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Member of UN Environment Panel Warns Greenhouse Emissions Rising at Alarming, Unexpected Rate

StoryFebruary 26, 2009
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Christopher Field

founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and professor of biology and environmental earth system science at Stanford University.

We speak to Chris Field, a leading member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about his warning that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is rising more rapidly than expected in recent years. Field says the current trajectory of climate change is now much worse than the IPCC had originally projected. On Wednesday, Field told a Senate panel droughts caused by global warming could make parts of the American Southwest dangerous to live in. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A leading member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is warning the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is rising more rapidly than expected in recent years. The scientist, Chris Field, says the current trajectory of climate change is now much worse than the IPCC had originally projected in part due to China and India’s increasing reliance on coal power.

The research shows carbon emissions have grown sharply since 2000, despite growing concerns about global warming. During the 1990s, carbon emissions grew by less than one percent per year. Since 2000, emissions have grown at a rate of 3.5 percent per year. No part of the world had a decline in emissions from 2000 to 2008.

Earlier this month, Field told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "We are basically looking now at a future climate beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model situations."

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Chris Field testified before a Senate panel and warned droughts caused by global warming could make parts of the American Southwest dangerous to live in.

Professor Field joins us now from Stanford University, the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology and a professor of biology and environmental earth system science at Stanford University. He’s also co-chair, just been named, of Working Group 2 of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Dr. Field.

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you review what you told the Senate yesterday? It was a pretty heated hearing.

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: It was. And I think it’s important for people to know that the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, provides a definitive assessment of where we are with climate, but that science continues to evolve. And in particular, we’ve seen rapid increase in knowledge in two important areas: areas that I call forcing, how hard we’re pushing on the climate system, and feedbacks, what we expect the earth system to do in response to this harder forcing. In particular, we’ve seen CO2 emissions grow very rapidly, as you’ve already described.

The idea is that we’ve used climate models to explore possible futures. We characterize economic growth rates, population, kinds of ways that energy is generated, and use those to say, well, what might CO2 emissions be going into the future? And that’s what the climate models run.

If we look since 2000, we’ve seen a rapid acceleration in CO2 emissions, so that the actual trajectory of emissions has grown more rapidly than in any of the scenarios that were characterized in detail. The reason I say we’re on a trajectory of climate change that we haven’t explored is that we have only looked at scenarios where the growth of CO2 was limited to in the range of two to 2.5 percent per year. We genuinely don’t know what a climate will look like with the more rapid rate of increase that we’re actually seeing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And as we mentioned in the lead-in, you see that the increasing emissions from China and India have been part of the reason why the modeling so far has not been as accurate as expected?

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Well, it’s not exactly right to say “the modeling so far.” You know, we characterized possible futures based on expectations of the way the world might unfold, and these weren’t intended as predictions; they were just supposed to characterize possibilities.

But what we have seen is that the time since 2000 was a period of rapid economic growth, and it was also a period of time where a large fraction of the economic growth was fueled by electricity based on coal, and coal is the energy source that releases the most CO2 per unit of useful energy that’s released. The consequence of that is that we have seen a very rapid increase in CO2 emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Field, can you lay out the scenario that you laid out before the Senate? What exactly do you see happening at the end of the century, if we go on the trajectory we’re on now?

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Well, the important thing to remember is that we’re not committed to any particular trajectory and that there are a range of different possibilities. The possibility that is increasingly stark and that we really want to be increasingly certain to avoid is one where we end up with climate forcing at the high end of the possible scenarios. The IPCC projected that with the scenarios it explored, we could see 2100 temperatures that were anywhere from as little as two Fahrenheit to as much as eleven to twelve Fahrenheit warmer than possible.

And what we increasingly see is that with temperatures at the upper end of this warming range, we begin to get a large series of very dangerous feedbacks from the earth’s system. In particular, we see tropical forest transitioning from taking up large amounts of carbon to taking up very little or even releasing carbon. And it looks like there’s an increasing risk that high latitude ecosystems that are characterized by these frozen soils called permafrost may release some of the organic matter that’s stored in this permafrost to the atmosphere. So you end up in a situation where, instead of having ecosystems storing large amounts of carbon, their storing very little or releasing large amounts.

The calculations to date are that tropical forests — and this is something that is explored in the IPCC — could, at the higher ranges of temperature forcing, release anywhere from a hundred billion to 500 billion extra tons of carbon to the atmosphere by 2100. And that should be put in the context of understanding that during the entire period from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until now, all of the world societies have only released a little over 300 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere.

AMY GOODMAN: What could happen in the Southwest?

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Well, if you look at the projections from the IPCC, North America is characterized by a variety of different patterns of precipitation, with increasing precipitation at high latitudes and a sharp decrease in precipitation across the American Southwest. We basically see a big tongue of area that extends from California to about Oklahoma, where the combination of decreased precipitation and increased temperature, increased evaporation, leads to decreased river runoff. And that decrease is quite large, in the range of 25 to even 35 percent. It really projects a period of extreme stress on water resources, limited availability of water for all of the kinds of water users that are out there, from agriculture to industry to cities to instream ecological uses.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the centerpieces of the Obama administration’s efforts to respond to climate change is, obviously, the whole development now of carbon emission permits and capping and trading of these permits. As a scientist, what would be your concerns about a solution that centers so much around this kind of a market approach, in terms of how effective it might be in dealing with the future?

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Well, if I look at the problem, the thing that really strikes me is that we don’t have very long to get an effective climate regime in place. The risk with these ecosystem feedbacks is that once we get past a certain point in warming, the problem gets more difficult every year, because we’re ending up with, you know, essentially less and less help from the oceans and the land. And from my perspective, the really critical thing is that we get a handle on the emissions growth so that we can slow it rapidly and turn the corner, so that we’re looking at a period of decreased emissions moving into the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask not only about what’s happening in the Southwest, but a vicious cycle you talked about that could do everything from ignite tropical forests to melt the Arctic tundra.

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: The idea of these vicious cycle feedbacks is that once warming reaches a certain point, the amount of assistance that we’re getting in terms of carbon storage from the land and oceans tends to go down. And this is quite clear from the IPCC models, and it’s clear from a number of other more recent lines of work. In the IPCC, the models characterize a future in which tropical forests at the high range of warming have a potential to release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.

One of the new numbers that’s a great concern to me is that we’ve been doing studies of how much organic matter is stored in these frozen soils in northern latitudes, permafrost soils, and the new numbers are that approximately a billion tons of carbon is stored in the organic matter in these high latitude soils. Climate model projections indicate that at high amounts of warming large fractions of the permafrost could melt, and some of the projections have that at from 60 to 90 percent of the permafrost melting.

And the surprising thing about these permafrost soils is that the organic matter that’s contained within them is not this incredibly stabilized, difficult-to-decompose stuff; it’s basically frozen plants that have been sitting there for, in some cases, tens of thousands of years. And when the permafrost is thawed, these plants decompose quite quickly, releasing their carbon as CO2 to the atmosphere or as methane to the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas that, on a molecule per molecule basis, is about twenty-five times as powerful as CO2.

The basic risk is that if we reach a certain point in the warming, what we’ll end up with is a vicious cycle, where the warming causes additional permafrost melt, which causes additional CO2 to be released to the atmosphere, which causes additional warming, which creates this vicious cycle.

We don’t have evidence that it’s a clear tipping point, or we don’t know where there might be a tipping point out there. And one of the things that I’m advocating is that we both advance the science quickly enough to figure out if indeed there is a threshold beyond which this can’t be stopped, but also to take action as a society to ensure that we’re very conservative with respect to how far along this pathway we go.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Field, we want to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to break. When we come back, want to play for you the comment of one of the climate change deniers. A professor from Princeton University was invited also to testify. Then we’re going to be looking at the power of the lobbyists around climate change, and a massive conference is taking place this weekend of grassroots youth activists in Washington called Power Shift. We’ll speak with them and find out about what’s considered to be one of the largest civil disobedience in US history is going to take place on Monday outside a coal plant outside Washington, D.C. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, our guest, Chris Field, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The Republican minority invited Princeton University physicist William Happer to testify at the same hearing. He’s a former Energy Department official and chair of the board of directors of the George Marshall Institute, an organization that’s reportedly received $715,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998. This is a part of what Professor Happer had to say.

    WILLIAM HAPPER: The increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will cause some warming of the earth’s surface. The key question is, will the net effect of the warming and any other effects of CO2 be good or bad for humanity? I believe the increase of CO2 will be good.

    I predict that future historians will look back on this period much as we now look back on the period just before we passed the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution to prohibit the manufacturing, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. At the time, the 18th Amendment seemed to be exactly the right thing to do. It was a 1917 version of saving the planet from the ravages of climate change. More than half the states enacted prohibition laws before the 18th Amendment was finally ratified. Only one state, Rhode Island, voted against it, and my hat’s off to the senator from Rhode Island. I’m sorry he’s not here.

    Well, there were many people who thought that Prohibition might do more harm than good, but they were completely outmatched by the temperance movement, whose motives and methods had much in common with the movement to stop climate change. Deeply sincere people thought they were saving humanity from the evils of alcohol, just as many people now sincerely think they’re saving humanity from the evils of CO2. Prohibition was a mistake, and our country’s probably still not fully recovered from the damage it did. For example, institutions like organized crime got their start in that era. Drastic limitations on CO2 are likely to damage our country in an analogous way. There’s tremendous opportunity for corruption there.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Happer of Princeton University. Professor Field, your response?

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: Well, there’s been a tremendous amount of science to assess the likely impacts of rising CO2 on climate, and the IPCC overwhelmingly concludes that the overall impact is likely to be sharply negative. I think that as we look at new science, we see increasing validation of the conclusions of the IPCC, in terms of the mechanisms of climate change and in terms of the impacts of climate change.

You know, the assessment of whether the issue of Prohibition is relevant to climate, I think, is really a red herring. There’s essentially never been an activity that’s — where the scientific community has been as coordinated and as careful in its assessment as it’s been with climate change. And to say that, well, sometimes the science is wrong just really doesn’t reflect the amount, not only of careful thinking and coordination, but also the amount of testing of all the ideas that’s gone into the modern scientific assessment of climate change. You know, essentially every component of our understanding has been scrutinized and tested and evaluated from different directions. And although there’s still a lot we don’t understand completely, some of which I have already talked about this morning, the overall analysis of where we’re headed and what the mechanisms are is just deeply well established.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Chris Field, a professor of biology and environmental earth science at Stanford University.

AMY GOODMAN: And we also wanted to ask if you might stay with us as we’re joined by a guest in Washington, because we want to get your comment on the politics of and the money behind those who are lobbying against the whole issue of climate change.

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