Thursday, February 21, 2013

A conversation with Daniel Schrag hosted by the Ryan Institute in NUI, Galway

The Ryan Institute at NUI, Galway hosted a ‘conversation’ with Professor Daniel Schrag, Director of Harvard Centre for the Environment and member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and Dr. Henrike Rau, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at NUI, Galway and leader of the Ryan Institute’s Socio-Economics and Policy priority research area on Thursday, the 14th of February 2013 in what was a very informative and pragmatic discussion on the challenges that lie ahead in addressing climate change. Professor Schrag was in Ireland to attend the Climate Gathering meeting hosted in the Burren College of Art over the weekend of the 15th to the 17th of February. Proceedings started with an introduction by Professor Colin Brown , who gave a brief overview of the activites of the Ryan Institute and introduced Professor Schrag and Dr. Rau. Professor Schrag then gave an overview of some issues that needed to be considered when discussing climate change. He outlined three themes that demonstrated the enormous challenges: the use of short-term versus long-term targets; the ability to have a sustained political will to address climate change and how this affects public attitudes and behaviour; the trade-offs to be made when considering alternative solutions; and the understanding of uncertainty.

Short-term versus long-term targets
Professor Schrag believes that there is too much focus on short-term targets. This manifests itself in thousands of hours wasted by eminent scientists and politicians in trying to come up with target figures of 17 or 22 per cent by 2020 or 2030. Whether it is 17 or 22 per cent by 2020 has an negligible effect on actually moving towards a zero carbon society. This sounds paradoxical but is framed within a long-view of the effect of carbon emissions as outlined by Professor David McKay in his excellent book ‘Sustainable Energy-without the hot air’. When trying to identify who is reponsible for climate (and therefore who should pay for it based on the ‘polluter pays principle’), Professor McKay points out that it is not the rate of CO2 emissions that is important but the cumulative total emissions because much of the emitted carbon dioxide (approximately 30 per cent) will hang around the atmosphere for at least 100 years (Professor Schrag estimated even longer timeframes). This hightlights the need for us to ‘extend our time horizons’ as suggest by Sir Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and master at Trinity College, University of Cambridge in his article in the fantastic book ‘This will make you smarter: new scientific concepts to improve your thinking’ edited by John Brockman. Professor Rees points out no astronomer could believe that we are the culmination of evolution as it is plausible that we are only at the half-way stage. Professor Schrag pointed out the difficulty with this long-term view by suggesting that whatever measures we take today will not make any real measurable difference until 2113 and beyond.  

In response to these comments, Dr. Rau acknowledged Professor Schrag’s reservations on short-term targets but still felt that they had a role to play in ‘shifting the discourse’. She cited 2008 Eurobarometer data, which suggests that people are concerned about climate change (57 per cent respondents ‘concerned’) but there is not reflected in the percentage of people who are willing to act, demonstrating that attitudes do not directly influence or inform behaviour. This directly relates to the next main theme of ‘how to develop a sustained political will?’

Developing a sustained political will to tackle climate change
Much of debate around the ethical and moral obligations of humanity in regard to climate change can be diluted by the language used and how it is interpretated resulting in the general population engaging with the issues or distance themselves from the issues and responsibility. Professor Schrag illustrated this point when discussing the climate change ‘adaptation and preparedness’ approach. The ‘adaptation’ approach would seemed to us to be a practical intermediate solution based on the acceptance that climate change is happening and we as a species will need to ‘adapt’ in some way. But put it in the context of the George W. Bush’s administration, this term defined a strategy of inaction informed by the belief of whatever is going to happen, we will be able to ‘adapt’ to it using our human ingenuity, thereby surviving more or less intact. Interestingly, recent extreme climate events in the US do seem to be having an influence on general public opinion providing a basis for a political will. The recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy in New York coupled with severe droughts throughout the US and the recent blizzards conditions in many states has come at a great personal and financial cost to a country still trying to pull itself out of the curent economic downturn. Professor Schrag pointed out that flood insurance in the US is subsidised by the government as the private sector do not want to deal with it. This could be seen as subsidising habitation patterns in areas under threat i.e. coastal communities and cities but what other choice do they have? An interesting suggestion was that if buildings are unfortunately affected by flooding and other extreme weather events, then the rebuilding costs should be provided only if resilient engineering strategies are implemented. This, then introduces the concept of ‘preparedness’ into these communities and may influence behaviour.

Professor Schrag pointed out that the climate change deniers lobby have been very clever in associated climate change values to issues of ‘big government’, increased taxes and the interference in people’s everyday lives. This is an astute approach as some environmental experts believe that the proof of President Obama’s commitment to tackle climate change during his inaugural address will be in the introduction of a carbon tax. Of course, this has to pass through Congress and President Obama does not control Congress so he does not have the ability to deliver a carbon tax demonstrating the difficulties that the President is facing. Despite this, Professor Schrag does believe that America has a huge role to play in addressing world emission especially when you consider the rise of China. US emissions are actually down about 9 per cent to 16 per cent of world emission whereas China continues to increase. If you put both the countries together, you may come up with around half of all the world’s emissions. Professor Schrag believes that if America does not do something to address their emissions, then China will do nothing. Following on from this, he believes that if America and China did come together and demonstrated a real willingness to reduce their emissions, then everybody else would follow including the EU. This may be a parochial view but it is one with some merit because if you can focus on the the big gains first then smaller ones should follow with less effort. Of course, this is has a high degree of complexity as climate change cannot be removed from issues such as global health, poverty, equality etc. A lot of the political will is currently being influenced by what alternative technologies are available.
Alternative Technologies and Trade-Offs
The US has committed to provide 3000 GigaWatts of new electrification with increased efficiency over the next 30 years. Professor Schrag points out that this is a very ambitious target considering that 106 GigaWatts of power in US is currently provided by nuclear energy, which is due to be exhausted by the middle of the century. He mentioned the electrification of the transportation sector as a plausible solution if technology improve considerably with some potential in fuel cell technology. In fact, he believes the path to a zero carbon economy will not be a steady progression and expects certain technology peaks to occur. The coal industry in the US is coming under increasing pressure from alternative technologies such as fracking and shale gas extraction. This can be seen in the provision of electricity from coal-fired plants dropping from approximately 50 per cent five years ago to 38 per cent today. His discussion on fracking and shale gas extraction was an interesting one as it focused more on public perception than the technologies involved. Professor Schrag accepted that the extractive process is a ‘dirty’ one but gave the example of Texas, where fracking has been taking place for the past decade without any complaint. This is due to the fact that Texans are used to the extractive industries. Fracking only hit problems when it moved to areas that were not familiar with these processes, which in turn, generated a groundswell of opposition against such technologies, which has now developed internationally. In Professor Schrag’s opinion, it does provide an alternative ‘cleaner’ option than traditiona coal-fired plants. This is interesting considering the Irish situation, where the extraction of shale gas would not be replacing coal-fired plants but would be replacing imported gas. So it will be gas replacing gas, so it is not really providing a ‘cleaner’ alternative especially when you consider the environmental impacts of the extractive process. But then a comparative analysis of the economic benefits must be carried out to identify the potential trade-offs.

This was a theme running throughout the discussion, that Professor Schrag took a very pragmatic view of potential solutions and nearly always grounded them in economic terms. Other alternative technologies mentioned were carbon capture and storage, a ‘clean’ nuclear solution (if one exists), the use of solar technology especially photovoltaics, which have seen a dramatic drop in cost over the past five years moving it towards being a viable alternative. Returning to the issue of target timelines, one of the reasons Professor Schrag is not a huge fan of short-term targets is that they distract attention (and funding) away from technological solutions that need huge investment to achieve long-term goals e.g. carbon capture and storage.