Climate Change

NRDC's David Hawkins looks at the state of global warming science

Opinion polls show that the American public is increasingly concerned about climate change. But will the issue resonate with voters during the mid-term elections this fall? And are environmental groups oversimplifying the science behind global warming as they take their message to the masses? During today's OnPoint, David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses growing awareness of the issue and the challenges facing policymakers. He also talks about NRDC's position on coal gasification, and the potential for new technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in Washington is David Hawkins, the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. David thanks for coming on the show.

David Hawkins: Sure, Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's start right off with the state of the science on climate change. What's your take on where we are today?

David Hawkins: I think that the scientists know that humans are warming the planet because of burning fossil fuels. And the longer we go on, the warmer it will get and the more disrupted the climate will get.

Darren Samuelsohn: And are there uncertainties still to go?

David Hawkins: Sure there are, just like there are uncertainties if you're a heavy chain smoker. The doctor can't tell you what day you're going to die or precisely what disease is going to kill you. But they can tell you it's bad for you.

Darren Samuelsohn: And the science that we're hearing today, do you feel like there's things that come out that make us decide that maybe the policies should change based on what we're hearing?

David Hawkins: Well I think people are realizing that the longer we wait to get started cutting global warming emissions the more difficult the job will be and the more damage that will be caused to our kids and especially to the poor and the helpless of the world.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk about the state of the policy today. Where do you see Congress going?

David Hawkins: I see Congress going inevitably to the adoption of a law to cut global warming pollution. Whether it happens in this Congress or the next Congress or the Congress after that, it's going to happen.

Darren Samuelsohn: And this president?

David Hawkins: Quite possibly this president could sign a meaningful piece of global warming legislation. I think if he listens to the sensible people in the business community, as well as the scientists, he will do so.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that he has changed his position at all over the course of his now five and a half years in office?

David Hawkins: If he's changed his position he's doing a darn good job of hiding it.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think that there have been even subtle movements in any direction?

David Hawkins: I think there have been no signals from the White House to do anything other than what they decided to do in a snap decision in the first 90 days in office, which was to basically say voluntary only. Throw some research money at it that is paid for by the taxpayers and wait until after he's left office.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do think that this is going to play into the 2006, 2008 elections? Let's start just with 2006. Climate change.

David Hawkins: Well, if the people that are elected to office are actually representing the interests of U.S. residents and citizens it should become an issue. I think it might well become an issue because of the incredible overlap between oil dependence and global warming. Oil dependence we know is going to be an issue and people are going to need to talk about what steps we take to reduce oil dependence. Do we take steps that reduce oil dependence but make global warming worse? Or do we take steps that both reduce oil dependence and protect the planet from global warming?

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you hear Congress candidates talking about this right now?

David Hawkins: Well, I haven't done an exhaustive survey of who's talking about it right now. You know NRDC doesn't get involved in electoral politics so we don't really keep a scrapbook on it.

Darren Samuelsohn: What happens in 2008 if Senator John McCain becomes the Republican presidential nominee for environmental groups? Do they have a quandary here? Would they support him based on his positions on global warming?

David Hawkins: Well again, most environmental groups can't support a candidate one way or the other because of our tax status. Individuals that care deeply about global warming certainly are going to be attracted by John McCain because of his strong stance on it. I wouldn't be surprised if both candidates for president take a position that we need to act to adopt mandatory limits on global warming pollution.

Darren Samuelsohn: There were groups that did play an active role in the 2004 campaign, speaking out probably more than they ever did before. So there could be some decisions here that have to be made.

David Hawkins: Yes, but the groups that did so are groups that have a tax status that allow them to participate in electoral politics.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think if McCain -- and if he is the Republican nominee and whoever the Democratic nominee, are both talking about global warming does it take it off the table if they both agree that mandatory caps need to be in place?

David Hawkins: Well I don't think it takes off the table in terms of a policy matter in the election because not just the president is going to be running for office, but there are going to be 400 and some members of the House of Representatives and 33 members of the Senate that are running. And they should be asked questions about their position on global warming as well since Congress will have to enact the law even if the president proposes that.

Darren Samuelsohn: Looking at some of the policy scenarios here. One of the things that was said a couple of weeks ago, when Senator Domenici held the climate conference all day in the Senate, was that he found it maybe might be difficult to pull any sort of a lever, to have any sort of the fact on the eventual implications of global warming, given China, given India, given a whole range of scenarios. Does he have a point there in his concern?

David Hawkins: He has a point that we need to engage all the major countries of the world. But those major countries essentially consist of the European Union and five other big countries, the U.S. and China being the biggest of the five others. So we don't have to get the entire world, 190 countries, to agree. But the point about engaging China is how to do it. And the answer that we give, and we think most serious diplomats would give, is the way you engage China is by exercising leadership, setting an example. That's what we need to do. We need to set an example. That we take this issue very seriously. That we are prepared to implement programs that will actually cut our total emissions, show how it's done and China will learn from that and be guided by it, just as it has with conventional pollution problems. We cut tailpipe pollution starting in the 1970s. China is now doing the same thing. We took lead out of gasoline. China is taking lead out of gasoline. We put SO2 scrubbers on coal-fired power plants. China is now putting SO2 scrubbers on coal-fired power plants. So we have a recipe that works.

Darren Samuelsohn: As a fast developing nation, and potentially one that's going to be much larger economically than the United States going forward, do you think that China will ever agree to cap their emissions? And the same thing for India.

David Hawkins: I think China and India will agree to adopt policies that will cap and reduce their emissions eventually, whether it's expressed explicitly as a cap or by some other mechanism remains to be seen. But the test of success here is do we turn emissions down.

Darren Samuelsohn: What outlet would China and India use? Would it be the United Nations framework?

David Hawkins: Who knows? It might be multilateral arrangements. It might be technology sharing agreements. What is important is that we get started. And to get started the U.S. has to show real leadership.

Darren Samuelsohn: Give me your take on President Bush's policies in terms of this Asia-Pacific partnership. Any China and India are involved in that. Does he get credit, President Bush, for including those two countries at least in a technology sharing agreement?

David Hawkins: I think that program is all hat and no cow. It doesn't have anything behind it. That's the problem. It has the right people at the table, but they don't have anything to talk about at the table. They're not talking about objectives to get a certain amount of clean technology deployed. They aren't talking about objectives to get a certain amount of emission reductions accomplished. They aren't talking about timetables and they aren't talking about significant amounts of money by either the government or the private sector to mobilize, to make this happen.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's turn to the major media campaign that's going on right now on climate change. From the HBO documentary that just came out to this new Al Gore movie that will be out in the month of May. Climate change has certainly met, I guess, Hollywood. And you're seeing a lot more talk about this and you're seeing American public opinion polls saying things as well in terms of Americans agreeing that climate change is happening. Is there a threat, I guess, to oversimplifying this issue though for Americans as you see these major media campaigns going on?

David Hawkins: No, I don't think there's any greater threat on simplification than there is in any other topic that the popular media discusses. To argue that the popular media perhaps shouldn't be discussing this because it means that there's a potential for oversimplification, you can say that about every single issue the popular media discusses. The challenge of responsible journalists is to explain the essentials in a way that's clear and not misleading.

Darren Samuelsohn: Can you get the public too worked up by showing them pictures of polar bears, you know, drowning on glaciers?

David Hawkins: Well, too worked up, if the public decides that they really do care about the legacy we're leaving our children than they understand that government policies to limit pollution are going to be needed in order to not leave our children with a totally disrupted climate. That's great. That's not getting too worked up. That's being a responsible citizen.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk a little bit back on the technology issue. NRDC is behind gasification technologies. What are some of the hurdles to getting that technology out and deployed on power plants around the country?

David Hawkins: Well we do believe that because coal is used a lot to generate electricity in the U.S. and globally today, and it's going to continue for some time, that we need to find a way to convert coal into electricity and not pollute the planet with CO2 emissions. And we think gasification with CO2 capture and storage is a technique that is capable of doing that. There are hurdles, but the hurdles are primarily policy hurdles. We need a policy requirement that induces people to actually make those kinds of investments, rather than investments in conventional coal combustion plants.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right now there's only two in operation today. And I think there's four or five more that could be built over the next decade or two. Is that enough? You're saying that we need widespread deployment of this probably in terms of the next generation of coal power plants, right?

David Hawkins: In our view every single new coal plant that gets built, whether in the U.S., China or anywhere else, should be built, designed so that it captures its CO2. Every single one.

Darren Samuelsohn: Traditional coal-fired power plants today, we don't have a technology yet to capture the CO2 from them. But you are seeing, from the Electric Power Research Institute research that they say that they're trying to develop that maybe can do this right now. Their major hurdle being they don't want to take too much of the energy from the power plant just for capturing this - from capturing the CO2. If you can get this technology on traditional coal-fired power plants, is that something again where NRDC might be able to get behind?

David Hawkins: Our goal is to reduce the CO2 emission rate from these power plants. We don't care how you reduce the CO2 emission rate from these power plants. It's perfectly fine to leave the door open to emerging technologies. But while those technologies are in the lab we need to decide how we're going to design the power plants being built today. And our view is you need to design those power plants that are being built today so that they actually can and do capture their CO2. And not wait for 10 or 20 or 30 years for something new to emerge.

Darren Samuelsohn: After the capturing, then we're talking about sequestering carbon dioxide.

David Hawkins: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Give me NRDC's perspective on sequestering carbon dioxide today.

David Hawkins: Well I participated in the IPCC special report on carbon capture and storage. And I came away from that two year experience convinced that we do have the know-how to capture and store geologically large amounts of CO2. And do it safely and do it so that the CO2 remains in these deep geologic formations, essentially, forever.

Darren Samuelsohn: How far away are we from getting this technology working and part of the U.S. infrastructure, I guess, for energy?

David Hawkins: Oh, the technology is working today. It's in commercial application in separate components. It's not in commercial application all in one system where you take coal, gasify it, make electricity and inject the CO2 into a geologic formation. But there're two projects, both involving British Petroleum, BP, that are underway that have timelines where the plants are going to start operation before the end of this decade, that will do all three of those things.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK David, well we're going to have to cut it off there. Thank you so much and I hope to have you on again on this show another time.

David Hawkins: Thanks.

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

[End of Audio]



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