Getting Serious About Climate Change – Charles David Keeling Annual Lecture (Transcript)

This is the full transcript of the 2014 Charles David Keeling lecture delivered by Professor David Victor, an internationally recognized leader in research on energy and climate change policy. Full bio here




Introducing Speaker: Welcome to this Charles David Keeling lecture. This is my first and so I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you. The past few days have been ones where climate has been very much in the news. About a week ago the US released its third National Climate Assessment and the very strong message from that Climate Assessment was that climate change is not no longer something that’s just in the future, its impacts are upon us already. Now it is a very sobering message and one that I can assure you the scientific community was concerned to hear.

We’ve also in the last few days received media attention from around the world concerning the Keeling Curve that was Charles David Keeling’s research program to measure CO2 continuously and that has been carried on since he stopped running the program by his son Ralph Keeling who you’re going to hear introduce David Victor and Ralph’s Keeling research group reported May 1st that April 2014 was the first month in human history in which the concentration of greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, not greenhouse gases in general — in the atmosphere stayed above 400 parts per million for the entire month. So that also was quite a sobering reflection for the entire community.

The choice of David Victor as tonight’s Keeling lecture is also especially timely because discussion of climate change has moved beyond just the detection of it, the attribution of it but spurred by the knowledge that it is already happening has moved into the issue of adaptation and how we’re all going to deal with this in the present day.

And that really brings climate change to society and so it’s very important for us to start broadening our discussions beyond the scientific community into the social science community. We’re going to require help from economists to help us understand the implications of decisions that we have to make, the practical decisions about how to adapt to climate change. Where do we draw the line between protecting assets and maybe having to abandon some of our assets? How do we adapt what we’re going to face to our personal values, messages that people should make prudent decisions after important floods or wildfires about the implications of that for where they live, municipalities discussing how to share water rights for dwindling water resources.

These are the kinds of questions that lead us into the real world and into the politics of climate change and the social science. And those are questions that David Victor has been considering for many years. He is an author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in fact he was telling me just a few minutes ago that the whole first couple of weeks of class and he’s teaching four classes this term, he was commuting to Berlin where the conference of the parties was doing the summary for policymakers. So we would go for a couple days come back and teach for a couple days and then go back to Berlin. That’s the kind of dedication that all of the members of the IPCC assessment have shown.

So he has been upfront row observer of the political gridlock that has waxed and waned over the past decade and he’s going to share some thoughts with us about that.

And now to tell you – just I’ve told you a little bit about what his field is but to tell you a little bit more about David himself, I’d like to welcome Ralph Keeling, son of Charles David Keeling,  and the steward of the CO2 measurements that were started some 50 — how many years ago – 56 years ago. Ralph?

Ralph Keeling

So thank you Margaret and the Keeling lecture we have each year we invite a prominent member of the global change, climate change community to give a talk that somehow reflects in an appropriate way the legacy of my father’s work. His work was of course confined to the science of global warming and particularly of CO2. But the legacy includes topics that relate to impacts and what the society should do about it.

And that this year I’m pleased that we can bring someone in who reflects more human dimension of the problem having to do with the politics and the negotiation, having to do with trying to make progress towards treaties to reduce greenhouse gases.

So it gives me great pleasure to welcome David Victor. He is a professor of international relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies here at UCSD, sometimes known as IRPS. He is also director the laboratory of international law and regulation at the program.

Here is a little bit of background. He received a BA at Harvard and I’ve learned that we crossed paths a bit at Harvard, although I think we just narrowly missed getting to know each other because we were TA in the same course in different years. He moved on to get a PhD in political science from MIT. Before coming to UCSD he was a professor at Stanford Law School where he also served as director of the program on energy and sustainable development.

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One measure of his impact is the large role he plays in an advisory capacity and I could go on at length here but just a couple prominent ones. He is currently a member of the Advisory Council of Electric Power Research Institute and has been on the Board of Directors there since 2013. Interesting one here – he is the chairman of the Community Engagement Panel established earlier this year to deal with communication and outreach having to do with decommissioning of San Onofre power plant. So obviously a delicate and interesting process undergoing – going on there.

Earlier in his career, he also directed the Science and Technology program at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and he is the author of a very highly acclaimed book called Global Warming Gridlock which takes on the question of why the world hasn’t gotten further with negotiations on climate change and suggests some solutions to that. And I expect we’ll be hearing a little more about that theme in this talk tonight. The book was recognized by the Economist magazine as one of the best books in 2011.

So for those of you who still read books and I realize it’s a dwindling list, it might be something to have a look at. Anyway it gives me great pleasure to welcome David Victor.

David Victor

Well, thank you very much for that introduction Ralph and Margaret and Nigel. And I’m pleased to see Louise Keeling here and all of you tonight. It’s really a pleasure to be here and speak about the situation with climate change.

My lecture tonight I have titled Getting Serious About Climate Change. The theme that I’m going to develop is that so far at least from a policy point of view we have not gotten serious at all. We’ve basically done nothing for the last 20 plus years. So I like to talk a little bit tonight about what we might do that’s different.

I am going to speak for about 40 minutes, about half of it on where the natural science stands, including the work on climate change impacts and then half of it on emissions and policy and so on.

And it’s interesting time to talk about climate change because as Margaret has said, we’ve had a whole series of reports that have come out in the last year. And I’ve been very heavily involved to the point of commuting to Berlin which is something I can strongly recommend against. I have been very heavily involved in the process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has just finished its fifth massive assessment. Every seven or eight years now we do these assessments. It requires about seven or eight years between these assessments because you have to forget with the experiences like before you really take on another one of these.

And the first of the three reports that we put out was published last September. It’s about the underlying physical science. The second came out in March; it’s about impacts and adaptation; and the third which I’ve been essentially involved with, came out in April. So a month or so ago and it’s about what we call mitigation but it’s really about missions trends and controlling those emissions.

I was reminded as Ralph and I reminisced about old times a while ago about this overlap that we had at Harvard teaching the atmosphere. The class was called Atmosphere – Science A30. And I don’t know if I deserve kudos for writing up all of those notes. I do remember being tremendously naive as a young student and thinking how hard could this book writing thing be. We had all these notes, they were on viewgraphs and some of them probably weren’t for the pirates for all I know. And so I just wrote them up into a book and it was I think one of the worst books ever written on this planet.

History of Climate Science – Paper

In three years, we’re going to celebrate the publication — the 60th anniversary of the publication of a very important paper in the history of climate science by Roger Revelle and a co author, which was the first paper to put together fully the buffering chemistry of carbon dioxide in the oceans. And until that paper came out, a lot of people could plausibly assume the carbon dioxide that went in the atmosphere, there were not very large industrial emissions but some significant emissions at the time.

Carbon dioxide that went in the atmosphere would all end up in the oceans and kind of stay there, at least we wouldn’t have to worry about it too much. And Roger and his colleague said, no, that’s actually probably not correct and here is the reason chemically because the carbon dioxide would mix into the oceans and then generate some acid in the oceans. And the bulk of it would not stay up in the atmosphere. But that was a hypothesis.

And in order to know whether the hypothesis was sound, you needed to go off and reliably measure atmosphere concentrations of carbon dioxide. And that had been done a little bit here and there with ad hoc methods. People when they flew across the North Atlantic a lot, they were taking measurements out of airplanes and other kind of cool things. But there was no reliable record and of course as everyone knows, Roger raised money from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and variety of other places, hired Dave Keeling and they went out initially to Hawaii and then other sites and started measuring carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

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This slide here shows you where we stand and, as Margaret mentioned in her opening remarks, last year we were flirting with 400. This year we’ve had a whole month that has flirted with 400 and then eventually it’ll be a whole year and so on.

The pre-industrial concentrations – the time before the Industrial Revolution that was powered by fossil fuels and continues to be powered by fossil fuels – concentrations were on the order of 280 to 290 parts-per-million. And now we’re seeing concentrations reliably up in the 400 range and no sign of that slowing down.

Almost everything I am going to say tonight concerns the climate change that follows from the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. I will say that one of the byproducts of the analysis, really going back to Roger Revelle and a handful of other people, is also that the oceans would become more acidic. The surface oceans would become more acidic. And that’s in fact exactly what you measure.

Here are measured pHs in the oceans. We’ve seen the oceans become more acidic by 30% or 40%. They’re naturally variable to some degree. And that on its own is a significant concern, especially for ecosystems that depend heavily on making shells for a living in their very many important ecosystems in that regard.

It’s interesting to reflect that if you summarize the state of climate change science today in a small number of figures, which is in fact exactly what we did in the IPCC in our first report last September, where we had in our summary for policymakers 10 figures. This is one of them.

So the contribution that Dave made and Roger Revelle and Scripps made to this topic has been just profound and remains tremendously durable. And it’s a contribution that Ralph carries on and many others and we’re all enormously grateful for them for their work. Because really the whole discussion about climate change begins with reliable measurements that the gases were concerned and pollutants were concerned about are building up in the atmosphere.

How do you know that this is not naturally variable?

People often ask – how do you know that this is not naturally variable? This is a topic that the IPCC and a series of climate modelers have done a large climate model intercomparison project. I have worked on extensively in the last few years.

This slide here just summarizes where that work stands. What it shows you is a compilation of different ways of measuring changes related to climate change. Some of these figures are changes in temperature. Some of these are changes in OHC, the ocean heat content and some of these are changes in the sea-ice extent in Antarctica, very much in the news in the last few days and in the Arctic.

And what you see here is an effort to tell the best models we have in the world about the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and then to compare that with the actual observation record. And so you see for every single one of these little vignettes and these are summary vignettes for global averages over here for land surface temperatures which are the most responsive to change in climate; ocean surface temperatures, thermal inertia in the ocean and then the ocean heat content.

What you see is that if you just tell the models about natural variability that we know about, what you see are these blue patterns. And if you tell the models about natural variability plus the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, what you see are the pink bands with the actual observation records shown in the black line in the middle.

Almost everywhere you simply cannot explain what you observe in the real world without telling the models that there has been a buildup of greenhouse gases. And that gives us confidence in the models. It also gives us the ability to say things like it is extremely likely that the majority of the observed climate change – warming in the atmosphere since 1950 is caused by humans.

So this is an area of ongoing science but I have to say statistically, the results are just profound. And one of the major contributions that the science team in the IPCC has made has been to be able to really nail down that we are seeing the signature of the human impact on the climate. It doesn’t mean that we know everything. In fact, in very important ways, the uncertainty around climate change science has actually gone up, rather than down. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that because it’s not that we’ve become more stupid over time although maybe that’s the case, certainly my four-year-old thinks that’s the case. But it’s that we’re learning things that are in the realm of unknown unknowns if you like and those become I think actually on balance scarier the more we learn about them. The kind of uncertainties of the fat tails as some people call them are deeply worrisome in this area.

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