Interview with John Berger
August 5, 2017
Climate change affects not just Europe, but every continent on the planet. Following President Trump's recent controversial decision to pull the U.S.A. out of the Paris Agreement, Sustain Europe is doubling down efforts to bring the world's biggest carbon polluter in history back into the Accord. We start by catching up with America's leading environmental consultant and Sustain Europe's newly-appointed U.S. Environmental Correspondent Dr John J. Berger to get his thoughts on climate change and what we, as a global community, need to do to reduce the rate of human-induced climate change and the risk of global climate catastrophe.
SE: You are known as one of the earliest advocates of alternative energy solutions to global environmental problems, and you have often highlighted the financial and environmental risks associated with a dependence on fossil fuels. Over the past few years we've seen those risks increase exponentially, with most climate scientists now agreeing with your assessment that a renewable energy economy is not only necessary, but is attainable with the right strategies and transformational process. What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle facing renewable energy development today, and how might that obstacle be overcome?
JB: This is an extremely important question. The greatest obstacle is a lack of national political resolve to make climate protection the number one priority. To illustrate the opposite, in a recent U.S. survey, the American public ranked climate change 17th on a list of their major concerns.
By contrast, if sufficient will existed, each nation would be operating according to a regularly monitored National Climate Action Plan to meet its energy and climate goals. The plan would contain attractive public incentives, goals, and ambitious milestones. It would also be armoured with stern enforcement mechanisms. If people then were made to understand the costs of inaction and the economic and jobs benefits that an all-out, climate-protection effort would generate, such plans could be quite popular. Charismatic and enlightened political leadership would be very helpful as a catalyst in this process.
In a perfect world of rational humans, an international environmental protection and restoration agency, or international climate regulatory body, would also be established with strong enforcement powers. It would be authorized to set a declining annual cap on global greenhouse emissions. Each nation would then have an assigned annual emission quota. Global emissions would shrink steadily until all global greenhouse gas emissions were phased out. But obviously we don't live in a perfect world.
The way to strengthen public support for a rapid transition to a renewable energy economy is to convincingly document and widely publicize — especially to powerful stakeholder groups — the manifold economic and employment benefits of a genuine clean energy revolution, making everyone aware of them as quickly as possible. Pecuniary self-interest is a powerful motivating force.
Once key stakeholder groups, labour unions for example, recognize how the benefits will redound to them, they will be willing to support a national political mobilization for an accelerated energy transition. That sort of mass mobilization could translate into the political power necessary to get results.
In the U.S. context, with which I'm most familiar, one might call the goal a "Green New Deal," harkening back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Depression Era New Deal.
SE: Why is political support still inadequate?
JB: The lack of political will and public pressure for emissions reduction has several causes. First, most people still don't believe that climate change will seriously harm them in a directly personal way in the foreseeable future. Second, they don't understand the unprecedented urgency of this crisis due to the brief window of time remaining to avoid catastrophic climate changes.
Climate change is a problem like none other ever encountered by the human race, and many people are not equipped by temperament or education to grapple with a phenomenon whose extraordinary scale in both time and space seems far beyond many people's comprehension and beyond the scope of any one individual's influence.
Third, many people do not understand that the damage done by climate change is both cumulative, to a large extent irreversible, operating on multiple time scales, and that the impacts are liable to increase suddenly in nonlinear ways once certain climate thresholds are breached and tipping points triggered.
Fourth, most people still do not understand the extent to which, in the long-term, climate change will impact the livability of the planet and the viability of human civilization. They do not realize that climate change has already killed millions of people through disease, starvation, malnutrition, displacement, as well as in the floods, droughts, and heat waves that are covered by the term, "extreme weather." Moreover, many people can't distinguish between climate and weather and thus can't recognize the signal of climate change amidst the noise of normal weather variation, nor understand the findings of those who have deciphered it.
Next, many people without scientific training don't understand the scientific method or the need to look at long-term trends and analyse data systematically rather than rely on rhetoric or anecdotal information. I don't mean this to sound condescending, but truthfully, training or experience in critical thinking (or logic) is really necessary for understanding controversial, complex issues, and sorting through disinformation. Climate change is really the poster child for an extraordinarily complex scientific issue with enormously complicated social, economic, and political ramifications. Regrettably, many people haven't been fortunate enough to learn critical thinking as part of their education.
Therefore, the disinformation campaigns that have been conducted for decades by the fossil fuel industry - and that I've written about in Climate Myths - has fallen on fertile ground. As Naomi Orestes and Erik Conway have pointed out in their book, Merchants of Doubt (2010), the fossil fuel industry and its false-front "think tanks," did not need to prove the climate denial case, which would have been impossible.
All they needed was to raise confusion and sow doubts about it in the minds of enough gullible people to paralyse the public policy process and prevent effective legislation to decarbonise the economy. This was done very successfully in the U.S. where it succeeded in stymieing both a federal carbon tax and a cap and trade program.
Political will has also been undermined, especially in the U.S., by the increasing dominance of large corporations over the American political process and a concomitant undermining of American democracy. Due to court rulings in the U.S. in recent years that stripped away restrictions on corporation campaign contributions and also allowed vast sums of so-called "dark money" of unknown provenance to dominate elections, large corporations - especially wealthy multi-national energy companies - have had an inordinate influence over climate and energy policy. One indication is the persistence in many nations of enduring government subsidies for fossil fuel industries, usually at levels many times greater than subsidies for renewable energy.
The influence of the fossil fuel industry has been magnified by an increasingly concentrated corporate electronic media that is no longer subject to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's now-lapsed Fairness Doctrine. This has enabled cable channels like FOX News to discredit climate science and its adherents.
Seemingly ubiquitous right-wing talk radio stations in the U.S. and right-wing telecommunications giants like the Sinclair Broadcasting Group - which can reach into 40 percent of American households on 173 TV channels - also provide a powerful platform on which the ideological Right can advance its agenda. All too often that agenda is dismissive or hostile to climate action and laudatory toward the fossil fuel industries.
Members of the Republican Party in the U.S. have also seized on climate change denial as an emotional issue that is used to build the party's identity and as an ideological litmus test. The resulting electoral polarization has succeeded in dividing the potential base of support that sensible action to mitigate climate change would otherwise rightly enjoy.
SE: The fossil fuel industry and large segments of the mass media often lead us to believe that a move over to a 100% renewable energy economy is simply not possible. That we have no choice but to continue using dirty fossil fuels, and that current clean energy technology is insufficient to the demands of our energy needs. Do you see a lack of clean energy technology as being an obstacle we face?
JB: Commercial technology is here today to cleanly provide 100 percent of our electricity from integrated systems of renewable energy sources. These systems can be interconnected over large areas and optimized using real-time energy modelling so they take advantage of the most efficient and productive resources on the system at any time, even as energy efficiency technologies of all kinds minimize demand.
According to the availability and cost of regionally available resources, such systems will include the likes of distributed and central station solar PV, solar thermal electric power plants, micro-grids, biomass and other biofuels, hydropower, wind, geothermal, and wave power.
Subsets of these power and fuel options will be appropriately configured in smart grids with sensors, big data, user participation, and energy storage. The simplest way to understand how this compensates for the intermittency of some inexhaustible renewable energy sources is to recognize that in a large system, somewhere the wind will be blowing when the sun isn't shining, and vice versa. Other renewable technologies, like geothermal, biomass, and hydro power, can provide baseload continuous power.
Clean power systems are becoming steadily more competitive and in many places are the cheapest new generation option. Prices of wind and solar power have plummeted, giving them a dominant position in the market for new generating capacity. Big breakthroughs in energy storage and energy efficiency have accompanied these dramatic price declines.
Costa Rica and Iceland have already gone to 100 percent renewable power. Uruguay currently gets 95 percent of its power from renewables. Noway gets 98 percent of its power from renewables, mainly from hydro. Sweden also gets virtually 100 percent of its power without fossil fuels, but does so by relying on nuclear power along with its renewables. Other countries are working hard toward nuclear-free, clean power systems.
When you drill down into the commercial and cost-effective clean technology resources available to us today, you realize that renewable energy technologies are not just good at providing electricity. They can provide mobility, heating, and — as the accompanying article in this issue documents — industrial feedstocks.
Accordingly, we clearly have the technology to cleanly and renewably electrify most of our transportation sector — light and heavy rail, buses, and all kinds of passenger vehicles. To those concerned about the initial costs of this transition, I would say, remember that operating costs are much lower compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles and, apart from the higher efficiency of electric motors compared to internal combustion engines, just think about the avoided air and water pollution and related public health costs. For very heavy vehicles that require a lot of motive force, we can
provide gaseous and liquid bio fuels.
Heating systems, ideally based on efficient district heating models, also can operate on renewable energy sources. They can operate heat pumps and deep geothermal wells, for example, and solar thermal energy plants can provide industrial process heat while rooftop solar heating has been popular in many parts of the world for decades. Biologically derived feedstocks can also be used in many industries where petroleum is used today. So once a political decision is made to go "all-in" on renewable energy, we truly can configure the renewable energy systems needed to do the job.
Making the transition to clean renewable electricity is the relatively easy part of the energy transition challenge. The hard part is to replace natural gas as an industrial feedstock and fertilizer feedstock as well as to replace liquid petroleum- based fuels that are dominant in transportation and serve as industrial feedstock for the petrochemical industry.
This is nowhere more challenging than in resolving the problem of "recalcitrant loads," namely heavy trucks and excavating equipment, supertankers and container ships now burning oil (bunker fuel), and aeroplanes. Whereas renewable fuels can unquestionably be produced for all these types of loads, the trick will be to provide them cost-effectively, without compromising food supplies or the health of forests and other natural resource systems.
SE: Despite trying to position themselves as a "world leader" for action on climate change, British Gas parent company Centrica has recently been exposed for the practice of donating to one of the world's most notorious climate denial think tanks. As somebody who has long exposed the companies, organizations, and individuals who have promoted climate change denial, what more could governments do to help stem the flow of secret funding from the fossil fuel industry to academics and so-called think tanks?
JB: To be clear, I'm not familiar with the specifics of the Centrica case. However, in general, daylight is still the best disinfectant for such problems. To deter and respond to future transgressions like this, governments could create standards of transparency to ensure that all sources of funding to think tanks and all conflicts of interest, be publicly disclosed.
Similarly, they could establish criteria for evaluating the performance of think tanks in other respects to ensure that they are conducting legitimate research and education and not propaganda, if they expect to continue enjoying the privileges of a corporate charter or non-profit status.
A nonpartisan public-private regulatory commission could be established to periodically verify the compliance of think tanks with these principles. The private sector could also play a role here if donors were inclined to set up non-profit, nonpartisan watchdog groups to rate think tanks and publicize both the ratings and any disinformation campaigns or other malfeasance by the think tanks.
SE: There is a consensus among climate scientists today that we need to keep as much as 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if warming is not to breach a temperature rise of 2°C. What are your views on this notion?
JB: CO2 from burning fuel stays in the atmosphere for a long time. So even after emissions cease, the climate system keeps adjusting, and seas keep rising for centuries. The more CO2 we release, the greater the climate risks we run.
Estimates differ, but known conventional fossil fuel reserves in the ground contain the potential for creating at least 3.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 when burned, and adding unconventional oil and gas reserves to that almost doubles total fossil fuel reserves. Even keeping 80 percent of just the conventional CO2 in the ground means we would be creating at least 700 billion additional tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion alone, excluding CO2 from land use.
Since industrialization, we've emitted more than 550 billion tonnes of CO2. Originally it was thought that limiting emissions to 1,000 billion tonnes (a trillion tonnes) of CO2 would give us at least a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperature below 2°C by 2100. If you believe the trillion tonne limit, then we could still emit 450 gigatonnes of CO2. Based on recent emission trends, we'll hit the ceiling in 20 years or so. But burning 700 billion tonnes in addition to past cumulative CO2 emissions would push us way beyond the already optimistic trillion tonne threshold and above 2°C.
Moreover, recent research shows that — whereas 1880 was thought to be the time when human greenhouse gas emissions began to be significant, the pre-industrial period actually ended earlier. Therefore, we have already used up more of our cumulative carbon budget than previously thought. This lowers the chances of staying below 2°C and advances the likely time of exceeding it. So instead of having 450 gigatonnes of CO2 left to emit, we have considerably less.
Even if we hit the short-term (2100 A.D.) 2°C limit, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would be 530-580 ppm, twice preindustrial levels. That would lead to a climate and a world radically different from ours today—an ice-free planet with vastly elevated sea levels, rampant extinctions, and
unrecognisable polar regions. A 2°C world — even if we can avoid overshooting it — has also been called a "suicide pact" for small island nations and drought-stricken African countries.
We have clearly already had dangerous anthropogenic climate change—sea level rise, ocean acidification, massive extreme weather events, rising extinction rates, desertification—just at 0.85°C. The warmer it gets, the greater the risks we run. How could it be okay to burn even 20 percent of all remaining fossil fuel when the natural climate system is already so badly out of equilibrium, and we are in such a precarious climate situation after less than 1°C warming?
Moreover, what if non-fossil-fuel CO2 releases from land use practices (agriculture and deforestation) exceeded projections, or what if unexpectedly high methane releases from accelerating permafrost and methane clathrate melting blew our carbon budget?
Remember, too, that 90 percent of the excess heat that the Earth has absorbed from 1971-2010 has been stored in the ocean. Eventually, the ocean and atmosphere must come to a new thermal equilibrium, further heating the atmosphere.
The IPCC's climate experts have gone on record in Bonn in 2015 saying that to stop global average temperature rise at any level "will require net zero global CO2 emissions at some point in the future." To sum all this up, there is zero assurance that 2°C by 2100 is a safe global temperature limit or that we can release a trillion tonnes of CO2 and be confident of staying under 2°C. The only logical goal, I think, is to try to keep as much of our fossil fuel resources in the ground as possible, rather than discharging another 700 billion tonnes of CO2.
SE: Your 1985 book, Restoring the Earth, is widely credited as having helped to create the environmental restoration movement. 32 years on, what has been the most significant progress made in this movement and in achieving a greater understanding of ecological principles?
JB: One of the most astonishing things to see about the field of environmental restoration over the past 30 years is the extent to which it has become so institutionalized and mainstream. When I first entered the field in the mid-1980s and convened an international environmental restoration conference, most people scarcely knew what the words "environmental restoration" meant.
Environmental restoration, of course, is the practical application of the science of restoration ecology. That discipline in turn rests on a wide base of interdisciplinary science spanning most of the life and physical sciences. Yet when I first began studying it, it was seen as a subspecialty of other disciplines. Since then, it's gained recognition as a distinct discipline with its own academic departments, professional associations, conferences, workshops, robust literature, and for-profit restoration consulting firms. When I published Environmental Restoration: Science and Strategies for Restoring the Earth in 1990, there still were relatively few books on the subject.
Restoration has also become institutionalized within the U.S. government in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other governments internationally. It has also become more standardized nationally and internationally under international accords and thanks to the creation of many new technical handbooks and specialized guidance documents describing the technology of environmental restoration in diverse ecosystems. Internationally, a new recognition of the vital connection between ecological restoration and biodiversity protection has emerged, reflected in the inclusion of restoration as an integral part of the global Convention on Biological Diversity Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Some very large-scale restoration projects have been undertaken, like the Everglades Restoration Project and the restoration of major lakes, rivers, and estuaries.
Among a number of ambitious and exciting large-scale restoration projects is the ongoing effort by Russian scientists Sergei Zimov and Sergei Davydov in remote north-eastern Siberia near the Kolyma River. They have established a reserve there called Pleistocene Park to prove Zimov's theory that the restoration of large herds of grazing animals to the Siberian tundra and wetlands will actually transform the land back to resemble the Mammoth-steppe ecosystem of the Pleistocene by restoring the carbon-rich native Yedoma soil. The idea is ultimately to help to protect the climate (Zimov was one of the first researchers to call the world's attention to the huge amount of carbon locked in Arctic permafrost and the risks of its release). Thus they have reintroduced horses, moose, musk ox, and elk to the area and are studying how the land is responding.
Some of the most dramatic progress in restoration ecology has come in soil restoration. Much of the carbon stored in the world's top soils has been lost through erosion, abuse, and mismanagement. We now know that a variety of agricultural practices can mitigate climate change by increasing the rate at which carbon is stored in the soil. These techniques span the gamut of no-till agriculture, seeding of multi-species cover crops, heavy short-term grazing pressure in conjunction with herd rotation, use of mixed or companion crops—agro forestry and polyculture planting systems—and composting with organic matter. These management strategies usually have dramatic long-term restorative benefits for the soil by increasing its carbon and nitrogen content along with its water-holding capacity and improving its structure, thereby reducing erosion.
Modern techniques like radio collars, GPS, and remote video cam monitoring plus motion-detectors and the concept of wildlife corridors have greatly aided in the restoration of threatened and endangered species. Important advances have occurred in wetland, grassland, forest, and biodiversity restoration ecology. An interesting organic method for remediating petroleum-contaminated soil has been the use of mushrooms. They secrete enzymes that break down cellulosic material and also dissolve molecular bonds in oil that is contaminating soil.
The field of restoration ecology in general has made great strides. Many factors are now considered in restoration, including contextual factors, such as landscape setting, hydro-logical regimes, topography, nutrient supplies and disturbance regimes, along with the invasive species, diversity, and nutrient flows. The field has had many notable successes. Wolves and beaver (and other species) have been successfully reintroduced to parts of the American West and, thanks to a ban on DDT and habitat protection, the American bald eagle is off the endangered species list after rebounding from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to more than 10,000 today.
SE: Now that President Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement, what lessons should Europe draw from this, and do you believe there is a potential for individual American states to bypass Washington and work alongside Europe to open up a new front in international climate cooperation?
JB: By any measure, this was an extraordinary decision. The President had been briefed at length on the Paris Agreement by former Vice President Al Gore, so no one can say that his withdrawal was done out of ignorance, although his remarks indicated he still didn't understand the Agreement. I think that the basic lesson to be taken by Europe is that the President is willing to do something that the scientific community and the entire global community of nations all know is reckless and wrong in order to play to his political base of alienated, marginalized, low-information American voters. In that moment of withdrawing from the Paris accord, Trump showed the entire world that he is willing to cynically betray the common good to curry political favour.
There is great potential for individual American states to bypass Washington and work alongside Europe to achieve climate goals. Governor Jerry Brown of California has been doing so even before the Paris accord. He has recruited many other American states and foreign nations to emulate California's aggressive emission reduction policies and to take actions that are consistent with keeping global temperature increases below 2°C. For more on this, you may want to refer to the Governor's website and that of the Under2 MOU coalition he has spearheaded.
For more information on the Under2 MOU please visit:
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