Can The Latest IPCC Report Pave The Way To Better Climate Policy?

17:14 minutes

a crowd of protesters outside. three signs are being held up, they read "listen to the science ipcc report", "no economy on a dead planet", and "now""
A protest in Stockholm Sweden on September 20, 2019, advocating for climate change solutions. Credit: Shutterstock

One of the best resources to understand the state of our climate crisis is the report developed by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), every six to seven years. 

The most recent installment of the IPCC report, compiled by Working Group III, was released earlier this month. It outlined ambitious steps needed to mitigate some of the worst possible climate futures. 

It’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to keep the planet from warming by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet, the report optimistically focuses on achieving that 1.5 degree benchmark.

The report’s recommendations include things like phasing out coal entirely, slashing methane emissions by a third, reducing our carbon output among all sectors of the global economy, and developing new technologies to help us do it. But how do governments make laws to reach these goals? That’s not addressed in the IPCC report. 

Ira is joined by David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego to discuss the difficulty in developing climate policy solutions and some that seem promising. 

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Segment Guests

David Victor

David Victor is a professor of Innovation & Public Policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego in San Diego, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

One of the most quoted bibles on the state of our climate crisis is the IPCC report, the Environmental Panel on Climate Change at the UN. And the most recent installment of the IPCC report outlined ambitious steps needed to mitigate some of the worst outcomes.

It’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to keep the planet from warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius, on average, above pre-industrial levels. Yet the report focuses on achieving that 1.5-degree benchmark. It optimistically says we can do that. The committee’s recommendations include things like phasing out coal entirely, slashing methane emissions by 1/3, reducing our carbon output among all sectors of the global economy, and developing new technologies to help us do it.

But how do governments make laws to reach these goals? That’s not addressed in the IPCC report. Joining me now to talk more about how we get to climate solutions is my guest, Dr. David Victor, Professor of Innovation in Public Policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego in California. Welcome to Science Friday

DAVID VICTOR: It’s great to be with you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. When you look at the most recent IPCC report, what is your reaction?

DAVID VICTOR: My reaction is that they’re still trying to figure out how you would stop warming at 1.5 degrees because, politically, it’s just too difficult to walk away from that goal. I think as you said in the introduction, it’s really not feasible to meet that goal, and so there’s kind of a lot of torquing around, how quickly can we reduce emissions, stop warming at 1.5 degrees?

I think the reality is that we’ve actually made quite a lot of progress. Only about a decade ago, we were on track for warming of about 5 degrees over the course of the next century, which is just a massive amount of warming. Right now we’re on track for maybe 2 and 1/2 degrees, maybe 3 degrees. Still a huge amount of warming, but a whole lot better than 5.

And I think that’s actually the larger message. But the IPCC, because it requires the consensus of scientists and the consensus of governments– the IPCC can’t quite say that because it implies that we need to change our goals.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s its Achilles heel then.

DAVID VICTOR: I think that’s exactly its Achilles heel. You know, the report is enormously powerful because it’s the one place where everybody goes and says, this is what the scientific community says. The report is also very conservative. It mostly focuses on things that we know a lot about for big reductions in emissions– you know, transformative changes in our economy.

Those are things that require policies where we don’t really know how to design the policies. We don’t know which policies work better than others. We know a little bit here and there. And that kind of subtle, dealing with uncertainty is something that’s very hard for the IPCC to grapple with.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you were a part of the third working group for the previous report in 2014. You’ve written about how the need for consensus, as you say, makes it hard to advance solutions, which are ultimately needed to address the climate crisis. You didn’t join in writing the current one. Is that out of frustration with this consensus process.

DAVID VICTOR: It’s a little bit out of frustration with the consensus process. This is also a big, big job, and I have an enormous amount of respect for the 300 or so scientists who were involved in this most recent report. This most recent report is the third installment of three major reports.

It’s a really big commitment. I spent probably five years or so of my life working on the last report. I was part of the team that helped draft the key summaries and negotiated with governments line-by-line to get those summaries approved. So I think it’s very important as a public service. I think it’s also important that we think about opportunity cost as a scientist. The time you spend on an activity like this is time that you’re not working on science, and I think those opportunity costs are getting bigger and bigger.

IRA FLATOW: If you say that we’re not going to achieve the 1.5 degree that we need to, and the IPCC keeps telling us to do that, what use is the report? I mean, if you say governments are not going to pass laws to get us there, of what use is it to actually continue doing this?

DAVID VICTOR: Well, I think the report serves an extremely important function in identifying the places where the scientific community has roughly a consensus and also identifying some of the places where we don’t yet agree or where we need to do more research. And that part of the report continues extremely valuable.

I think this effort by the report to continue to focus on goals that are unachievable– that part of it is doing a disservice. And the problem there is not so much the scientific community. The problem is the governments, that no government wants to be the first to say, OK, 1.5 is not feasible. Let’s look at other goals. Frankly, I think two 2 degrees is also not feasible. I’ve thought for now six or seven years that two degrees, which is the most widely-discussed goal, is not feasible.

It’s not that we’re not making progress. It’s that it’s very, very difficult to turn the industrial system around on a global basis as quickly as you need to to stop warming at a goal like 2 degrees.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of turning the industrial system, you wrote a piece in The New York Times this week called, “Why it’s Time to Start Caring Much More about Clean Hydrogen.” President Biden, in his State of the Union address, singled out clean hydrogen as something to invest in. You’re in agreement with that.

DAVID VICTOR: Yeah. I think– and this is an area where the United States has also made some progress. There’s $8 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure law for clean hydrogen hubs, for these investments in these new hydrogen systems.

Hydrogen is really important because it’s one of the leading ideas around switching from conventional natural gas, which causes emissions, to a cleaner gas system. And natural gas and gaseous fuels are a big part of the modern industrial economy because they’re easy to move around. They’re easy to store. When you burn them they produce very high temperatures, which is extremely important for some industries. And because they’re easy to store, it’s also an easy way to store electricity and then generate electricity when you need it by simply burning the hydrogen.

I think one of the big opportunities with hydrogen is that the European policies to invest in clean hydrogen are on steroids. And they were always there, and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine made the Europeans really focus on, how are they going to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas? And one of the leading ideas was to switch to hydrogen as quickly as possible. In the short term, they’re going to be switching to other sources of natural gas, and so it’ll take a little while for this to diffuse into service.

But the piece that we wrote in The New York Times on Monday is about how this European doubling down around hydrogen is potentially good news for the global energy revolution.

IRA FLATOW: And you think that the US could mimic that switch?

DAVID VICTOR: I think the US could mimic it. In some areas, the US could help lead this. These hydrogen hubs could be a very big deal. There are many utilities in California that are now very focused on hydrogen because in California and a few other places in the country, there’s a very aggressive set of laws that are requiring a big reduction in emissions, and you’ve got to figure out what to do with the existing natural gas system. And so these utilities are investing in hydrogen as one of many options.

IRA FLATOW: And when we talk about clean hydrogen, you’re talking about making it from renewable energy, not from natural gas.

DAVID VICTOR: Well, that’s an open question right now. But 98% of the hydrogen used today in the world, which is used in the petrochemical industry and refineries and so on, is made from natural gas, and that causes emissions. So we can’t make it that way. That’s called gray hydrogen. We could make it from natural gas and capture those emissions and put them underground, which would make clean hydrogen. Some people call that blue hydrogen.

Or we could make hydrogen by using electricity and then running the electricity through an electrolyzer and splitting water, H2O, and turning it into hydrogen. The electrolyzer route looks like the most cost-effective route for the long term. But right now, it’s very, very expensive, which is why these investments that are being led by the European policies– these investments are so important because they’re going to result in buying many more electrolyzers and then reducing those costs.

Electrolyzers could be the next battery or the next solar cell, where early investments bring down costs through learning, and then those reductions and costs expand the market share for electrolyzers, and the costs come down further. And I think we may be on the cusp of a kind of solar moment for hydrogen electrolyzers.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We’re now in a phase that we cannot ignore the reality of climate change and what it’s doing. We’re seeing rising sea levels. We’re seeing disasters by weather. Are you seeing any communities, states, countries realizing this and acting to mitigate, understanding that this is the future?

DAVID VICTOR: Yeah, I’m seeing that happening very quickly. As a political scientist, the politics are very interesting here, because even if you’re not convinced that we ought to do something about global warming– and that’s true for a lot of the American public, especially on the right side of the political spectrum, you still have to deal with the climate impacts.

So take Miami, for example, in Florida, which is hardly a blue state– Miami is now one of the leaders in the world in thinking about the potential impacts of rising seas on their groundwater table, on the stability of the land in that area. And so you’ve got this completely different politics around dealing with the impacts of climate change because the impacts are unavoidable. And in many respects, many of the biggest impacts in the United States are going to happen, actually, in the red states, in the Southeast, where more frequent heat waves are going to make some places actually uninhabitable. And I think that political shift is now very much underway.

IRA FLATOW: Is the political shift happening without having to call it climate change?

DAVID VICTOR: Yeah, and it’s happening because of tornadoes. It’s happening because of sea level rise, because of hurricanes, to some degree, and floods and drought. I think one of the things that we’re pretty far behind on– and this is true around the world– is, how do we set up our disaster assistance programs, for example, to better reflect the reality that there are going to be more disasters in some areas.

And so rather than having FEMA come in and rebuild the same thing over and over and over again, we ought to be shifting our investments towards more preparedness and avoiding places that are going to be harder and harder hit as the climate changes.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see that people view this as a problem that, they cannot take action themselves, individually? Are there things that people can do to make them feel like they’re having an impact?

DAVID VICTOR: There’s a lot that people can do to make themselves feel that they’re having an impact, but I think it’s also important that we be realistic about how much is in our individual control and how much of this is a larger societal problem and therefore really requires society-wide policies.

It’s an interesting exercise– and our listeners should do this– to go and do your own inventory of emissions. For most people in the Western world, higher incomes, emissions are coming from transportation– from driving around, from flying. If you do a lot of flying, aircraft are extremely efficient, but you cover very long distances in airplanes, and so those emissions are very high.

And also diet– one of the things I found very surprising in a pleasant way in the latest IPCC report is some attention to how shifts in diet could also result in big reductions in emissions. For example, eating less meat and eating more vegetables, eating more efficient meats like chicken and less beef, which is a particularly inefficient way of converting primary calories into final calories.

So there are all these things that you can do. A lot of people say, you know, I don’t need to worry about climate change. I recycle. The practical impact of that on the overall global warming problem is almost zero, and so we have to be analytical about this.

And we also have to recognize that the problem is mostly outside of our individual scope. And so we really need to be putting pressure on governments and on firms to be organizing policies, investing in new technologies, and doing the things that we, collectively, as a society, have to do.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re talking about becoming more politically involved.

DAVID VICTOR: Yeah, I think that’s vitally important. This is an area where many scientists are themselves struggling because one of the norms in science is to do your science and stay out of the other areas. And many climate scientists have recognized, sometimes to an extreme, that they need to be much more active politically because the problem is not going to solve itself.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because I recall during the first Earth Day, it was very politically active. You had scientists like Paul Ehrlich talking about it, Barry Commoner talking about pollution in those days.

But they were very, very vocal, very visible. They were on the evening news every night. We don’t see enough of that, or we don’t see very much of that these days.

DAVID VICTOR: I guess we see less of it these days, but also, the society has changed, and our sources of news have changed quite a lot. And scientists are elites. They’re uncomfortable with that word. As a general rule, elites have not fared very well in terms of public opinion. So people are looking to other sources for news and for information.

I think one of the things that we, as scientists, have to do is get more comfortable also talking with other people who are the real purveyors of information in society and help shift that information flow into things that are much more accurate.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the latest IPCC report with David Victor, Professor of Innovation and Public Policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego in California.

But we are seeing a shift in our own production of energy in this country. I mean, last week, we set a record for wind power in the US. Wind power was the second highest source of electricity for the first time since the Energy Information Administration began gathering data. Isn’t that hopeful?

DAVID VICTOR: It’s hopeful. We are making progress. You look over the last few decades, the United States has actually been one of the world’s leaders in reducing emissions from its economy and, in particular, from its electric power system. There’s a very strong result in almost all the energy models. An economy that decarbonizes is an economy that electrifies because it’s easy to electrify as many uses of energy as possible– think about cars, for example, switching to electric vehicles– than to reduce emissions from the electric power sector.

And we’re already reducing emissions from the electric power sector quite a lot, in part because of the revolution in natural gas production. Horizontal drilling and fracturing of gas wells has produced a lot of gas at very low cost. That’s helped push coal out of the electric power system.

Now we have a lot of renewables, a lot of efficiency. These results from the wind supply are very encouraging, and I think we’ve just barely begun. We’re building more and more wind, more solar. We’re now starting to develop offshore wind, which should be, over time, a cost-effective and large supply of renewable energy.

So we’re making progress. We just have to be realistic about the rate at which these industrial systems change, which is over several decades.

IRA FLATOW: You identify that one of the biggest problems in transitioning away from fossil fuels is a followership problem, not a leadership problem. What do you mean by that?

DAVID VICTOR: Well, I live in California, and my state is always thrilled with itself about its leadership on climate policy and lots of other policies. And leadership is really important. What leaders do is, they redefine the technological frontier. They invest in new technologies. They show how it’s done. They lower costs. Those benefits then flow to the whole world.

But I think it’s really important for leaders to remember the core logic of the climate change problem. What causes climate change is mainly the buildup of gases in the global atmosphere. So the more the leaders do to control their own emissions, ironically, the more irrelevant they become to the overall problem. Their emissions shrink. The emissions from other countries continue to grow.

And so the goal here is not just to be a leader for leadership sake, but it’s to do things that then can be emulated in the rest of the world so that the kinds of technologies we’re adopting in California, for example, then get adopted in other parts of the United States and adopted all around the world. And then that’s what’s ultimately going to cause big reductions in the global emissions, and that’s how you’re going to stop global warming.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Victor, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

DAVID VICTOR: It’s really a pleasure. Thank you very much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: David Victor, Professor of Innovation and Public Policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego.

DIANA MONTANO: I’m Diana Montano with another meditation for your Earth day, and I’ve got a trivia question for you. I’ll read the question then give you a few moments to shout your response in the direction of the radio before I tell you the answer. Ready? Here we go.

The oldest still-living, non-clonal tree known of the world is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine named Methuselah. It lives in the White Mountains of Eastern California. But exactly how old is this tree?

Times up. Through the careful and diligent work of dendrochronologists who use the scientific method of dating tree rings, we now know that Methuselah has been alive for 4,854 years.

If you love trivia questions about the Earth and want to join me for our weekly trivia nights, go to ScienceFriday.com/Trivia.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Diana.

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