Like it or not, discussions about climate change in the United States are awash in political overtones.
The vast majority of scientists agree that the planet is warming as a result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, which itself raises serious social and political questions. But skeptics say the problem is blown out of proportion, and that mankind may not be to blame.
Starting tonight (Thursday), the Juneau World Affairs Council hosts a three-day conference focusing on the politics of climate change. Casey Kelly has this preview.
Political scientist and economist Detlef Sprinz is a senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Sprinz will give the keynote address at the Juneau World Affairs Council’s conference titled “the Politics of Global Climate Change.” His Friday evening talk poses the question: ‘Is long-term climate policy politically feasible?’
“Yes but it’s difficult,” says Sprinz. “In the most clear sense it needs parliamentary and here legislative majorities. But also it needs credibility with the mass public. But it also needs entrepreneurship, finding more interesting and cheaper technologies to move us closer to low greenhouse gas or low carbon future.”
Ultimately, Sprinz says any successful policy begins with a period of uncertainty.
“We have to move away from essentially short term profits to long term profits, and we also have, like for any new problems, to be very experimental. But frankly we do this all the time,” he says.
Sprinz points to an example right here in Alaska of a long-term policy decision that started with uncertainty, but which has been quite successful – the Alaska Permanent Fund.
“They are definitely in for multiple generations. And with climate change we have a similar challenge, because we have to think at least to the end of this century and maybe beyond,” says Sprinz.
Much of the uncertainty about current climate change policy has to do with doubts about the science behind it.
“No climatologist disagrees that there are two causes for climate changes. One is natural change and the other is man-made change,” says Syun-Ichi Akasofu, founding director of the International Arctic Research Center and professor of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Akasofu will be appearing on the opening panel that will review of the current state of climate change science as well as the contrarian view. Akasofu says he may be a contrarian, but don’t call him a skeptic.
“I don’t like the term ‘skeptics’ or ‘deniers,” he says. “According to my study, 5/6ths of the present warming is due to natural changes. Only 1/6ths is due to man-made. And if you want to correct that you’re wasting your time, money, because natural change you cannot stop it.”
As director of the Arctic Research Center, Akasofu oversaw a study that showed natural changes in ocean currents are causing some of warming in the Arctic Ocean.
“Warm water from North Atlantic is very, very crucial in understanding the changes of the ice conditions,” Akasofu says.
He says other evidence suggests that the current warming trend is part of a recovery period from a 400-year “Little Ice Age” that ended in the 19th century.
“As you know in the Juneau area, you have glaciers, and I studied a whole bunch of glaciers and they start to recede around the 1800s, and it’s still continuing. And in the 1800s there was very little CO2, but the receding began even before 1800,” he says.
Biologist Brendan Kelly will appear with Akasofu, but bring a different point of view. Currently deputy director of the Arctic Research Division at the National Science Foundation, Kelly has studied sea ice ecosystems in the Arctic for 35 years. He’s convinced man-made greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the rapidly accelerating rate of climate change in the last two decades.
“The evidence is pretty compelling,” Kelly says. “Greenhouse gases are there, we know the physics of it, we know how it works to re-radiate heat back into the atmosphere that otherwise would have escaped. Yeah, it’s not rocket science. It’s science, but it’s not that hard to verify.”
Lately Kelly’s work has focused on how melting sea ice is affecting species like polar bears and ring seals.
“Ring seals actually give birth under the snow on top of the sea ice, and we’ve seen very dramatic changes in the frequency of early melts in that snow cover, for example, which can have a very negative effect on the seals,” says Kelly.
He also notes that a significant chunk of the world’s human population lives at or near sea level.
“All you have to do in Alaska is look at communities like Shishmaref that are being severely threatened by increased coastal erosion,” says Kelly. “This not only a function of sea-level rise, but also a function of sea ice loss and increased storminess on the coast.”
Kelly says scientists can argue over the cause of climate change. But that won’t stop it from happening, and it doesn’t mean that mankind shouldn’t try to mitigate the effects of it.
“We don’t really have the luxury of spending a lot of time debating whose fault it is or isn’t,” says Kelly. “We need to get sober about the fact that this is, as I say, a rate of change that’s very hard for ecosystems and biological systems to respond to, and ultimately can be very hard for society to respond to.”
The Juneau World Affairs Council’s climate change conference starts tonight at the University of Alaska Southeast. Tonight’s panel and Friday’s keynote speech will be held at the Egan Library. All other events will be held in the Egan Lecture Hall.