Climate change: “It looks bleak now, but we have many possibilities."
29.03.13 - Raymond Bradley is a distinguished climatologist who has travelled the globe to study climate and climate change for over four decades. We met with him to discuss politics, climate, and the game-changing role of mobile phones.
Raymond Bradley has seen his share of political intimidation. Several years after he co-authored a scientific study corroborating the hypothesis that global warming was caused by human carbon dioxide emissions, he was shoved into the limelight by politicians attempting to intimidate him and tarnish his reputation. Thankfully, he escaped unscathed and without losing his resolve to pursue his research into the causes of past and present climate fluctuations. On Tuesday, March 26, Bradley was invited to speak at EPFL by the Landolt&Cie Chair - Innovations for a Sustainable Future. We met him for an interview.
Several years ago, you were quite prominently confronted with high-profile climate change deniers. How do you deal with climate change skeptics today?
I used to engage with them a lot, but I've given up because it’s a waste of time. There are a small percentage of people who will never be convinced, because they are philosophically unwilling to look at the same facts and see the same thing. Now I spend my time convincing the reasonable people in the middle who are concerned. I'm not going to waste my time with people who think they know better than I do. In the US, surveys have been done about people's understanding of climate change. They divided the population into Democrats, Republicans and members of the Tea Party. The Tea Party responders said they already had enough information to form their opinion. If you asked them whether they would like to know more, they said that they had all the information they needed...
What is the main message that you would like to transmit to those that are willing to listen?
I gave my talk the title “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” a phrase coined by Martin Luther King, about the urgent need for civil rights in the 1960s. I believe that in terms of the environmental problems that the world faces, we are under similar pressure and we need to act now. We cannot wait. But the real problems are not scientific or technological - they are political. We are confronted with environmental issues, the way in which the growth of the human population and consumption have impacted various aspects of the earth, ranging from the atmosphere to the realm of snow and ice, all the way to the acidity of the oceans. We have a good understanding of these issues, and we have a number of technological and scientific solutions. But we don't have any people with leadership. Or if they have leadership, they are stymied in the position that they are in.
You'd like to see the US take a leadership role in tackling climate change?
It has to. First of all, the US is responsible for much of the atmospheric pollution on a global scale, and we have much of the technology that can help resolve the problem. A lot of countries look to the US to lead. Many people say that Barak Obama is the leader of the free world, whatever that means. So he needs to be the leader of the environmental movement too.
Your presentation is a call for immediate action. How long before we cross a threshold where change becomes irreversible?
Oh, I think we have already crossed a threshold to some extent. The warming that we have built into the system is already going to happen. The EU target of two to three degrees Celsius is happening - it can't be fixed. That means sea levels are going to rise, in a sort of relentless change. We’ve already made these commitments, so now we have to anticipate the changes and adapt. At the same time, we have to do our best to limit further damage.
On a political level, should we expect change to come from the government?
In the US, it is very much a bottom up movement. Individuals, small towns, and larger communities all have their climate action plans that focus on recycling, saving energy, and so on. Certain states such as Massachusetts and California are leaders in green energy strategies. Others have become leaders in wind energy. Ironically Texas is one of them, because in rural communities farmers can put up windmills and still farm, making money both ways. That bottom up movement will have an impact, because one thing industry hates is a patchwork of regulations. They don't want different states to have different standards. So at some point, the industry will put pressure on the political system requesting a national standard.
Is that enough to rein in CO2 emissions?
I'm a technological optimist. Just look at what is happening at EPFL, at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere. People are working on all sorts of amazing ideas to create cars with a better gas mileage and new ways of generating solar power. I built a house five years ago and put six solar panels on my roof. Each one could generate 180 watts. If I did that today, each panel would generate around 320 watts. That's just in five years. Who knows what will happen in ten years - maybe it will be a kilowatt. The pace of technological change is amazing. In that sense, it is almost unimaginable what our energy picture will look like twenty years from now. It looks bleak now, but we have a lot of possibilities.
So you don’t think that it will take a change in consumption behavior?
No, I do think that consumption behavior is changing. For example, when you encourage people to have solar panels on their house, you empower them to think about energy use, whereas before, they just flicked a switch. And when people suddenly start making their own electricity, it encourages them to become more conscious about how they use it.
What will it take to persuade people that the climate is changing?
I think people are beginning to see that the climate is changing. There are consequences that are already pretty devastating. If you look at the Munich RE or Swiss RE reports, they see it in their bottom line - and they are not wild-eyed environmentalists, they’re businessmen. They can see that they have problem that is costing them money, and individuals can see that too. There have been a number of pretty disastrous weather events that I would not ascribe into global warming, but when these things happen frequently in places that haven’t experienced them, the general public is ahead of the scientific community. They’ve already connected the dots. They know, this isn’t right, something is happening. I think that that is how people are persuaded.
What other tools are there to increase public awareness?
On an international level, I would say that the availability of mobile phones is a huge opportunity. Here's my thinking. For a long time, people in many countries had no voice. They were choking on pollution, but they had no way of developing a movement. We saw it with the Arab Spring. Suddenly they were able to connect with Facebook and Twitter and other mobile applications. So with six billion cell phones on the planet, people have a voice that they didn't have ten years ago, and that means that they can see not only what is happening in their own communities, but they can connect with other people. That changes everything. I think it’s a revolution.
So you are quite optimistic.
You've got to be optimistic. We have a lot of problems, but I think there is room for hope. We can't give up, and we have to keep up the pressure. We can't be the generation that screws it all up.