The world is facing a “50- to 100-year war” against powerful vested interests if it is to achieve the “zero carbon emissions” needed to tackle climate change, according to one of US president Barack Obama’s environmental advisers.
Prof Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s center for the environment, was speaking yesterday at the Ryan Institute in NUI Galway before travelling to this weekend’s international Climate Gathering in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare.
He said the change now being experienced “hasn’t happened for millions of years”, with carbon emissions already close to 400 parts per million (ppm) and likely to increase to 500ppm by mid-century – “and there’s almost nothing we can do about that”.
There was “very good evidence”, he said, that most climate change models “err on the conservative side”.
Referring to the decline in Arctic sea ice, he said it was “quite possible it will be an ice-free Arctic in a decade or two” as the North West Passage was “wide open already”.
Prof Schrag said the problem was “more about money and power rather than individual choice” because climate change was “threatening” the fossil fuel industry in a “life-or-death struggle”.
Dirty war on coal
“There is a major industrial battle going on,” he said. In the US, the coal industry was “really feeling the pressure”, with Republicans complaining about President Obama waging a “war on coal”, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. “But we need to fight that war.”
Prof Schrag, a member of the president’s council of advisers on science and technology, said most people in London in the mid-18th century would have “laughed” at the idea of abolishing slavery, “because the whole economy depended on it”.
The same was true now of fossil fuels, and the issue was “how to sustain the political will to make this huge transition” to renewable energy.
“We need an alternative to petroleum in transportation, and I suspect electric cars are going to win that battle.”
The benefit of “fracking” for shale gas was that it provided a “plausible alternative to coal”, he said. Coal’s share of electricity generation in the US had fallen from 50 to 38 per cent and new regulations would shut down more coal-fired plants.
“The problem with shale gas is local environmental hazards from the impact of drilling,” Prof Schrag said. “It’s not that much worse than conventional gas. Either way, it’s a dirty business – not pretty – and there is always a risk of accidents.”
Nuclear energy was another option, but he said it was unlikely any nuclear power stations would be built in the US over the next 30 years. As a result, it was “ridiculous” to imagine 80 per cent of US emissions could be eliminated by 2050.
There were “promising signs of change” following Hurricane Sandy, which had cost $150 billion.
“The media and the public interpreted it as a sign of climate change”– and a foretaste of things to come.
“We are more aware of vulnerabilities and, essentially, we can mitigate, adapt or suffer – although it’s more likely to be all three . . . Anything we do with emissions today is not going to change things over the next 30 years, but will have a big effect in future.” He said “tens of thousands of hours” were being wasted arguing about short-term targets for 2020 when the focus should be on the ultimate goal of zero carbon.