2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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climatologist, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
Biologist; Climatologist, Stanford University; Author, Laboratory Earth

The Ozone Hole

As a climate scientist, seeking optimism is like a scavenger hunt — have to look in some strange places.

As an example, take the ozone hole that opened up 20 years ago and nearly instantly (in a few years, which is really fast in international treaty terms) created positive action: the Montreal Protocol to ban ozone depleting substances. So that is a good example of optimism, my students often suggest—right? Well, maybe, because we knew about the likelihood of ozone depletion for 15 years before the ozone hole was proved to be caused largely by human emissions.

So what happened since the early 1970s?: the chemical industries denied it, took out character assassination adds in major media to cast doubt on the scientists doing the work, and hired attack dog lobbyists to block action in Washington.

Where is the optimism in this little piece of scientific history? There was some: unbeknownst to most of us, the chemical industry actually believed the science was about right, preliminary as it was, and despite political posturing to the contrary had been working on substitutes for ozone-depleting CFCs, so that one day, when the scientific evidence and politics aligned for ozone action, they were ready to put on a green cloak — and by the way, take over market share by selling the world their newly designed greener "ozone friendly" chemicals. So was the ozone glass half empty or half full — one could legitimately see it either way: (optimists) we acted when we had to; versus (pessimists) why did it take a catastrophe in the making to get action we should have taken a decade before on likely science.

Any lessons from the ozone affair for climate change policy?

First, what would constitute a "climate hole"? Perhaps, the 2003 Euro heat waves that killed some 35,000 well-heeled Europeans? Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans — connected to recent evidence that global warming should statistically increase top intensity tropical cyclones? Amazingly enough, despite all the pessimistic talk from environmental types about bio-geophysical "tipping points" in the climate system (e.g., shut down to the Gulf Stream, collapse of Greenland Ice sheet etc,), my optimistic half brain thinks the only clearly demonstrable "tipping phenomena" are psychological-political: the symbolic events of climate impacts just mentioned and the advent of a popular movie combined with a big change in attitudes about inventing our way out of global warming by some large corporations no longer lobbying to prevent policy — these include GE, BP, PG&E, Duke Energy, Wal-Mart and many others.

These events actually are cause for optimism. But, lest the O overtake the P a bit too fast, what has been proposed as climate policy so far is only a palliative that will stop less than half the projected warming — the really dangerous events occur after a few degrees of warming and we are still squarely on that pathway, even if making some optimistic sounds and a few small moves to change direction.

So in the optimism-pessimism derby, optimism has staged a comeback in the back stretch and is gaining on the more apocalyptic favorite. That is the good news. But without widespread acceptance of the need to reconfigure our energy systems — and put our overweight cars on a diet — the troubling favorite is still a few lengths ahead as we enter the home stretch. But optimism is quite legitimate still: attitudes are changing fast. Scientists still need to keep explaining credibly the consequences of all actions — and inactions — so we have a good chance to avert the highest climate change risks that business as usual is steaming us toward. It is still doable to steer the big ship toward safer waters, but the window of opportunity — and optimism — diminishes the longer we delay implementing sea changing actions.

Perhaps the most optimistic aspect for me is that the young scientists I work with understand the dilemmas and are dedicated to credibly explain the situation to all who will engage.