we are going to see in the extra-tropics. That’s particularly true for agriculture, where even a little bit of warming will lead to sharp decreases in productivity of cereal crops in the major tropical nations.
And so it’s clear that we have to already, you know, start–take action, start helping other nations adapt to the changes that are in the pipeline, and do everything we can to minimize the additional damage that we do by reducing our fossil fuel emissions, by–.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s turn now to a bit of news that really struck me, actually. One of the lead authors of the report, Richard Tol, he’s a professor of economics at Sussex University in England. He dropped out of the writing team, calling the report, quote, “alarmist”, “too alarmist”. What would your response be to that?
MANN: Well, you know, you almost always see this. I mean, every major assessment report, be it the IPCC reports or the various assessment reports of the National Academy of Sciences, you’ll often see sort of one renegade, maverick, if you will, scientist, typically a contrarian scientist, a devil’s advocate, somebody who likes disagreeing with everybody else.
The IPCC process seeks to be extremely inclusive. And so inevitably you’re going to get some of those contrarian scientists who are among the authors of the report. And in this case, you know, Richard Tol is best known for being a contrarian, for being somebody who dismisses the damages of climate change. In fact, just the other day–I’m not sure I’m going to remember the exact quote, but he said something like, you know, with respect to the issue of damage to agricultural yields, he said, well, farmers will just adapt. And, you know, the science doesn’t support that. If we look at the potential strategies that can be taken to adapt to climate change impacts on agriculture, there’s only so much that can be done. When we see more widespread drought, more devastating heat waves and extreme weather on top of warming of the planet, every other assessment has indicated that we will see extremely large damages done to food resources, to agriculture.
He seemed to be upset that one of the 25 papers, as I recall, that were assessed that related to the issue of damages, agricultural damages, that one of the 25 papers wasn’t given enough emphasis. There were 24 of the 25 papers that put forward the position that I just described to you, the finding that the damages to food resources, human food resources, will exceed our adaptive capacity. There was one study of the 25 that disagreed with it. And guess what? It was Richard Tol’s study. And he was upset that they didn’t put all the weight on his one contrarian study rather than the consensus of just about every other economist who has studied this issue, which includes Nobel Prize-winning economists like Marty Weitzman at Harvard University.
DESVARIEUX: And, Michael, there are large sections of the media who are taking this very seriously and putting a lot of weight to professor Tol’s statement, as if it sort of undermines the total content of the report authored by the IPCC. What’s your take on these types of actions, this type of coverage by the media?
MANN: Well, it’s very unfortunate, right? I mean, you know, you can always find one individual who is willing to disagree with the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists. We have seen that–when it came to tobacco, there were scientists who were claiming it’s not a problem to smoke cigarettes, there’s no threat to human health. Of course, they were wrong, and many lives were lost because people were listening to them. We heard the same thing with ozone depletion, which is now only beginning to recover because of the actions, the precautionary actions we did take decades ago. We’ve heard that with, you know, the threat of pharmaceutical products, untested pharmaceutical products. So you can always find one contrarian who’s willing to disagree with, you know, the rest of the scientific community. And if we were to listen only to those contrarian voices or to put much stock in them, to these very fringe minority voices, then we wouldn’t have acted on the tobacco problem, we wouldn’t have acted on the acid rain problem, we wouldn’t have acted on the ozone depletion problem.
And so for the media or at least some media outlets to give so much weight to one fringe contrarian voice does a disservice to the public discourse. It misleads the public and it poisons the larger discourse over, you know, this critical issue of what to do about the very real threat of human-caused climate change.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Dr. Michael Mann, thank you so much for joining us.
MANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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