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As IPCC Warns of Climate Disaster, Will Scientific Consensus Spark Action on Global Warming?

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set to issue its strongest warning yet that climate change is caused by humans, and that the world will see more heat waves, droughts and floods unless governments take action to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The IPCC report, released every six years, incorporates the key findings from thousands of articles published in scientific journals, concluding with at least 95 percent certainty that human activities have caused most of Earth’s temperature rise since 1950, and will continue to do so in the future. “Drought is the number one threat we face from climate change because it affects the two things we need to live: food and water,” says Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground. We also speak to Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set to issue Friday its strongest warning yet that climate change is caused by humans and will cause more heat waves, droughts and floods, unless governments take action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The IPCC releases their report every six years. It incorporates the key findings from thousands of articles published in scientific journals. The IPCC began meeting earlier this week in Stockholm ahead of the report’s release. This is IPCC Chairperson Rajendra Pachauri.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI: This Working Group I session will approve the Summary for Policymakers and accept the full report. This is happening at a time when the world is awaiting the outcome of this session with great expectation, because of its obvious significance in respect of the current status of global negotiations and the ongoing debate on actions to deal with the challenge of climate change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The IPCC report is expected to conclude with at least 95 percent certainty that human activities have caused most of Earth’s temperature rise since 1950, and will continue to do so in the future. That’s up from a confidence level of 90 percent in the 2007 report, the last year the assessment came out.

Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute released a report this week by group of climate change skeptics called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, or NIPCC. The 1,200-page report disputes the reality of man-made climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, Greenpeace International’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, remains with us, and we’re joined by Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground. On Friday, he’ll host the Weather Channel’s live coverage of the release of the IPCC’s report. He’s joining us here in New York studio ahead of attending Climate Week in New York. Today he moderates a panel on innovative ways to combat climate change.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeff Masters, the significance of this report that’s being released tomorrow.

JEFF MASTERS: It’s huge, because we only see one of these reports every six years, and it lays out a very authoritative and unarguable case, that climate change is happening, humans are mostly responsible, it’s going to accelerate, and there are things we can do to slow down this sort of climate change upon us.

AMY GOODMAN: And this report of the nongovernmental panel, Heartland Institute?

JEFF MASTERS: It’s what you’d expect from basically lobbyists who are working for the fossil fuel industry, whose profits are threatened by the scientific findings of the IPCC. You would expect this sort of blowback by the fossil fuel industry to dispute the science, to cast doubt, to play up some of the arguments against it, which really aren’t under dispute by scientists.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the conclusions are those not just of the scientists, but also isn’t there sovereign government involvement in the findings, as well? Could you explain that for people who are not familiar with how the IPCC works?

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, the IPCC is kind of a unique hybrid, because it’s not just a scientific organization. All of its results have to be approved by government representatives. So, this week in Stockholm, the scientists have presented their information, and each government, 195 in total, have to go line by line through the report and approve it. So, the politicians have a say in what is in the final report. As a result, the report is very conservative, because everyone has to agree, its unanimous approval required.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, what needs to be done?

JEFF MASTERS: We have to do two things: We have to cut down our emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, and we have to adapt. We have to get prepared for the coming climate change storm, as I call it. It’s already here. We’re already seeing the impacts, and we better get ready.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of what’s been leaked about it so far, some of the conclusions may be a little bit surprising. For instance, on the relationship between climate change and hurricanes and typhoons, what do they say there?

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, they have reduced their amount of certainty that we’ve already seen changes in intense hurricanes due to human causes. So, that reflects kind of the going scientific work that’s been happening, which is not sure. There’s a lot of variability in hurricanes naturally; hard to tell if they’re actually changing now due to a changing climate. So, that’s one positive maybe we can take out of the report. We’re not sure we’re actually seeing an impact on hurricanes and typhoons.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Colorado fit into this picture, the thousand-year flood? And then in India—


AMY GOODMAN: —in June, something like 5,700 people died in floods and landslides.

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, one thing we are pretty sure of is that climate change is already causing an increase in extreme rainfall events, particularly in North America. And these are the type of events that we saw this year in Colorado and again in Asia. We’ve seen an increasing number of very heavy precipitation events, the kind that are most likely to cause some of the extreme floods we’ve seen in recent years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to bring Kumi back into the conversation. You’re here for the United Nations General Assembly, and obviously President Obama spoke this week at the General Assembly. Your assessment of what he did or didn’t say about climate change?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, he hardly mentioned climate change. And the thing about it is, you know, even the CIA and the Pentagon in 2003 in a report that was presented even to President Bush, which he chose to bury it, as somebody who was, in effect, an agent of the fossil fuel industry, that that report suggests in the coming decades the biggest threat to peace, security and stability will not come from conventional threats from terrorism and so on, but will come from the impacts of climate change. So, if any head of state, any political leader is concerned about peace, security and stability, then they should be using the platforms at the United Nations now to talk about the biggest urgency this planet has ever faced.

We are talking here already of serious impacts, particularly in the developing world. We are seeing lives being lost. Darfur, I would argue, as the secretary-general of the United Nations argue, the genocide in Darfur was certainly intensified and exacerbated as a result of climate impacts. Lake Chad, one of the largest inland seas in the world, that neighbors Darfur, has largely, you know, to use the words of the secretary-general of the U.N., shrunk to the size of a pond. And then, the Sahara Desert is marching from Senegal to Sudan southwards at the rate of one mile a year. So, water scarcity, land scarcity and, together, food scarcity was the trigger. So, when you see all that happening, when heads of state are talking about all these sort of interventions around chemical weapons, all of which are important, but the biggest threat to peace and security is coming already from climate change, and it’s going to intensify. So, in that sense, I was deeply disappointed that President Obama didn’t make that connection.

AMY GOODMAN: What could the U.S. be doing right now?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the U.S. needs to recognize, firstly, that they are compromising their economic future, because the U.S. needs to forget about the arms race, space race and so on. The only race that’s going to matter in terms of which countries and companies will be competitive in the future is those countries and companies that get as far ahead of the green race as possible. The U.S. needs to take leadership. The world is hungry for U.S. leadership in climate negotiations. And—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, President Obama, in his speech, was making the case for how the U.S. is exceptional.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes, and the thing about it is, you know, that case, the way it gets read, speaking beyond climate change now, is an approach by the U.S. of “do as we tell you to do, don’t do as we say” —sorry, “Do as we say, don’t do as we do,” because the U.S., if you take on torture, they are signatories to the anti-torture conventions, but we’ve got waterboarding, we’ve got Guantánamo, we’ve got extraordinary rendition; on respecting human rights and not violating people’s privacy without their knowledge, and, you know, people around the world are saying things like, you know, “We had so much optimism when Obama, President Obama, was saying, ’Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” but with all this NSA spying, maybe he was saying, “Yes, we scan! Yes, we scan! Yes, we scan!”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about what’s happening in Ecuador. Last month, Ecuador dropped a plan to preserve swaths of Amazon rainforest from oil drilling by having wealthy countries pay them not to drill. President Rafael Correa said the plan to save parts of Yasuní National Park had raised only a fraction of the money sought. He said, “The world has failed us.” Well, this week, I had a chance to interview Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, over at the Ecuador mission to the United Nations, about the Yasuní-ITT initiative. He said simply that it failed to attract sufficient funding.

RICARDO PATIÑO: [translated] All over the world, natural resources are being exploited without a great deal of concern about the impacts of that exploitation. And we appeal to the world, and we said we’re willing to sacrifice 50 percent of the income that could potentially be generated, but the world has to contribute. And we said, if the international community would cover the other 50 percent, we were willing to completely preserve the area of Yasuní-ITT and not exploit the oil indefinitely.

But the world’s response was negative. We only got very few million of dollars. And we said, if we don’t—the world doesn’t respond to our appeal, we are going to have to exploit this oil, because we need these resources and the resulting income. After having done—appealed and appealed and appealed and not seen an echo to our appeal, Ecuador decided to exploit the oil without affecting the surface of Yasuní—this is very important.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño. President Correa didn’t come to the U.N. He didn’t think that the way it is set up, the speeches of countries like Ecuador, have an impact. But, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, what about what’s going to happen to—what’s going to happen to the Yasuní and how important it is?

KUMI NAIDOO: This is a tragedy that what was a innovative and creative way of ensuring that people and nature were actually protected has not been responded to by the international community. It’s a reflection of a skewed sense of where we should be investing our global resources at the moment. If we look at the amount of money that’s going into—taxpayer money that’s going into fossil fuel subsidies, to the tune of $1,4 trillion [$1.4 trillion] a year annually, a fraction of that money—tiny fraction of that money could have actually secured this very, very fragile part of the world.

And people need to realize—you know, in the past, when people talked about protecting forests, it was seen as it’s all about biodiversity, protecting certain species and, if you like, nature. Today, people must understand that forests are the lungs of the planet. It’s fundamentally connected to the challenge of climate change. Forests capture and store carbon safely. And the more we deplete our forests—and the rate we’re depleting our forests at the moment is every two seconds a forest the size of a football field is disappearing, as we speak. So, our political leaders, particularly in rich countries, who have not come up with the money, I think history will judge them very, very harshly.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of leading environmentalists have sent Correa a letter pleading with him not to move ahead, even if the international community failed him, because indigenous people in the area are rising up, saying, “Do not develop this. Do not drill here.” UNESCO designated the park as a world biosphere reserve. It contains 100,000 species of animal, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world.

KUMI NAIDOO: In the world, yeah. So, I mean, I think that underscores the disconnect with regard to getting our priorities right. And also, I think what you’re seeing is that so long as the countries who historically built their economies on fossil fuels—the U.S. and most of the developed countries of the world—if they continue to be saying, “We’re going to continue with further fossil projects like the tar sands and fracking and so on,” it makes it really difficult for organizations like Greenpeace to actually lobby with developing countries to say, “You’re going to have to leave that coal in the ground and the oil in the soil,” when they say, “But those folks are still continuing.” So, we are playing political poker with the future of the planet and the future of our children here. And what you’re seeing is a terrible case of cognitive dissonance. All the facts are telling us we are running out of time, and our leaders continue as business as usual.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jeff Masters, I think you’re supposed to be on a panel with Michael Bloomberg today on this issue. He certainly has sufficient funds in his own personal bank account to help Ecuador with saving the Yasuní. You might raise that issue to him when you talk—when you’re on the panel. But I’d like to ask you a little bit more about the IPCC report, what we know about it, because obviously it won’t be released 'til tomorrow—what it says about drought and the future prospects for the planet, and specifically how it relates to some of the issues or the conflicts that we're seeing the world, even now, and also about the acidity in the oceans.

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, drought is the number one threat we face from climate change, because it affects the two things we need to live: food and water. And the future projections of drought are rather frightening. I mean, we see large areas of the world, particularly the ones that are already dry, are expected to get drier, and that’s going to greatly challenge our ability to grow food there and provide water for people. And I was a little disappointed in the leaked draft that I’ve seen of the IPCC report. It doesn’t mention drought at all in the text. There is a mention of drought in a single table that they have there showing that, well, we’re not really sure we’ve seen changes in drought due to human causes yet, but we do think, you know, the dry airs are going to get drier, and this is going to be a problem in the future. So, yeah, a huge issue, drought, really not addressed very well in the summary. I’m sure the main body of the report, which will be released Monday, will talk a lot about drought.

And the second issue you raise, the acidity of the oceans, yeah, that we’re sure that we’ve seen an influence. There’s been a 26 percent increase in the acidity of the oceans since pre-industrial times, and the pH has dropped by 0.1 units. That’s going to have severe impacts on the marine communities, we think, and it’s only going to accelerate. They’re saying with pretty much 99 percent certainty the oceans are going to get more acidic, and it is due to human causes.

AMY GOODMAN: On drought, can you talk about Syria?

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah. In Syria, they’re having their worst drought in over 70 years. And there have been climate model studies done showing that the drought in that region of the world, in particular, is very likely more probable due to human causes. If you run a climate model both with and without the human increase in greenhouse gases, you see a large perturbation in the drought conditions there in the Mediterranean region. So, we’re pretty sure that drought is a factor there. And in Syria, in particular, I mean, people have migrated. Over a million people have had to leave their homes because of drought. They moved into the cities. They don’t have jobs there. It’s caused more unrest and directly contributed to the unrest there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an interesting analysis, Kumi.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, no, absolutely. And others have actually pointed to the big trigger for the conflict in Syria as being climate impacts, particularly drought. But if you look at even Egypt and you look at all the countries that went through the so-called Arab Spring—I always say “so-called” because I don’t think the struggle for justice is a seasonal activity. But the Arab resistance, you see, in all of those countries, there has been water stress, as well. And, I mean, some of us have been saying for more than a decade now, the future wars will not be fought over oil, but will be fought over water, if we don’t actually get it right. I mean, our political leaders must understand people cannot drink oil, that people need—I mean, if you look at fracking in the United States, right, the potential danger that has to water security because of the impact on the water table, it is really taking risks. And in South Africa, by the way, Shell has got a contract to start fracking in the Karoo—and again, an extremely water-stressed area to start with.

So, we really need our political leaders to connect the dots, because basically what you see as a problem is a silo mentality to governance, because we put environment and climate change here, we put peace and security here, we put food and agriculture here. All of these things are connected, and we need—the leadership we need now is leaders who can think in an intersectoral way and understand the connections of the different global problems we face.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeff Masters, once this report is issued, what happens next in terms of—there are further reports that will come out in early 2014?

JEFF MASTERS: That’s right. This is only the first part of a big four-part series. This only talks about what has actually happened to the climate and what the models predict—project will happen. In March, there’s going to be a whole ’nother section, which is going to talk about, you know, what are some of the impacts of this? And then there will be a further report: What can we do about it? How can we reduce the impacts? So, this is going to take over a year to play out.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Masters, skeptics are paying a lot of attention to a part of the leaked report. The IPCC said the rate of warming between ’98 and 2012 was about half the average rate since 1951.

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, they like to put in a frame something which they can use to challenge the report. I look at that sort of incidence as a speed bump on kind of the highway of climate change. We expect natural variability to play a role here. We’ve got various cycles in the atmosphere and ocean—El Niño, La Niña. The sun changes its brightness some. We expect to see these sorts of slowdowns, and we expect to see accelerations, as well. If you go back and look at the 15-year period ending in 2006, the rate of warming was almost double what it was the previous 15 years. Nobody paid attention to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Was climate change—was Colorado climate change, the thousand-year flood?

JEFF MASTERS: We can say that those sorts of events become more common. You roll the dice. You load the dice in favor of more extreme precipitation events. So, you roll double sixes more often, and maybe every now and then you can roll a 13.

AMY GOODMAN: Are meteorologists on television ever going to start flashing those words “climate change” as often as they flash the words “extreme weather” or “severe weather”?

JEFF MASTERS: Depends on what their producer says. They’re beholden to what the producer says, and some are on board, and many are not.

KUMI NAIDOO: Amy, if I can just jump in—there’s a lesson from history in the United States here that is helpful. If you look at when the scientific evidence around tobacco was clear and the consensus was clear that tobacco was bad for you, there was still a very powerful lobby of scientists funded by the tobacco industry to actually contaminate the public conversation, delay the policy changes that were necessary and so on. We are seeing a carbon copy of that same approach.

And I would say to the leaders of the fossil fuel industry, also, there’s another thing you need to learn from. When anti-tobacco litigation started in the early days, the CEOs of tobacco companies were arrogant and said, “Ah, it will never succeed.” They never took it seriously. Climate litigation is starting now, and the fossil fuel companies are actually being dismissive. I say to the fossil fuel industry leaders, “Go and ask your CEOs of tobacco companies which is the biggest amount of money that they have to have in their annual budgets today?” Because it has to be—it’s often in the legal department because of the scale of settlements.

So, I think that one expectation, once the report is out, is that the huge amount of money that goes into lobbying is going to do everything to actually rubbish this report and try and take selectively pieces of information. I think the American people, in particular, must interrogate the fact that for every member of Congress there is between three and seven full-time lobbyists paid by the oil, coal and gas sector. And they have actually held back the possibility of the U.S. being a global leader in renewable technology, and that’s going to hurt the U.S. economy in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo and Jeff Masters, thanks so much for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue this conversation. Kumi Naidoo is the executive director of Greenpeace International. Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground. He will be hosting Weather Channel’s live coverage of the release of the IPCC’s report tomorrow. When we come back, Matt Taibbi is with us, of Rolling Stone on “Looting the Pensions Funds.” Stay with us.

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