Climate Scientist: As U.N. Warns of Global Catastrophe, We Need a “Marshall Plan” for Climate Change

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A new report from the United Nations’ climate panel warns humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate global warming and limit the scope of global catastrophe. Otherwise, millions will be imperiled by increasing droughts, floods, fires and poverty. The sweeping report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges immediate and unprecedented changes to global policy in order to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5ºC. We speak with Kevin Anderson, Zennström professor in climate change leadership at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University and chair of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain. He says that the IPCC report fails to hold the world’s highest emitters accountable, and argues a “Marshall Plan” for climate change is necessary to save the planet from destruction. “About 70 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide come from about 20 percent of the world population. … When we try to address climate change and reduce our emissions by focusing on all 7.5 billion people, I think it misunderstands where the actual responsibility of emissions resides,” Anderson says. “We’re not developing policies that need to be tailored to that particular 20 percent.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. In Central America, at least 13 people have died after torrential downpours from Hurricane Michael hit Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, causing major flooding and landslides. The monster hurricane is expected to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 3 storm Wednesday, with Florida Governor Rick Scott declaring a state of emergency in 35 counties, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declaring a state of emergency for the entire state.

Florida is preparing for the massive storm as a new report from the United Nations climate panel warns humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe. This is U.N. meteorological agency chief Petteri Taalas.

PETTERI TAALAS: There’s extreme urgency and countries giving their pledges after the Paris Agreement. And so far the progress hasn’t been good enough that we would move towards a 1.5 or 2 degrees target. So there’s clearly a need for a much higher ambition level to reach even 2 degrees target. So we are more moving towards 3 to 5 at the moment. …

There are some estimations: What is the difference between 1.5 degree and 2 degree? And one of the major issues is that there would be 420 million people less suffering because of climate change, if we would be able to limit the warming to 1.5 degree. …

Already the emissions that we have emitted to the atmosphere means that this negative trend will continue for the coming decades. So that’s going to happen, and that means a growing amount of disasters and challenges to climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: The IPCC report lays out several possible pathways to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, including transitions in land use and transportation systems and the adoption of future technologies, including removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to the report, global net carbon emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050. On Monday, President Trump traveled to Orlando, Florida, but made no mention of climate change or the new United Nations landmark report.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Kevin Anderson. He is professor of climate change leadership at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University. He’s also chair of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain.

Dr. Anderson, welcome back to Democracy Now!

KEVIN ANDERSON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you first about this report as this monster hurricane goes through Latin America and bears down on Florida and Alabama.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, the report makes very clear that between 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming and 2 degrees centigrade of warming, we will expect to see more extreme weather conditions, which indeed is why many of the poorer parts of the world asked the scientific community to actually investigate what are the actual differences between impacts at 1.5 and 2 degrees. And, of course, 2 degrees was the previous threshold that we were all apparently aiming for, but as has come out from the report, it is very clear that there are a whole suite of impacts that are much worse at 2 degrees centigrade than 1.5, and that these impacts will primarily hit poorer and more climate-vulnerable communities around the world.

So it’s a very important report in terms of understanding the impacts of climate change and making clear that we must aim, really, for 1.5 rather than 2 degrees, though, as we’ll probably discuss later, I think even 2 degrees is looking very hopeful now.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your response to this landmark U.N. report that climate change is ultimately the responsibility of a few high emitters. Explain who they are.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, just to put some numbers on this, about half of global emissions arise from the activities of just about 10 percent of the world’s population, and about 70 percent of all global emissions of carbon dioxide come from about 20 percent of the world’s population. And very closely, the emissions relate to the wealth or the income of the citizens. So, a professor like myself will be a relatively high emitter. Typically professors live in large houses and have a relatively large car. They’ll travel quite often. Some of them I know would have second homes. Some of them use business flights. They’ll consume lots of goods. So it does correlate quite closely with income.

And so, my concern here is that when we try to address climate change and reduce our emissions by focusing on all seven-and-a-half billion people, I think it misunderstands where the actual responsibility for the emissions reside, and therefore, we’re not developing policies that need to be tailored to that particular 20 percent.

So, many people listening to your show now, in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, will be medium to low emitters. And to them, yes, it’s important they make some changes. But there will also be people listening who the show who are very high emitters. And it is those of us that really the policies needs to aim at, to drive the emissions out of our lifestyles. And we must make sure, in doing that, we don’t impoverish people who already are struggling with the current economic system.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the highest carbon emitters, Dr. Anderson?

KEVIN ANDERSON: The highest carbon emitters, well, they’re going to be the very wealthiest in this world. From a climate point of view, when you hear the Al Gores and the DiCaprios talking about climate change and you look at their carbon footprint, they’ll be many thousands of times more than an average African and many hundreds of times more, probably, even than many Americans. So, it is that sort of—you know, the very wealthy are the very high emitters.

But also I think a professor like myself, senior lecturers in universities, the people who are more what we like to see as senior—the language we use—senior in our organizations, whether that’s in companies or in the public or indeed the private sector, these people will be the high emitters. So, I mean, I won’t make any comment on journalists, but certainly some of the journalists I’m familiar with, they are also very high emitters. So, it is that upper echelons of society.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of countries?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Oh, in terms of countries, well, maybe the biggest emitter now is China, followed by the U.S. But in both of those countries, of course, there’s a big difference between the high emitters within that country and the low emitters within that country.
So, the two big emitting countries, though, are the U.S. and China, and then obviously shortly followed by the European Union.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what the U.S. is facing right now, this monster hurricane hitting the Panhandle? If you look at weather reports, and the networks are, you know, at a time like this—increasingly take up more and more news time are the weather reports, because whether we’re talking about wildfires in California or these monster storms in the Carolinas and now possibly hitting Florida and Alabama—Alabama, the whole state has been called a state of emergency—there is almost no mention by meteorologists—and I’m not talking even Fox, I’m talking MSNBC and CNN—of the connection between these increasingly violent storms and climate change. Is there one? And can you explain it?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, there certainly is a connection. What we have done by putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is we have made the atmosphere warmer. In other words, we’ve put a lot more energy into the atmosphere. That energy will play out in terms of a whole suite of different, more extreme weather conditions.

Now, whether this particular hurricane is caused by climate change is impossible to say, but what is often the case is that we are exacerbating or increasing the power in these hurricanes, in these extreme weather events. And this, what we call the fancy language of attribution, where we’re trying to say, “Is this event a climate change event?” we’re getting better with understanding that. And certainly there’s quite a lot of evidence now to suggest that some of the more recent severe weather conditions we’ve seen have been seriously exacerbated by the additional warming that we have put into the atmosphere from our burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide.

So, whilst I can’t comment on this particular hurricane and say, “This hurricane was caused by climate change,” the severity of this hurricane and the severity of some of the other events that we’ve seen in recent years certainly has been exacerbated by issues of climate change, by our burning of fossil fuels. And the meteorologists should be making that clear link when they’re discussing these issues during the weather forecast within the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about what’s needed, Professor Anderson. The report says there is no documented historic precedent for the scale of changes required. You have talked about a Marshall Plan. What do you mean, a new Marshall Plan?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, the Marshall Plan was the deliberate strategy after the Second World War to try and reconstruct Europe after it had been obviously very severely bombed and destroyed, both institutionally, but mostly physically, during the war. So I’m saying that that is probably the nearest metaphor, analogy we have to the scale of the challenge that we actually face to decarbonize, to shift away from a fossil fuel-based energy system to a zero-carbon energy system, and to do that within the wealthy parts of the world really within about two decades, and probably three or three-and-a-half decades for the slightly poorer parts of the world.

So, we’re not going to do that through small price mechanisms, through just tweaking the markets. It is going to require strategic intervention by governments to make the necessary rates of change. Now that sounds initially sort of very challenging, and certainly it will be. But I think there is also a—there is a positive narrative behind this, in that this transition, this transformation, to a zero-carbon energy system will come with lots of job opportunities, long-term, secure job opportunities, not just in building low-carbon power stations, but in the massive electrification program that will be necessary and in retrofitting—in other words, making our existing building infrastructure, which we will still be using for the next 20, 30, 40 years—to make that building infrastructure suitable for the 21st century, so you require much less energy to heat it or to cool it, and it is a much safer environment to be in as the climate continues to change, which it undoubtedly will. Even if we stopped emissions today, we will still see some ongoing climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: You have criticized the IPCC for constraining its policy advice to fit neatly within the current economic model. Can you explain? I mean, for some, to have a landmark report like this is simply critical, because we live in a country, in the United States, where the president proudly denies climate change, you know, calls it a Chinese hoax. And so, to have any kind of report like this—but you’re a critic of the report in some respects.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, certainly. Whilst I think it is a really good report in trying to understand the impacts between 1.5 and 2 degrees centigrade of warming, when it comes to what we have to do about it, I think, again, it runs scared of really being very honest. And given it is effectively a scientific report, I think our role as scientists and as academics is to tell it like it is, not to color it or sweeten the pill to make it more attractive.

So, my comments here are that—and it’s not just with this report. It’s repeatedly come out of the IPCC. So, whilst we’re quite direct and honest about the impact side, when it comes to what we have to do about this, we run scared. We don’t want to scare the politicians or the public. We don’t want to move away from the sort of the energy systems that we have today. So we always try to broadly sort of massage the status quo, so incremental changes, if you like.

And what I’m saying is that, actually, when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies. And again, you can turn around and say, “Well, that seems just far too removed from the current economic system we have.” But we have to remember it’s only been 10 years now since the banking crisis, and many parts of the world are still suffering the repercussions of that banking crisis. So the current economic framework has struggled within its own remit, if you like.

So I think this has been a real opportunity, which we are now losing, to reshape that economy towards an economy that’s suitable for society, not a society that’s suitable for the economy. And I think the policymakers—or, the academics have just run scared of this, of being honest about what our numbers tell us about the rates of change that we require and how we have to move the productive capacity of our society from building second homes for professors or private jets or private yachts or large four-wheel-drive cars—moving from that to building public transport, electrification, improved homes for everyone. So, it’s a shift of that productive capacity, the resources and the labor, from, if you like, the luxury for the 20 percent to the essential low-carbon infrastructure for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Anderson, the effect of Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement? We just had a segment on Brazil. The front-runner, Jair Bolsonaro, who our guest called an open fascist, an extremely far-right-wing candidate, has promised that he will pull out of the Paris Agreement, as well, and would abolish Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, which environmentalists fear would lead to deforestation of the Amazon. Your thoughts on both Bolsonaro and Trump?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, they are clearly, from a scientific perspective—and I would also argue, probably from a moral perspective—they are completely out of tune with what our analysis is saying. I also think we have to be very careful when we see these extreme figures—and both of these, I think, are certainly extreme figures—we have to remember that they are a little bit of noise on the system. The general trend line is more recognition that climate change is a serious issue. Even the poll data in the States shows this. I have not seen data from Brazil, so I’m not sure. So we are seeing climate change events, and people are thinking this is an important issue.

Because some of our perhaps not always the brightest people who are leading our countries can’t understand that or think that they have a political base they have to appeal to who does not want to hear that message, I think the rest of us should not run scared of them. We just have to redouble our efforts. And indeed, when President Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which, of course, he can’t do yet anyway but plans to, then the Chinese and the French stepped forward and said, “Well, we will try and make some extra effort to compensate.” And we also see in the U.S. many mayors saying actually climate change is still an important issue. So, the U.S. is not a dictatorship. Trump cannot dictate what the population of the U.S. is going to do. Of course, he is important, and he is influential, but so are the mayors.

So it is incumbent on the rest of us who are more informed by the science, and, I would argue, with a more reasoned, moral and progressive background to our analysis—it’s up to us to redouble our efforts and make sure that we move in the right direction and not to run scared of the Trumps of this world. There are plenty of them. They will come, and they will go. But the overall issue of climate change, the physics of climate change, is here to stay, regardless of the ephemeral whims of the occasional president.

AMY GOODMAN: And in this last minute, what does the future look like? How bad can things get, if we proceed on this course?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, the way things are going at the moment, I think it is quite reasonable to think we are heading to about 4 degrees centigrade of warming across this century. That would be utterly devastating. Just remember, the difference between now and an Ice Age is about 5 degrees, so we’re talking about changes that would normally occur over probably tens of thousands of years occurring over little more than a hundred years. And a hundred years, in some respects, sounds like a long time, but many of the people listening to this, their children will still be alive in a hundred years, and certainly their grandchildren will be. A hundred years is just tomorrow, really, in so many respects.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would the world look like?

KEVIN ANDERSON: And what we do today locks in the infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would the world look like?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, we will be seeing far more famine—far more famine, drought, floods, changes in food patterns. I think we’ll probably start to see lots more tensions within communities, and that means then a lot more tension between communities. So, we see even in—we look at Syria. Syria clearly wasn’t caused by climate change, but the 12 years of drought in that region was an exacerbating factor. And that’s with just one year of—1 degree of warming.

As we head towards 4 degrees centigrade of warming, we’re talking about breaking down many of the ecosystems of the world that pollinate our crops, that make our air clean for us. So, this is a different planet from the one in which we live. And the chaos that will ensue will be bad for our species, for humans, but also indeed, of course, for many other species around the planet. And that’s why we have to do everything we can to hold to ideally 2 degrees centigrade—well, to hold for 2 degrees centigrade, and ideally aim for 1.5. I think that’s looking very challenging. So, let’s do everything we can to keep the temperature as low as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Anderson, we want to thank you for joining us, the Zennström professor in climate change leadership—

KEVIN ANDERSON: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: —at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Uppsala University, also chair of energy and climate change at Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain, where he’s speaking to us now.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we will talk about nuclear weapons with the representative Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Stay with us.

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