Ned Barnett

Duke climate expert finds hope and worry in Paris accord

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Drew Shindell went to the climate summit this month in Paris, a center of civilization. But for a man with his knowledge, it was also a visit to the end of the world, or at least the world as we know it.

Shindell, a professor of climate sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, studies the warming of the Earth’s climate. He has testified about it before both houses of the U.S. Congress and chaired a United Nations’ 2011 committee that assessed the effects of carbon buildup in the atmosphere.

In Paris, representatives of most of the world’s nations pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Shindell watched the negotiations – and the surrounding festival of protesters and people showing off environmental technology – with hope and concern. It is good that so many nations are willing to do something, he said last week after returning to Durham, but the national pledges are nonbinding and, even if fulfilled, possibly not enough to hold off dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate.

“It can be both historic and a big step forward and still not be what we would ideally like,” he said of the Paris climate agreement. “I would liken it to someone purchasing a house and making the down payment. That’s a big step, but unless you continue to make the payments, you’ll never own the house.”

That’s a good analogy since Earth is our home and keeping it livable will come at a price. And those who must pay the price may not be willing to do so. China and India pledged to reduce emissions, but their targets are vague and unenforceable. If cutting back greenhouse gas emissions slows their economies, they are likely to back off.

And then there is the fossil fuel industry and its powerful influence on U.S. energy policy. Just a week after the United States pledged in Paris to reduce its carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2030, Congress approved ending a 40-year ban on the export of U.S. crude oil, a change that could increase the burning of fossil fuels.

Shindell said the fossil fuel industry has nowhere to go other than the course it is on. A solution to global warming must drastically reduce the burning of coal and most oil. “There is no way they come out ahead,” he said.

Because there is no apparent alternative for fueling planes and agriculture will continue to produce greenhouse gasses, Shindell said the reduction necessary to keep global warming under the targeted 2-degree limit will have to come from eliminating the use of fossil fuels elsewhere, especially in power plants and ground transportation. Greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 80 percent by mid-century to avoid a rise of 2 degrees, he said, “and there’s no way we’re going to do that without abandoning fossil fuels.”

Getting there would involve shifting the subsidies that support the fossil-fuel industry to the renewable-energy industry. Solar and wind power are advancing rapidly. Electric cars are gaining in range and dropping in price. The conversion can and must happen, Shindell said. But the biggest obstacle isn’t oil company lobbyists. It’s human nature.

“We don’t do anything until disaster strikes,” he said.

But humanity can’t afford to wait for this threat to become obvious. “If we wait until every year we have crop failures and huge hurricanes, then it’s just too late,” he said. “You can’t deal with the climate once the disaster actually strikes.

“That’s what makes this a more difficult problem. We have to take preventative measures far in advance, and we are not really very good at that.”

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and others have suggested a third way between prevention and rolling on toward disaster. That would be an international push for a technological breakthrough that would produce energy cheaply, abundantly and cleanly. But Shindell is dubious about the planet’s being saved by a stroke of genius.

“It’s a good idea,” Shindell said, “but I doubt that we are suddenly going to come up with something that changes the picture dramatically. I’d be happy to be wrong on that, but I doubt it.”

What the worldwide effort should focus on is improving the clean, renewable energy sources that are already in hand – solar and wind – and increasing the ability to store that energy through better battery technology.

As for the obstacle of human nature, he said more emphasis should be placed on the immediate effects of sharply cutting fossil-fuel use.

“Instead of thinking that most of the benefits are far away from the U.S. and far away in time, see that a lot of the benefits would be right now,” he said. “In five years, we would have dramatically cleaner air and that would save hundreds of thousands of lives. That makes the whole issue more immediate.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com