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The Challenge of Climate Change: Which Way Now?

December 8, 2010
by agoldstein

With their book The Challenge of Climate Change: Which Way Now? coming out this month, we sat down with Dr. Daniel D. Perlmutter, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Robert L. Rothstein, the Harvey Picker Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Colgate University, to discuss the project and their views on climate change.

  1. How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

    ROTHSTEIN: Our collaboration was almost fortuitous. I attended a short course that Dan was teaching on energy and the environment. At the end of it I commented to Dan that he had the outline of a very useful book on the basis of his lectures. A few days later he called and said he would like to do the book jointly with my contribution being a discussion of the political and economic issues that he had not discussed.

    PERLMUTTER: Even in our earliest informal discussions of climate change, it became clear that when the problems raised were scientific or economic in content, any possible solutions were as much in the realm of public policy as in the realm of technology. It was apparent that our individual expertises were both needed.

  2. What was the most striking discovery you made while researching this book?

    ROTHSTEIN: I was initially somewhat naïve about the likelihood of bipartisan cooperation on environmental issues. After all, we had a growing scientific consensus on the dangers of climate change—albeit with many disagreements on details—and if that consensus was substantially justified, the need for nonpartisan cooperation ought to be virtually self-evident. If climate change began to create escalating disasters, the children and grandchildren who suffered would not merely be the children and grandchildren of environmentalists or liberal democrats but also of Republicans, Tea Party supporters, and even oil and gas executives.

    But the resistance has been fierce, perhaps largely because of the economic crisis and the success of the community of skeptics in “framing” the issue—for the most part falsely—in terms of job losses and in terms of supposedly ‘unnecessary” overreactions to what they chose to describe as unsound science. Trying to deal with these reactions has led me, especially in the last chapter, into some areas not usually discussed in books on the environment: the social psychology of decision-making, intergenerational equity, and some of the weaknesses of expert judgment.

  3. Do scientists and politicians regularly work together to develop solutions to climate change? Can you offer any examples?

    PERLMUTTER: Several examples come to mind immediately: (1) the phase-out of CFCs following the Montreal Agreement was motivated by the scientific findings that explained the sharp ozone losses in the stratosphere, (2) the reduction of acid rain following the EPA regulation of sulfur and nitrogen oxides in power plant effluents, and (3) the agreements that limited above-ground nuclear weapons tests and more recently served to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenals.

  4. What advice would you offer a lay person confused by the conflicting claims of climate scientists on the one hand and climate skeptics on the other?

    PERLMUTTER: In this circumstance the lay person is in effect a member of the jury. Imagine that you are on a jury and hear conflicting evidence given by different parties. Whom should you believe? You have to decide which witness is more credible. Which one has an ax to grind? Which one stands to gain from what decision?

    In this matter of climate change, most of the scientific world agrees that the masses of experimental data on temperatures, shrinking ice fields, and rising sea levels indicate that global warming is real and that human production of greenhouse gases has contributed to these changes in a major way. Furthermore, any action that reduces the dependence of the developed countries on imported oil is a big plus regardless of its ability to control climate change. What if we develop alternatives, switch to renewable sources, and then discover a quite unlikely result: that the majority scientific opinion on global warming was wrong? Then we are still ahead, having fostered new jobs in new industries, and being less vulnerable to political blackmail and manipulation by oil-rich nations.

  5. Why have scientists found it difficult to counter the anti-global warming lobby?

    PERLMUTTER: While there is good reason to believe that global warming will produce widespread droughts, local flooding, hurricanes, and other major disturbances in climate, such events are not predictable as to date or intensity. And even when they happen, there is no way to prove that any given event is linked to global warming. As a result, predictions of catastrophe seem to be vague and non-specific.

  6. What do you believe is the role of government in forming public opinion on the issue of global warming?

    PERLMUTTER: An important role of government is education. Representative governments are unable to act if they lack popular support on some issues. A well-prepared White Paper should outline the evidence and present the likely outcomes, including the degree of uncertainty in each. Estimated costs and benefits of the major policy alternatives are also needed, but they must address the human costs as well as the dollars.

  7. What are your views on geoengineering?

    PERLMUTTER: Each of the various geoengineering proposals are associated with possible serious unintended consequences. They deserve to be tested on a restricted scale but should not be implemented until clear experimental results are available and the side-effects examined.

  8. What are you reading at the moment?

    PERLMUTTER: I have just finished reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll, a very well-written treatment of current ideas in cosmology and the evolution of the universe.

    ROTHSTEIN: I am currently reading John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics, a useful and sophisticated critique of some of the ideas responsible for our economic problems.

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