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World leaders are meeting today in New York for a U.N. climate summit. The U.N. secretary-general convened the summit hoping to build momentum for a global agreement on climate action next year. President Barack Obama is scheduled to address the gathering this afternoon. Notably absent from the summit are the heads of state of China and India. In addition to the U.S., those nations are two of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases. And they’re rapidly building new coal-burning power plants — the largest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions around the world. Join Diane and her guests as they discuss the political and economic challenges of combating climate change.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A new report shows that global emissions of greenhouse gases spiked to record levels in 2013. Three countries accounted for more than 90 percent of that rise, the U.S., China and India. Today, world leaders are gathered in New York for a UN sponsored climate summit. President Obama is speaking to the group later this afternoon. China's president and India's prime minister are absent.
MS. DIANE REHMWe talk about the political and economic challenges of taking action on climate change. Joining me here in the studio, Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners, Ben Geman of National Journal and Bob Deans of The Natural Resources Defense Council. But first, joining us from New York City, Jennifer Morgan. She's director of the climate and energy program at The World Resources Institute. Welcome, Jennifer. Thanks for joining us.
MS. JENNIFER MORGANGreat to be with you. Thank you.
REHMJennifer, I know you've been involved in climate summits for decades. Tell us what's different now.
MORGANI think the main difference now is that, first of all, countries are experiencing the impacts much more directly and understanding the economic costs of those impacts on crops, on households and so the urgency is higher. You're hearing that from the speeches today. I think the second difference is that the economic benefits of action are actually being experienced.
MORGANAir pollution reductions that come with action, reduction of oil imports and so you don't hear this either/or, environment or economy. The president of Brazil just clearly said these things work together. So it's a much more integrated summit, I think, about economic prosperity and growth and climate change. And the other thing that's new, I just think is certainly the backdrop.
MORGANYou have here in New York, you know, on Sunday, we had the largest march in history on climate change, 400,000 people in the streets of New York, almost 700,000 around the world. And yesterday, major announcements by business that they're engaging. They want phase out of greenhouse gas emissions. So the backdrop, I think, is quite different. And it's early.
MORGANWe're 15 months out of the summit so leaders are engaging early on.
REHMI know you're meeting with a number of different participants from around the world. Give a sense of the mood. Is it a sense of optimism or anxiety?
MORGANYou know, it's a mix, I would say. But I think mostly it is optimism. There are a lot of participants in the March on Sunday that are also business people, political leaders. I think the feeling of support, publically, for action is something that, you know, individuals in this process haven't necessarily felt directly. I think the, you know, the falling price of renewables is -- and price parity with coal and fossil fuel is providing a lot of optimism and just the broad base of it.
MORGANBut at the same time, of course, you know, if you listen to particularly small island nations, Africans, or even the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York, you know, the scale and the pace of change that's needed, I think that's daunting for people.
REHMWhat about the absence of China and India? Are people talking about that?
MORGANYou know, they were last week. I think, this week, what's notable is the level of engagement. Although it's not President Xi himself from China, it's one of the very high level Chinese representatives. And I think the commitment of China to renewables and capping coal emissions and the fact that it's, you know, President Obama and President Xi talk about climate regularly, I think, is not providing anxiety.
MORGANI think people feel that they are on track. And I think people will be listening to what Prime Minister Modi says when he's in the U.S. coming up this next week to see where he is. But I don't think it's seen as a step back. Of course, people would wish they were here, but there's lots of other new voices that are speaking for the first time on a heads of state level on climate change here.
REHMAnd what do you see as the goals of this summit?
MORGANI think the goals are, number one, putting this issue back at the top table of leaders, from now, into Paris and beyond. It's very important that they engage. This is an issue that cuts across economies, both on the impacts of climate and on the solutions. Number two, that you have very clear commitment at the Paris meeting at the end of next year is going to be the moment for a new global agreement, which I think we have an opportunity of building something new.
MORGANAnd number three, this kind of additional actions from business, from cities, from citizens, from governments, that, you know, builds that it's possible and builds the political momentum moving forward.
REHMAnd but realistically, what do you see coming out of this summit?
MORGANWell, realistically what I see is kind of a, I think, a bit of a turning point, is what I'm hearing when I'm listening, this morning, to the speeches. A turning point of people not seeing this as a choice, as I was saying, between environment and the economy. I think there will be a lot of work to be done to have leaders stay engaged moving forward. And there are, you know, tough political choices that need to be made.
MORGANEvery country has to put forward their offer, what they're going to do by the beginning of next year for this treaty and so there's lots of work to be done in between now and then.
REHMJennifer Morgan, she's director of the climate and energy program at The World Resources Institute. Thanks for joining us, Jennifer.
MORGANThank you. Have a great day.
REHMAll right. And to you, Ben Geman, scientists just released new data about what's happening with greenhouse gases around the world. Give us a picture of this around the world.
MR. BEN GEMANAbsolutely. Well, Diane, I think what we saw on Sunday was a fairly stark reminder. A new research report came out that provided a very stark reminder for, and reason for, I think, why you had hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of New York City and why UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wanted to put together this summit to really try and get on track what have been very fractious and, at times, on the brink of failure, negotiations.
MR. BEN GEMANAnd what that report from an organization called The Global Carbon Project showed was that greenhouse gas emissions went up last year world wide by 2.3 percent to reach a new record level and they're gonna keep climbing this year. Their projection is that greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 -- excuse me, carbon dioxide emissions in 2014 worldwide will rise another 2.5 percent.
MR. BEN GEMANAnd what this report also showed is that amid all of these scientific warnings that we only have a few years left to really get the world on track for some extremely steep greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century if there is to be at least some type of fighting chance. It looks like it's probably slipping away, but some type of fighting chance to meet this target of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
MR. BEN GEMANThis report said, basically, the amount of carbon we can burn is gonna put -- basically we need to -- we're gonna exhaust that amount of carbon in about three decades. And that's really not that long a time.
REHMI thought it was interesting that the U.S. carbon emission went up and China's went down slightly.
GEMANWell, what's been happening in the U.S. over the last decade approximately is that you've had a few reasons why, generally speaking, carbon emissions have gotten lower. Some of it was the lousy economy, of course, but one of the big reasons is that with all of this natural gas drilling enabled by fracking, we've had a big boom in natural gas production.
GEMANAnd increasingly, natural gas has shoved aside what has long been the dominant power source in the U.S., which is coal. And when you burn natural gas, you get about 50 percent less carbon dioxide emission than when you burn coal. However, coal has made a little bit of a comeback in the last couple years and it's still a substantially larger source of U.S. power than natural gas.
GEMANOne interesting thing I would mention that I think we're gonna hear some about at this summit and that is one of the biggest climate change battles going on in the United States right now is a real question and, frankly, a divide among advocates about whether this natural gas boom has the ability to be a friend in the battle against climate change or is it an enemy of confronting climate change. And that, almost entirely hinges or largely hinges upon this question of can leaks of a very potent greenhouse gas, methane from the oil and gas development process and different points along the kind of development chain, from the compressors and the pipelines and elsewhere, can the U.S. and other countries get a handle on those methane emissions.
GEMANBecause if that's not possible, this is a matter of some dispute, but some researchers believe that almost entirely negates the advantage that gas has over coal when you burn them to create power.
REHMAnd what about China? Why did their greenhouse emissions fall slightly?
GEMANWell, China has been -- what China has been doing is a very aggressive program to develop renewable energy and you're also seeing -- of course, while you're seeing a lot of new coal plants develop, I believe they are also taking some of their older and dirtier coal plants offline. So those are some of the reasons. But the general trend in China has been up and up and up and that is why I think people were very disappointed that the Chinese president will not be at this summit.
REHMSo how important to you consider this summit to be, considering the fact that neither China nor India's leaders will be there?
GEMANWell, I think what this summit has the ability to do -- well, I suppose the measure of success of this summit will -- while there will certainly be some immediate, I suppose, deliverables announced -- you've seen a new announcement on voluntary initiative among oil companies and some governments to clamp down on some of these methane leaks. for instance, we're gonna see some announcements from -- other announcements from the White House and many other parties.
GEMANAll that said, the biggest goal of the summit is to sort of try and create a launch pad, if you will, for what have been these very fractious, rocky UN talks on reaching some type of new pact late next year.
REHMBen Geman of the National Journal. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the climate summit beginning at the United Nations today. President Obama is scheduled to speak this afternoon. Here in the studio to look at that summit, what its goals are, what its challenges are, Kevin Book. He's managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners. Ben Geman, energy and environment correspondent for National Journal and Bob Deans. He's with the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of the forthcoming book, "The World We Create: A Message of Hope for a Planet in Peril."
REHMKevin Book, the world leaders attending this climate summit in New York, talk about some of the big challenges they face.
MR. KEVIN BOOKDiane, it's not really just China and India, although those are the headliners given the rapid growth of greenhouse gas emission who didn't send their top heads of state, but also Germany, also Russia, also Canada, also Australia. And one of the challenges is the realpolitik of climate in a world of recovery economically. For Germany, one of their challenges for example is that they're retiring their nuclear power fleet, an enormous part of their industrial economy's base load power source. And in the hopes of increasing the renewable share, they're ramping them up significantly. But they need something else.
MR. KEVIN BOOKAnd what are they burning? Well, they're burning U.S. coal among other things. And the reason they're doing it among other reasons is that it's cheap. In Australia you saw a popular movement to rescind the carbon price that had been put in place and why? Well, what's a big part of Australia's economy? It's a hydro carbon producer. It's an industrial producer state with an incredible leverage to hydro carbon energy.
MR. KEVIN BOOKSo as we talk about these goals, we're doing them at a time when the world economy remains still on somewhat shaky footing. And it's not just the developing nations but also the industrialized ones.
REHMSo this email we've just received saying, "My brother is working on a project in Louisiana selling coal we cannot burn in the U.S. but we're shipping to China. And then we complain about China's emissions." You're saying it's Germany. It's other countries as well.
BOOKAbsolutely. Coal is a very useful energy source for a lot of reasons. One of them is that it stores well. You can build up big inventories and you don't have to worry about things like pipeline deliveries getting interrupted. It's also useful for non-power generating applications including industrial applications where you can use it to make steel and other metals.
BOOKSo when you look at countries that have a big industrial base, coal is still going to be a big part of their fuel. It's not going to disappear, it's not going to go to zero. And the challenges right now of a world where outside the U.S. natural gas prices are still particularly high, especially in Asia, is one where coal can fill the gap.
REHMSo Bob Deans, turning to you, your fairly optimistic about this summit. Why?
MR. BOB DEANSWell, I think we all know that we're not going to solve climate change with a piece of paper. We understand that. But we need to put in place a framework that pulls together global values, national will and the collective resources to address what is in fact a global problem. That's the way we deal with global defense alliances. It's how we deal with global health crises. It's how we deal with the world trade system. And it's how we need to deal with climate change.
MR. BOB DEANSAnd what that means is that between now and next December, a year-and-a-half from now almost in Paris, we need to put together a framework that accomplishes three things. First, we need to cut our global carbon footprint, the fossil fuel pollution that has created the 15 hottest years on record just since 1997. So we're in a crisis. We need to deal with that.
MR. BOB DEANSNumber two, we need to help other countries using American enterprise and American innovation to invest in efficiency and renewables to help them on that path. And number three, we need to accept our moral obligation to help countries deal with the consequences of the problem we've already created, whether that's typhoons in the Philippines, floods in Bangladesh or widening deserts in Kenya. These people need and deserve our help.
REHMSo Ben Geman mentioned this question about fracking methane versus coal emissions. How do you see it?
DEANSWell, I think one of the great new stories in our country right now and one of the reasons we're so optimistic is that 44 percent of all of our new electricity generating capacity in this country over the past three years has come from wind and solar, wind and solar, 44 percent of all the new electricity-generating capacity in the United States over the past three years. That's important. We need to keep doing that.
DEANSNatural gas and fracking, the issue is how it is produced. Fracking puts our communities, our health, our environment at risk in ways that we can work to safeguard against. This industry is very wealthy, Diane. We're producing in this country $700 million worth of oil and gas from fracking every single day. The industry has the money to safeguard our communities, our families, our farms, our health and our environment. And in many cases that's not happening. We need to require that.
REHMSo for you, Ben Geman, what do you expect to hear from President Obama today?
GEMANWell, one of the really big things you're going to hear from him is effectively a sales pitch, Diane. He's really going to promote his second-term climate agenda. And one of the things at the centerpiece of that -- and promote what the White House has been doing. And one of the things at the centerpiece of that are these new planned EPA regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's fleet of power plants. Essentially this is going after emissions from coal-fired power plants.
GEMANI would expect that he would also look at -- sort of list out some of the other things that the White House has been doing. And I think one of the reasons that's important is because the president has been very explicit, in fact, about this idea that as these negotiations go forward, he needs leverage. He needs a card he can put on the table as he negotiates and as the U.S. negotiates with other countries, especially China and India as their emissions go up. So I think what the White House -- or what the president is going to be trying to do at this speech is really sort of show that -- make the case that the U.S. is doing aggressive things.
GEMANThere's going to be a couple other big things we're going to see at this speech. One of them is he's going to announce a U.S. effort to help other countries build their resiliency to the impacts of climate change that are really going to happen no matter what happens with our emissions trajectory over the next few decades. And so I think what you're going to see also is an executive order that really tries to formalize, in a sense, the way that when U.S. agencies work on development and investment, that this idea of resilience is really baked into the cake. So those are a couple of the big things you'll see.
REHMConsidering the state of the world, how strong a position is the U.S. in currently to lead the way on climate change?
GEMANGood question. I would say that the U.S. is in a better position than it was at the very difficult talks in Copenhagen five years ago. Those were the last time you had a lot of head of state leveled people at a climate summit. That's because at that time the U.S. had not finalized a big piece of climate change legislation. That was still the hope back then. And then rather shortly after that in I think it was the summer of 2010, that whole effort just completely crumbled in the Senate.
GEMANAnd for several years since then while the U.S. has done some significant things around auto mileage standards and some support for green energy -- a lot of support for green energy development and the stimulus bill, as far as some type of mandatory curbs on this huge source of smokestack pollution from coal-fired power plants, the fact that the U.S. is now committing to doing something that's binding on that score, I think White House officials are very hopeful that this provides some measure of leverage as they're in formal UN climate negotiations over the next 15 months.
REHMDo you agree with that, Kevin Book?
BOOKI do not. Unfortunately there are problems with the goal of unilaterally moving towards a world where we harmonize disparate regional, national and sub-national climate programs. And the question is, what is the mechanism that brings them all together? Right now the answer is probably trade, and that's not a world anybody wants. If we imbed a national climate regulation into all of our industry and all of our operations, what power do we have to compel other countries to follow suit? Well, the answer is, we're a huge marketplace and we're an enormous trading partner with incredible leverage.
BOOKWelcome back to the cudgel that we're using in every other theater of foreign policy, sanctions. Welcome to border taxes and potentially a very destructive escalation in already simmering trade war with other countries. the only way to get around that is to get something that didn't happen in Copenhagen to happen again, which is a top-down framework that everyone buys into. Based on how things look right now, it's awfully hard to be optimistic, Diane.
DEANSWell, we're not going to give up on the global system here. You know, Diane, for people of our generation it's hard to imagine this but next year we're going to mark the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear weapons in the world. Now we do not have a perfect system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons globally but aren't we grateful that we have put in place a system to prevent them? Where would we be if we had thrown up our hands 70 years ago and said, there's no way to prevent the spread of these weapons?
DEANSSo this is what we need to do with carbon. We want to create a situation now today over the next year so that when our children and grandchildren look back 20, 30, 40 years from now, they say, thank goodness the people, the leaders of this world put in place a system to help us deal with this global problem then so that we're not inheriting more climate chaos now.
GEMANI think that one of the things that's going to be pretty interesting about this summit and very interesting around some of the events surrounding it is how that economic case is made. In addition to having President Obama speak at this event for a little while this afternoon, you've had a lot of cabinet officials sort of running around giving remarks. And the ones that have been in the foreground most recently actually have been the White House budget chief and the treasury secretary.
GEMANAnd I think that's really interesting, Diane, because it shows that the biggest effort here, or one of the efforts here is to say, look, this isn't just about polar bears or this isn't just about the environment but they're very strongly trying to address or rebut concerns that taking these domestic steps on carbon emissions would be economically crippling. What they're trying to say is that yes, of course while there is a cost, that their argument is that avoiding action on climate change ultimately carries a longer term cost.
GEMANAnd I think the reason why you're seeing this involvement by, you know, again, the White House budget chief and Jack Lew at Treasury and others, is really because EPA has acknowledged that in the short term at least their plan would raise people's power bill. Now their hope is that in the long term because of increased energy efficiency, you know, by the time 2030 rolls around people's bills would be lower. But in the near term it's unavoidable, as Kevin was referring to, that you do have economic costs from these actions to tackle carbon emissions.
REHMAnd earlier, Kevin, you were talking about countries in Europe, yet the European Union did cut its carbon emission in 2013.
BOOKThe European Union has been unique in its commitment actually to reducing its emissions intensity. And one of the outgrowths of that is that their own trading program, the emissions trading scheme is something that they would like to propagate to other countries, again using the forcing of trade. In this case it was the aviation sector that the European Union sought to use to externalize their carbon price. It was hotly contested by all of those airlines -- international airlines flying into Europe. And it's been put on ice for at least a couple years while the ICAO the International Civil Aviation Organization works out a plan. But they're still looking at using trade to bring everyone up to their speed, and that's not going to be easy.
REHMKevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Bob Deans, you say that more businesses are finding ways to move away from fossil fuels.
DEANSIt's hugely important, Diane. We have right now in this country 3.2 million Americans who get up every single day, roll up their sleeves and go to work building wind turbines, putting in solar facilities, helping with public transit systems, doing other things to create a more sustainable world here in this country. And the reason they're able to do that is because investors believe in this kind of a future.
DEANSIn this country we have invested almost $190 billion in wind and solar facilities over just the past five years. We're now getting 5.5 percent of our electricity nationally from the wind and the sun. Texas, the oil capital of the world, is getting 8 percent of its electricity from wind turbines right now. And it's helping to keep the family farm and ranch intact. That's important. That's the kind of investment we need to move us forward. And it's shown real results.
DEANSSince 2005 we've cut out carbon emissions in this country 10 percent. That's important. That's huge. We have reduced our carbon output by 600 million tons a year more than any other country in the history of the world. That's important. We need to keep making progress.
REHMAnd to you, Ben Geman, you spoke about Treasury Secretary Lew talking about the cost of not taking action. What does he say about climate change?
GEMANWell, what people point out who hold this view that basically the cost of doing something would -- are much cheaper over the long term than of not doing anything. Note for example some of the incredible costs of rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy or a hurricane -- and the tragic loss of life from those types of events too, or the costs for communities and the federal government to fight wildfires during these longer and fiercer wildfire seasons.
GEMANSo essentially the argument says, look, when you do have these effects of climate change, you start to bear a lot of costs that they would be greater than they otherwise would've been because there's at least some effect from climate change on the intensity of these weather events.
GEMANAnd one thing that's been interesting over the last few months is that it's not just the kind of lefty activists making that point. You've had some members of the business community, including some big agriculture -- ag and food giants and some others in a coalition called the Risky Business Coalition that includes Michael Bloomberg and Republican former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson along with activist Tom Steyer. They put out a report some months ago sort of warning of things like lost productivity and other problems when you have coastal flooding and different types of impacts of not tackling climate change.
REHMSo you think clearly this is going to move forward, at least in the minds of the administration, any action they can do by executive order if not by congressional action they will take.
GEMANWell, I think that's certainly their hope. I mean, it's one of the reasons I -- one thing that's very -- I noticed at the summit is that you had Ban ki-Moon the UN Secretary General marching in this big march along with Leonardo DiCaprio and others. And the reason I mention that is because I was chatting with a former Clinton Administration White House climate aid and he was making the point that the UN has sort of finally realized that they really need to try and do a little bit more to rally public support.
GEMANBecause, you know, you asked about the U.S. actions. And gosh, when you poll people, if you just ask them what are your biggest concerns, climate change and the environment don't tend to be on the top of the list.
REHMBen Geman of National Journal. Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones, read more of your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the summit at the U.N. for the next three days, speaking about climate change. Let's open the phones and go right to Milton, Fla. Mark, you're on the air.
MARKThank you, Diane. I'm glad you're back on the air.
MARKI -- there's so many statements I could make, but I'll just make a couple for lack of time. Most of the polar bears in the world are in Canada. They keep track of the numbers. They're increasing, not decreasing. There was a record thickness of polar ice this year. The Earth has not warmed up. In the last 18 years it's stayed about even. A modern coal plant with all the filters and all the things that we've improved to make the air cleaner -- which is excellent and we should continue to do that -- that is a more efficient, cleaner way of -- more environmentally safe way of producing electricity than huge solar farms that are necessary -- they have enormous and massive amount of batteries. Which, these batteries put off…
REHMAll right. Mark, I want to get to your point. Do you not believe in climate change?
MARKOf climate change, the Earth is -- even before man, climate change was going on.
REHMOkay. So you don't…
MARKAnd that's due to the sun primarily, not to mankind.
REHMOkay. So you do not believe that mankind has had any effect on climate change. Ben, there are lots of folks who have believed, as Mark does, for decades and decades. Is public attitude changing?
GEMANIt has been. It's very elastic and fluid, actually, Diane. But what you've seen is belief in climate change, in human-induced climate change fell for a few years as it became a much more partisan and political issue for a few reasons. But then it's been sort of back on the upswing for a few years. But even at the level it is at right now, it's certainly lagging behind what the overwhelming majority of scientists believe because -- in a couple ways. One is just on that simple question of is there climate change.
GEMANBut I think much more importantly, it -- the public doesn't -- is not as certain as the scientific community of this very strong human influence on the climate change that we've been seeing.
GEMANAnd that is a huge challenge for people who are trying to work on this issue. And it's a huge challenge politically as well.
DEANSDiane, about 7 out of 10 Americans understand the threat that we face from climate change and the need for us to do something about it, to take action now. That -- we saw that in a Bloomberg poll in June. We've seen it from NBC polls, ABC polls, Wall Street Journal polls. They're all in the same area. And the reason why is because it's moved from a theoretical concept that scientists talked about to something that we now just look out our window and see.
DEANSI mean we just finished the hottest summer on record, globally. We had -- in our country. And in 2012, the hottest summer of -- on record since we've been taking -- keeping records in 1880. And unless you don't believe in thermometers, those are just the facts.
REHMHowever, there are those who, like Mark, say it's simply the way of the world. That man has no impact or minimal impact and that climate is just going to keep changing. Kevin Book?
BOOKWell, it's an argument that's out there, in the same way that all absolutes are challenging in science. A lot of the practical approaches to climate policy, even among the people who are skeptical, surround the idea of an insurable risk. The idea that there is something you can do, but the price of doing that something shouldn't be too high, so as to eclipse any of the benefits. And what Ben had mentioned was this notion of spending now to avoid costs later, which really surrounds this wonky mathematical concept of something called a discount rate, which is how you value the future relative to the present.
BOOKAnd if you think that the future is extremely valuable relevant to the present, than any cost in the present is probably justifiable. So what we're really talking about here for most of the debate is not the is it or is it not, but the how much are we willing to spend on it. And to that point, Diane, I think I'd have to point out that even the devoted, the 500 busses of believers who went to New York, took busses -- they didn't bike. Had they biked, their avoided cost of carbon -- I calculated back of the envelope -- would have been about $6,000 per metric ton.
BOOKThat's a very high price to pay. There are some conveniences that come from our current economic circumstance. And traversing the road to these significant cuts is not going to be easy.
REHMAll right. To a caller in Atlanta, Ga. James, you're on the air.
JAMESHello. Happy first day of autumn to you.
JAMESAnd happy return.
JAMESTo Mark, the caller, the theoretical looking out the window -- is anyone paying attention to the seas? And particularly, my understanding is the best way to look at what's happened is industrialization since the 1800s with the rise of CO2, the rise of carbon bicarbonate in the ocean, the sea floors are not able to keep the balance of salinity and acidity in the ocean. We're looking at the wrecking of our reefs. We're looking at the disappearance of marine life. We are looking at, you know, obviously of course the glacial melt.
JAMESAnd, of course, that's creating the rising sea levels. So from a 200 year period our oceans have just become increasingly devastated and Mother Nature, clearly, is not able to keep up, you know, her filtering systems.
DEANSAbsolutely. I appreciate the call. Ocean acidification, as you mentioned, a huge amount of the carbon dioxide that we're putting in our air from fossil fuel consumption is absorbed by our oceans. It is leading to devastation of our coral reefs, which are the basis of all marine life. And it is warming our oceans. This is one of the reasons why our storms and hurricanes have more energy, they have more moisture in them because that's what warm air does. Hurricane Sandy lingered over ocean waters in the Atlantic that were approximately four degrees warmer than average.
DEANSNow, that didn't cause Hurricane Sandy, but it packed it with so much energy that when it did hit the United States it killed 130 Americans. It did $65 billion worth of damage. It put 14' of water in downtown Manhattan. That has never happened before. This is what climate change looks like. This is why we need to act.
REHMAll right. To Joe, in Holiday, Fla. Hi there.
JOEHi. Thank you for taking my call.
JOEAnd I wanted to ask a question about all these scrubbers that we put on these smokestacks on these coal-fired power plants. How effective are they and can we get them to be a little more effective, where we could still burn coal? Thank you.
REHMThank you. Kevin?
BOOKWell, Joe, your question is well conceived because one of the things in history about the implementation of scrubbers to capture sulfur dioxide is that they came out somewhat inefficient. They cannibalized or consumed a certain amount of the electric power from the plant to the point where it was a serious economic risk for some of the generators. But the technology's improved a lot. And scrubbers are now extremely efficient and have a very small parasitic load.
BOOKBut I think what you're talking about is whether or not there is a post-combustion scrubbing technology for carbon dioxide from the flue gas. And we're just not there yet. The costs of implementing that technology are extremely high. The efficiency is extremely low. The idea of doing that is a long way off.
DEANSWe do have a big project, the Southern Company, in Atlanta, is building in Kemper, Miss., a huge electric generating plant that is going to take a low-grade lignite, a kind of coal, turn it into electricity, use a technology called carbon capture and storage. It will take the carbon dioxide out of that coal, send it down to oil fields in Louisiana, that -- where the carbon dioxide can be used to bring new life into old oil fields. So carbon capture and storage does have the potential of helping us out with that kind of technology.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from Roger, In Urbanna, Va., who says, "An important alternative source of safer, cheaper, more abundant nuclear energy than uranium is thorium." An apparently a number of people want to know about this. Roger goes on to say, "Yet the U.S. government and the nuclear power industry have not embraced thorium. Some observers believe the reason for this lack of interest and action is entrenched financial interests in other sources of energy less desirable than thorium." Do you know anything about thorium, Ben?
GEMANDiane, that's not something that I can speak to, but I think what some of the -- that question and some of these calls get to is a really big part of the debate around solutions to climate change, and that is nuclear power. You've got the climate scientist James Hanson, who is sort of one of the grandfathers of looking at this field. He's been very upset with environmental organizations because they either are extremely agnostic at best and somewhat against nuclear. Or a lot of them are just outright completely antinuclear.
GEMANAnd his view, and the view of some other environmentalists, is that that is simply not a sustainable position, if you believe that we need these very steep emissions reductions. So that is also really something to watch, too, whether that resistance to nuclear power among the Green Movement softens and to what degree it might soften, as global emissions keep on their upward trajectory.
REHMTell us about the thorium, Bob Deans.
DEANSWell, we believe on the nuclear count that nuclear power plants need to be safe, they need to be sustainable, they need to be affordable and they need to be secure. And we've seen in recent years problems in all four areas. So we are more in the agnostic camp. Now, we are supporting continued research in all kinds of new nuclear technology, some of which show enormous promise. But the reality is we don't know what the future of nuclear is. The Department of Energy tells us that we can be getting 80 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2050.
DEANSAnd they are counting nuclear as between 8 and 9 percent of our power mix. Right now it's 19 percent. The United Nations put out a report in July that envisions nuclear power in the United States at 30 percent by 2050. And we're still getting 80 percent of our power from renewables. So that's the kind of spectrum you're seeing right now.
REHMKevin, what about thorium?
BOOKWell, Diane, future technologies need to be developed for all of our power sources. And whether or not it's going to be a next generation nuclear plant or just a more efficient natural gas combined cycle plant, investment in research and development pays huge dividends for the climate in a financial perspective. To the point thought, I think Bob's getting to sort of an 80 percent renewables share is a pretty aggressive stance. Diversification tends to its own reward in energy.
BOOKYou generally are better off not relying too much on any one source, no matter how clean a renewable it might be because of what you don't know. And Bob also mentioned that the Kemper plant, which is a very expensive coal-fired power plant, is absolutely going to demonstrate the usefulness of carbon capture and storage. But on a pre-combustion basis. So you can't use that technology to go back to old coal plants, you can only do it to build new ones.
REHMAll right. To -- let's see, Greg, in St. Michaels, Md. Hi, you're on the air.
GREGGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
GREGIt's a great topic and I really appreciate you tackling this one this morning. I wanted to go back to one of your callers who -- you talked at some length with him about the -- his belief or lack of belief in climate change. I'm a scientist and I just wanted to point out that you don't get to believe in it. It's not a belief. Scientists accept the evidence for a phenomena. We critically examine that. We put it through peer review. We do very careful analysis.
GREGWe're open to kind of a critique of our method and a critique of our statistical methods, but we don't believe in anything. We believe simply that if you want to win the argument you need to bring better data. And so I teach, among other things, a little bit of climate science and a little bit of evolution. And the parallels are really strong here. You don't get to believe or not believe in evolution.
GEMANWell, I think the caller's comments point to where the political battle over this is headed. Because when you look at Republican opposition to what the president is doing on climate change, while there are certainly members of Congress and Republicans outside of Congress who take the view that human-induced climate change is not real, I think, increasingly, you're going to see this battle being fought on other political terrain. Which is to say, the argument will be around some of the costs that Kevin was mentioning.
GEMANAnd I think we had a very early indicator of where else this argument could go in the 2016 presidential election. A few weeks ago Hillary Clinton gave a speech out in Nevada, at this Green Energy summit that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has every year. And she referred to -- I'm going to paraphrase here. That basically, she said, climate change -- talked about it as this gigantic existential, generational threat.
GEMANAnd the next day you had Rand Paul, senator of Kentucky, Republican senator of Kentucky, really knocking her, saying, "Gosh, as we're dealing with ISIS, as we're dealing with these other security and terror threats, I question Clinton's wisdom to leave the country if she's going to be talking about climate changes, a threat that large."
GEMANSo I think, increasingly, where the political battle is going to go is you're going to see people -- Democrats and climate advocates emphasizing the topics and opponents of action on climate saying their priorities are not correct.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's see if we can take one more caller. Let's go to Louisville, Ky., and to John. Hi there. You're on the air.
JOHNHello. I just wanted to say that, you know, to people that don't believe that our activities have any effect on the climate, that the average car puts about six tons of carbon in the air every year, you know. And if you don't think that that would affect the environment, then imagine the six tons of carbon in your front yard. And that might help get peoples' heads around it.
REHMWell, I thank you for that. But I want to go back to your point, Kevin Book. Maybe it would have been a bigger and better gesture had busses not brought those folks in to New York City.
BOOKWell, it would have made a very big symbolic statement, but at great cost. And that's kind of the point. If you assume 45 people per bus, 500 busses, earning $10 an hour, the forgone cost of going there was about $12.5 million. I wouldn't expect them to spend that for supporting their ideology. And that's the point. It's a very challenging thing to do, this sort of absolute transition right away.
DEANSDiane, I want to just talk about one person out of those 400,000 who showed up in New York. And that's a woman named Rosemary Snow (sp?). She's 75 years old. She got on a bus in Georgia and rode 14 hours with her grandson to march in New York. She did it because she understands, we have a moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change. I'm glad she did it.
REHMAnd, Ben, do you think that the fact that so many people showed up in the streets of New York makes an impact on the mind?
GEMANI think it depends whose minds we're talking about. I think certainly some of the global leaders who are coming and heads of state who are coming into town will -- I think that has probably been noticed. But I think one of the huge questions -- to bring things back to this climate change summit -- I think whether or not the summit is a success or failure isn't going to be especially obvious just because you had X number of people out in the streets or because a series of announcements are made.
GEMANIt's really going to be -- the proof is going to be in about a year and a -- year, 15 months from now, and see whether any type of meaningful global carbon pact is reached in Paris in December of 2015.
REHMInteresting. Ben Geman, Bob Deans, Kevin Book, thank you all so much. And we'll watch. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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