Climate Change

Union of Concerned Scientists' Knobloch talks about the state of climate research

Many scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions from man-made sources are at least partially responsible for global climate change. But is the science really in about the best methods to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions? Could the climate be near a tipping point, where a slight temperature increase causes drastic changes? And can new climate research ever trump the politics that govern the global warming debate? During today's OnPoint, Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, answers these questions and more.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios is Kevin Knobloch, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kevin thanks for coming on the show.

Kevin Knobloch: Thank you Darren for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: Last week we had a couple of EPA administrators here in Washington talking about all sorts of issues related to EPA. It's the 35th anniversary. We had six of them actually say that they thought the Bush administration wasn't doing enough on global warming. What do six former EPA administrators, five of them Republican, when they say something like that, does not have any kind of effect on the Bush administration's policies?

Kevin Knobloch: Well it's a huge piece of evidence that the Bush White House is increasingly isolated on the issue of global warming. Literally the Bush White House and Exxon Mobil are the few left, few skeptics left. There's a prairie fire of leadership across this country, governors, mayors, corporate leaders, like General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt, Bill Ford from Ford Motor Company, who are saying it is time for action on global warming. And as you said, of the six former EPA administrators, five of them were Republicans. This is not a partisan issue and we're seeing that in the Congress. The leadership in the Congress is heavily Republican.

Darren Samuelsohn: A couple of them were Christie Todd Whitman, former Bush administration EPA official, and also Lee Thomas from the Reagan administration. Hearing from those two specifically kind of jumped out at me. Do you think that they actually have an ear in the White House? Do you think President Bush will listen to what these former EPA administrators have to say?

Kevin Knobloch: I'm not optimistic that he will, but I think as the president enters well into his second term and starts to think about his legacy, I think, I hope, that someone in the White House is looking at what the most important issues are and global warming is certainly high on the list.

Darren Samuelsohn: Stephen Johnson put out sort of what the Bush administration line is on global warming at this event. We're talking about $5 billion in spending on research and technology, talking about their climate leader's voluntary program. Do you think that they're going to offer anything more in the next three years or is this pretty much it?

Kevin Knobloch: I think if you look at what's happening in the Congress there's some hope that this administration will feel compelled to really lead on global warming. As presidential contenders, like Chuck Hagel of Nebraska or John McCain of Arizona are staking out leadership roles on climate change and proposing strong legislative approaches, I think the White House political team should be paying attention.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think in the midterm elections, in 2006, we're going to hear the words global warming uttered at all?

Kevin Knobloch: I do. I really do. I think Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio is in one of the most highly contested races. On the vote, this past year, on the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, Senator DeWine did not come to vote for it, but his floor speech was terrific in acknowledging that global warming is real and we need national action.

Darren Samuelsohn: So you think that that might help him as he's going forward in his campaign?

Kevin Knobloch: I think it's an interesting question about why you have these congressional leaders, in difficult challenging races, talking about climate change. And at the same time they have lots else to talk about.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you anticipate another vote on a climate change bill in the Senate this year in 2006?

Kevin Knobloch: I do. I do. I think last year was a watershed year. There were three or four major votes in the U.S. Senate on various global warming proposals, including a majority, 55 senators, voting for a sense of the Senate resolution calling for mandatory regulation of global warming gases, emissions. It has to shake out some more, but there's a lot of members who are jockeying to put their policy ideas forward.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let me make sure I understand something straight about the Union of Concerned Scientists. Are you out there lobbying on Capitol Hill when a vote like this comes up? Are your members, scientists, out there lobbying members on Capitol Hill?

Kevin Knobloch: Yes. We're a nonprofit, nonpartisan national organization, but yes we bring strong science, rigorous science, to the public policy debate. So our scientists, our engineers, medical professionals, we do weigh in with their elected officials, those individuals, with their elected officials, encouraging them to show leadership on these big stubborn problems.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let me turn to the science for a minute and ask you a couple of questions. A couple of studies have caught my eye in recent months that have been reported. One of them talks about aerosols and that they're actually, as we reduce aerosols we could be increasing the risk of global warming. That was one study that was published recently. There was another study that said the overlooked sources of methane emissions, those also could have an effect on global warming. What are your thoughts when you start to see studies come out that maybe go against the conventional knowledge? How could those affect policy?

Kevin Knobloch: Well what you're offering are examples of how science works. Science is - I think E.O. Wilson studies ants and in turn, societies. He said that science is the best system that we've come up with to discover the truth, sort of playing on Churchill's notion about democracy. The nature of climate science is complex. The nature of the Earth's ecosystems is complex. What we know is that there is an overwhelming consensus among the world's scientists, who work on and study climate change, that global warming is already under way, that the burning of fossil fuels by humans is a primary driver of that change. And there's a great urgency for us to start to reduce those emissions to ward off the most dangerous results. Now beyond that consensus there's a lot we don't know and that all kinds of studies are looking at. And we are discovering, as those two examples that you cited show, that we don't fully understand how the systems interlock. That means we have to keep looking at it.

Darren Samuelsohn: Policies are in place though in the Kyoto Protocol and in the nations that are trying to reduce their emissions. What happens if we learn something though, after all of these policies are in place, and maybe some of the things that are happening could be going as a detriment to the environment? I'll bring up another example. We were talking about carbon sequestration and reforestation and the ecological affects that that could have on water systems. That was another study that recently was published. The effects of mitigating carbon dioxide could have negative environmental effects. What happens going forward if we learn more about that?

Kevin Knobloch: Well then we need to adjust the policies. I think the vast number of scientists who are looking at this issue believe that an overall approach to start to dramatically reduce global warming pollutants, like carbon, is important to get under way today. It's going to take us a while to overhaul our economy and get this job done. Certainly we need to aggressively study every angle of the issue and as studies come out that argue that we ought to make adjustments, we should make adjustments. But I don't think the science community, in any way, believes that these individual studies are pointing us toward a dramatic U-turn.

Darren Samuelsohn: The former EPA administrators, last week, were talking about this and they were saying, Lee Thomas brought up the stratospheric ozone layer and he said we didn't understand completely the science during the Reagan administration, but we felt the need, compelling need to act. And they were right obviously. The ozone layer turned out to be a problem, something to consider. So going forward, I mean what happens though I'm kind of wondering if it was the inverse and we found out that we did too much to stop carbon dioxide emissions and maybe we need them in the atmosphere?

Kevin Knobloch: Well in that case I don't think we'll have too much trouble putting them back into the atmosphere. But we do know that 2005 tied 1998 as the warmest year since records have been kept, 1886 I believe. And that five of the warmest years have been over the last six. We also know that greenhouse gas emissions stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more. This is not an easy barge to turn around and we have a lot to do to do that. And it's also a no apologies approach in that the kind of things you do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will reduce respiratory disease, decrease our dependence on imported oil and our national security as a result. It will create jobs. So all of these things will have multiple advantages.

Darren Samuelsohn: We have a couple of EIA, Energy Information Administration, statistics that came out right at the end of 2005. One of them said that U.S. emissions increased by 2 percent in 2004. So they were looking at the year before. Then they did their long-term projections and they said that emissions were going to actually increase by 2030 by 37 percent, so over the next 25 years. Is there a tipping point when there's too much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and it's irreversible and there's nothing that can be done?

Kevin Knobloch: There's a lot of worry in the science community about that tipping point and about how little we understand about the way our ecosystems are interconnected and work. And that's a big push as to why climate scientists are near panicky in sending the alarm and calling for urgent action. It's going to take us a while to get these changes in place, but we know we have the technology to double the fuel economy of the cars and trucks we sell in this country. We know we have the technology to dramatically increase renewable energy. Rewire the electricity grid, the last century's patchwork of technology that's extremely vulnerable to sabotage and blackout. Rewiring that, the grid, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it's so inefficient. So we know we have the first steps right in front of us. You know we take out insurance in our lives for incidents of far less probability. When we take out fire insurance on our home we don't expect our home to burn down, but we know that if it happens it will be catastrophic and that's what we're facing with climate change.

Darren Samuelsohn: My last question I'd like to ask you is, during the 2004 presidential campaign UCS, right before I guess the presidential election, UCS came out with several scientists, like a thousand scientists maybe, that were criticizing the Bush administration for blocking science going forward. Going forward actually my question to you is, have we seen, since President Bush was re-elected, the same sort of level of scientific censorship, as you guys called it, in this second term?

Kevin Knobloch: We have seen some backing off of what we call the abuse of science by the Bush administration in a number of key agencies, but not entirely. You're talking about in February of 2004, 64 of the country's leading scientists came out and charged that the Bush administration was systematically abusing science to the detriment of public welfare, health and the economy. And since then more than 8,000 scientists, medical professionals and engineers have signed that statement. We've done a series of investigative reports detailing those cases of abuse. In some instances it has gotten better. In other cases this administration has shown that they're incorrigible. But there's no question that it is extremely harmful when science is not allowed to see the light of day.

Darren Samuelsohn: Kevin, we're going to have to leave it at that. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Kevin Knobloch: Thank you Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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