Though Oil Saved Whales, the Rising Tide Will Get Us: Interview

The cover jacket of "Earth: The Operators Manual" by Richard B. Alley. Source: W. W. Norton via Bloomberg

Scientists who work on issues of sustainability and global warming often run into some version of this argument: “The natural-not-human problem that isn’t happening and wouldn’t matter is too big to handle.”

So writes Richard Alley, who was a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN climate change committee, and now teaches geo-sciences at Penn State University.

In “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” Alley explains how carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is raising the planet’s thermostat and presents practical solutions to the energy conundrum.

The PBS documentary based on his work premieres April 10.

We spoke in Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Lundborg: How is the nuclear catastrophe in Japan changing the energy conversation?

Alley: It’s in flux. Is this a death knell for nuclear? I can’t see that it is.

But if nuclear is going to be a big part of the answer, industry officials are going to have to convince more people that the plants are highly safe and reliable over long time periods.

Lundborg: You point out that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve might make a lot of money for a lot of people but it won’t make a big change in the energy independence of the U.S.

Old Oil

Alley: There is oil that’s walled off environmentally, but it doesn’t look like it’s huge amounts. We found the easy stuff and we burned it. We need to find alternatives.

Lundborg: Isn’t solar less complicated than other options?

Alley: We’re going to have plants somewhere, which means you have to ship the electricity and that ultimately means that somebody’s going to be unhappy.

The question about energy sources is: “Which ones are cheaper? Which ones have fewer problems?”

I start the book with a very clear recognition of how much good we have gotten out of the system we have. If we just come in and say “Wow, coal is dirty, oil is dirty” we’re not being honest.

We’re alive because there’s diesel in the tractor, and we really do have trees and whales because we’re burning oil.

Lundborg: Estimates for warming over the next 100 years range from 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Where are you on that scale?

Alley: The biggest source of the uncertainty is the decisions that we make as people. So, in that sense it depends on whether people say, “Yes, we want to slow this down and switch to alternatives.” Then we’re on the lower end.

Rachel Carson

Lundborg: What’s the difference in impact?

Alley: Probably large -- the difference between sea-level rise being some fraction of a meter to being 20 or 30 even 40 feet eventually.

A change of even a few degrees probably creates a lot of drought. If crop breeders can figure out which gene to insert to make corn handle 110 degrees, the worries go down. If not, you end up with a lot less food growing on the land we have.

Lundborg: When Rachel Carson published “The Silent Spring,” the Secretary of Agriculture called her a communist. What have you been called?

Alley: I’ve been called a liar, a cheat, essentially a gold digger -- “You’re only doing this for the grant money.”

Lundborg: You say the only thing keeping us from sustainable energy is the will to spend?

Alley: It depends hugely on how fast you do it, but to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere now, the numbers are usually around one percent of the world economy -- that’s sort of what we spend on sewers and clean water.

When we look at the impact of climate change and run the costs into an economic model, it says start now. Start now without panicking. That’s the efficient way.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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