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Scientist Peter Kalmus: The Hurricanes, Floods & Fires of 2023 Are Just the Beginning of Climate Emergency

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As Hurricane Idalia left a wake of destruction Wednesday, President Joe Biden said, “I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore.” Climate activist and scientist Peter Kalmus calls for Biden to declare a climate emergency in order to unleash the government’s ability to transition away from fossil fuels. “The public just doesn’t understand, in my opinion, what a deep emergency we are in,” says Kalmus. “This is the merest beginning of what we’re going to see in coming years.” Kalmus blasts the fossil fuel industry for manipulating politics through campaign contributions, and GOP presidential candidates for misleading the public about climate science. “As a parent, as a citizen and as a scientist, I find it appalling and disgusting,” declares Kalmus. “I can’t mince words anymore.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hurricane Idalia has left a trail of flooding and destruction from Florida to the Carolinas, inundating coastal towns and leaving over 300,000 customers across the region without power. Idalia made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane and was later downgraded to a tropical storm. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the Big Bend section of Florida in over 125 years. The storm produced record storm surge across much of the region. As Idalia continues northward, North Carolina residents are bracing themselves for heavy downpours and possible tornadoes. Officials warned residents dangerous storm surges are still possible. Two people died in Florida in car crashes linked to the storm.

On Wednesday, President Biden spoke at the White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore. Just look around. Historic floods — I mean historic floods — more intense droughts, extreme heat, significant wildfires have caused significant damage like we’ve never seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Peter Kalmus, climate activist, climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, joining us today speaking on his own behalf, not as a spokesperson for NASA. Last year, he was arrested for locking himself onto an entrance to the JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles.

And you can explain why, Peter Kalmus, you locked yourself to the JPMorgan Chase building, how that relates to your climate science work, and what the south and the east of the country is experiencing right now, even Raleigh getting the tail end as the storm moves north.

PETER KALMUS: Yeah. Thank you.

So, the public just doesn’t understand, in my opinion, what a deep emergency we are in. This is the merest beginning of what we’re going to see in coming years. And to me, it’s absolutely horrifying. I don’t think people really fully appreciate how irreversible these impacts are. We can’t just reverse this. It’s not like cleaning up trash in a park. How hot we allow this planet to get is how hot it will stay for a very long time. And I feel like climate scientists, including myself, have been being ignored for decades by world leaders. They just don’t seem to get this, either.

I’m glad to hear President Biden finally using his bully pulpit a little bit to try to wake people up that this is real, but he continues to expand fossil fuels at breakneck pace. He continues to permit more drilling on public lands at a pace even faster than Trump, to approve the Willow project in Alaska. He went out of his way to make sure that the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia, was approved. He could have stopped that, but, instead, he’s pushing to expand fossil fuels.

And that’s the cause of all of this damage that we’re seeing — the deadly fires in Greece, in Maui a few weeks ago, the flooding that we’ve seen in Vermont this year, in Pakistan last summer that basically inundated most of the country. The record heat that we’re seeing is going to get worse and worse. I feel like we are on the verge — these are very nonlinear changes. So, it feels like they’re increasing very quickly, because they interact with society in very complex ways. And we’re a lot more vulnerable than I think that most people think, or thought quite recently. And so, we could start seeing things like regional heat waves that end up killing a million people over the course of a few days in coming years. And it won’t stop there. That’s the thing. It just gets worse, the more fossil fuels we burn.

And so, yeah, the science, just doing the science, publishing the papers hasn’t seemed to got the message across either to the public or to world leaders. I’ve got two sons, and it breaks my heart to see the Biden administration continue to expand fossil fuels and take us deeper into this catastrophe, instead of trying to bring us back from this. He’s deeply on the wrong side of history.

Choosing JPMorgan Chase Bank in Los Angeles last year, that was a strategic choice, because a lot of these new fossil fuel projects — and just let me say again how insane it is that we’re still building new — we’re still allowing new fossil fuel projects to be built, because they have lifetimes of three to four decades. Anyway, the financing of those new projects is crucial. And no one, no institution on the planet does more damage to the Earth system, irreversible damage, by financing fossil fuel projects than JPMorgan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Peter Kalmus, could you talk about that? Elaborate on the role of the fossil fuel industry, not just in, of course, contributing over 80% — being responsible for over 80% of global heating, but what role, if any, it plays in the Biden administration’s — despite what he said, that there’s no question now of denying the impact of the climate crisis, he’s falling short. Even though he says — he said earlier this year that he’s “practically” declared a climate emergency, he has not done so. So, what would declaring a climate emergency enable? And what role is the fossil fuel industry playing, if any, in preventing him from doing so?

PETER KALMUS: Yeah, so a lot of questions there. Let me start out by saying that the public needs to know that the fossil fuel industry and its leaders, the fossil fuel executives, have — and their lobbyists, have been lying for decades, for about 50 years. This is very well documented. There’s a paper trail — people like science historians like Naomi Oreskes, Ben Franta, journalists like Amy Westervelt. There’s a very clear and sizable body of evidence that the fossil fuel industry, and through organizations like the American Petroleum Institute, have been literally lying to the public, trying to spread confusion about the science, countering climate scientists’ attempt to sound the alarm, kind of creating this sense of uncertainty through their lies, you know, spending billions of dollars on these misinformation campaigns, and then bribing politicians.

So, I think it was a year ago a story in The New York Times said that, you know, we all know that Joe Manchin gets a lot of money from the fossil fuel industry, but even Senator Chuck Schumer received almost $300,000 in one election cycle from the corporation that benefits from the Mountain Valley Pipeline, to ensure that the Mountain Valley Pipeline was built. So, the tendrils of the fossil fuel industry — and it’s surprising how cheap it is for them to buy off these politicians. It reminds me of the David Bowie song “The Man Who Sold the World.” I know that President Biden, when he was — during the primaries, a lot of the people in his campaign team had worked previously in the fossil fuel industry, so there’s a lot of connection there, as well. So I think that, you know, part of the problem is simply we have one of the most powerful industries on the planet, if not the most powerful industry, which has extremely deep pockets. They have profits of over, I think, a trillion dollars per year. And they can spend a tiny bit of that money to basically influence politicians. It’s essentially legalized bribery.

So, you know, I think there’s also — their disinformation campaign is a big part of why the public doesn’t understand how serious of an emergency we’re in right now. And that, in turn, kind of doesn’t push journalists to kind of connect these dots. So I see a lot of stories being reported, in The New York Times and elsewhere, about these individual climate catastrophes, but they miss very key points in the story, right? First of all, they often use the passive voice. They say, like, “The Earth is heating up.” No, it’s being heated up by the fossil fuel industry, by their dishonesty, by their legalized bribery. So they don’t make that connection.

They also don’t make the connection of where we’re going in the near future. Right? So, if they’re talking about a deadly heat wave that happens in 2023, they don’t say how much worse things are going to get by, say, 2028 or 2032. This is what really frightens me about climate change caused by global heating. It’s a trend. You might have some years that are slightly cooler than others due to natural variability, so it’s a little bit of a noisy trend, but it’s rising year on year. The physics is absolutely — you can’t negotiate with it. We understand the physics quite well. We don’t understand how it’s all going to play out with these complex human systems like the agriculture system, water systems, geopolitics. That’s a whole other question. But we know it’s going to get hotter and hotter, and that’s going to drive all of these types of catastrophes that we’re seeing to get more intense, more frequent.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kalmus, I wanted to go back to last week’s Republican presidential debate. Some are calling it a vice-presidential debate, those who are competing to be the vice-presidential running mate of President Trump. But Fox News played a question from Alexander Diaz, a student at Catholic University of America.

ALEXANDER DIAZ: Polls consistently show that young people’s number one issue is climate change. How will you, as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party, calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change?

MARTHA MacCALLUM: So, we want to start on this with a show of hands. Do you believe in human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: Look, we’re not schoolchildren. Let’s have the debate. I mean, I’m happy to take it to start, Alexander.

MARTHA MacCALLUM: OK. You know what?

BRET BAIER: So, do you want to raise your hand or not?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He and the other seven candidates refused to say climate change is caused by humans. Vivek Ramaswamy went on to call climate change a “hoax,” Peter Kalmus.

PETER KALMUS: It’s absolutely disgusting to me. I mean, he made a reference to schoolchildren. Schoolchildren understand this science much better than these adult men who are running for high office. And as a parent, as a citizen and as a scientist, I find it appalling and disgusting. I mean, I can’t mince words anymore. You know, I think too many scientists are holding back in how they talk about this. But the science is — there’s a mountain of evidence; the science could not be any more clear. There is no debate. It’s just ridiculous. And I don’t know what else to say. It’s like: How would I be able to argue with somebody who insisted that two plus two equals five?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Peter, before we end — we just have a minute — what alternatives to fossil fuel are being explored now?

PETER KALMUS: Well, so, let’s be really clear, right? So, as you said earlier, about roughly 80% of global heating is caused by burning fossil fuels. Most of the rest of it is caused by industrial animal agriculture. So, but we know nothing we do will stop this, besides — if solution packages don’t include ramping down fossil fuels very quickly, they’re complete, basically, garbage. Right? So, look at the COP28 process, too — I want to make this point — which COP28 has — the last few COPs, the fossil fuel industry has sent the largest group of delegates to. This is the United Nations global negotiations on —

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty seconds.

PETER KALMUS: Yeah, and now it’s being led by the UAE national fossil fuel executives. So, the fox is controlling the henhouse. We have to ramp down fossil fuels. There’s no other choice. And renewable energies are already cheaper. So it’s just this money in politics which is blocking everything, and the ignorance of some of these politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kalmus, climate activist, climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, not speaking on behalf of NASA but speaking on his own behalf, and, some might say, on behalf of the planet.

Coming up, we’ll look at another crisis: the rapidly shrinking supply of groundwater in the nation’s aquifers. Back in 20 seconds.

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