In this edition of the Interview, Fair Observer talks to Arek Sinanian, a climate expert.
The science is clear on climate change. Looking back at this past year, we’ve witnessed how climate change has manifested in more extreme weather, from record-breaking hurricanes, storms and flooding to heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Scientists have linked climate change to human activity and emphasized that the problem will not go away on its own. Instead, it will take a global, concerted effort to mitigate the impact of climate change today, while staving off its worst effects in the future.
In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the planet would face “catastrophic” climate change if we do not dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The planet’s average temperature has risen about 0.9°C since the late 19th century. Most of that warming has taken place since 2010, registering five of the warmest years on record.
Global initiatives like the Paris Climate Agreement have sought to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels, as even half a degree Celsius higher — which, if we continue emitting at our current rates, we’ll hit by 2030 — would have a devastating, irrevocable impact on the planet’s climate. CarbonBrief has put together a graphic that depicts the difference between a 1.5°C and 2.0°C increase in temperature, which Vox soberly describes as a weather forecast “from hell.”
Despite growing evidence backing man-made climate change, some people continue to reject the science, and political leaders lack the will to make substantive change in curbing carbon emissions. Leaders like US President Donald Trump have called climate change a hoax. During his annual Earth Day address in April, Trump managed to talk about environmental protection without once referring to climate change. And Donald Trump isn’t alone. Governments around the world have ignored, denied or understated the impact of climate change in favor of maintaining profitable production of fossil fuels — the most egregious culprit when it comes to global warming.
Nonetheless, climate anxiety is rightfully on the rise among the general public. This past year we’ve seen greater public participation in grassroots movements demanding more action against climate change, particularly among youth. In March, 1.5 million students in 123 countries walked out of their classrooms to participate in a global Climate Strike in what was the largest youth-led environmental protest in history. The movement, led by 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, called on political leaders to respond to climate change with greater urgency. In April, the Extinction Rebellion movement staged rallies, die-ins and acts of civil disobedience around the world to call for climate action.
In this edition of the Interview, Fair Observer talks to Arek Sinanian, an expert on climate change and the author of A Climate for Denial: Why Some People Still Reject Climate Change Science, about what drives climate change skepticism, and the role that individuals and governments can play in halting global warming.
The text has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dina Yazdani: The IPCC reported last October that if we don’t make significant strides in curbing global warming by 2030, we could face catastrophic climate change. So what does catastrophic climate change look like?
Arek Sinanian: Yes, I think the word “catastrophic” is a big word — it means different things to different people — and it’s a very general term. As your question quite rightly asks, what does it actually mean? What catastrophic means is that it’s going to have significant impact on the climate of the world. It means more frequent and severe storms that have significant impact on the populations, societies, communities, infrastructure and people.
How many people are going to be involved in such catastrophes? It’s hard to say; you can’t put a number on it. You can’t say X number of people are going to die, or Y number of towns are going to be under water, etc. Predictions vary, and that’s another reason why the report can sometimes be a bit vague, because it depends on what happens between now and 2030.
There’s a lot of variables: economic growth, global economic activity, technological developments and how many new technologies we adopt in energy efficiency and renewables. So there’s a lot of uncertainty. But coming back to the question, What does “catastrophic” mean? If you look at the various aspects of climate change, what sort of impact are we talking about? Let’s run them through.
One is sea level rise. Now, how does sea level rise affect the world? Many towns, cities, countries are on the water, so to speak. An increase of sea level even by a few inches can have a huge impact, particularly if we then add the effects of more severe storms. A rise in sea levels will affect particularly low-lying countries. There are, for instance, Pacific islands that are literally only a few feet above sea level. The reality is that these people can’t go anywhere else. The only thing they can do is either build their houses further up the hill — but often there isn’t a hill — or raise their house somehow on stilts so that they remain above sea level.
On top of that, the other impact is more storms, and more severe storms. Yes, they have been happening for hundreds and thousands of years. They are likely more to be more severe. What does more severe mean? Stronger winds, stronger gusts — and all of this will affect infrastructure, power systems, roads, trains, coastal areas in particular but also in-land areas where there are weather patterns where you will have these tornadoes and hurricanes.
Just imagine instead of hurricanes happening once a year, now we’re going to have twice, three times, four times, five times a year. Is that “catastrophic”? Yes, it can be. Catastrophic in a sense that by the time you recover from one hurricane, you’ve got another one. So that’s what people mean by catastrophic.
That includes storms that might [bring] heavier rain. What does heavy rain mean? More floods, particularly in flood-prone areas in the cities and communities. Again, there have always been floods. We’ve learned to live with these floods. We’ve built systems that can somehow cope or recover from major floods. However, there are countries, communities that are not capable of coping with such events. Also, what if these floods occur more frequently and more severely? In other words, many parts of the world they measure the likelihood of flooding and say things like “one-in-100-years flood.” What if these start happening one every 10 years? One every 20 years? Again, it’s a matter of building resilience and being able to recover from such events. That’s where the problem is.
Just like we have more frequent and severe floods, we’ll also have, ironically and somewhat contradictory, more droughts. Again, more severe, longer droughts, longer periods of no rain, or very little rain, etc. Agriculture, communities and towns, cities rely heavily on water. So it will impact the production of food and sustaining cities and towns.
Then we have more severe heat waves. It has a huge impact on populations. Have we always had heat waves? Yes, we have, around the world there are high temperatures. What if these heat waves occur more regularly and more severely? In Australia, we have just had the hottest summer on record, ever — at least since records began more than 100 years ago. This has an impact on all of the people. More vulnerable people are more prone to heat waves, and it can affect other things like infrastructure and the actual asphalt.
The road base is melting because of the heat. Railway lines are buckling because of the heat. It turns out that it’s not just the single maximum temperature but the prolonged maximum temperature. Instead of just say 100-120˚F peak, what if the 120˚ stayed there for two-three days? It turns out that has even a bigger impact because the system cannot recover.
So we have all of these impacts, and when people talk about “catastrophe,” what if all these things happened around the world more frequently, more severely, and had a huge impact on the economy, on sustaining communities, on the health of people and ecosystems? That’s what the report is referring to as “catastrophic,” and that’s why we need to act very quickly.
Yazdani: That really paints a pretty comprehensive picture of what we can expect if we do reach that tipping point in 2030. You’ve also written quite extensively on the distrust toward climate science and the psychological reasons behind why someone might reject it. When we think of climate change deniers, we often think of people who stand to lose from the adoption of clean energy — like those that work for corporations, car manufacturers, coal producers, power plants, etc., and their lobbyists. What are some other reasons why people might refuse to believe in climate change?
Sinanian: You might be referring to the book I wrote called A Climate for Denial. The reason I mention it is that I did a lot of research into this very thing because I was genuinely intrigued as to why seemingly intelligent, educated people would accept other parts of science. They go to their doctor when they’re sick, they have surgery by a surgeon, who is basically a scientist. The same science goes into designing and flying an aircraft as predicting climate change or deciding how much greenhouse gasses are impacting climate change — the same science, the same rigorous methodologies. Why do these people reject the science of climate change when they in fact accept many others? Our daily lives almost depend entirely on science.
To answer your question, what I’ve found is that there are many factors that affect a person’s accepting or not accepting the science of climate change. It turns out that ideology is the biggest determinant: There have been many surveys and studies done by schools of psychology around many of these reputable universities around the world. So then the question arises, What is it about ideology that affects people’s acceptance of science? Let me just say outright that the science on climate change is absolutely clear. There is no doubt, no question mark. The only thing we can’t really put our finger on which I alluded to earlier is just how much the impact of climate change is going to be.
The way that climate scientists predict the impact of these greenhouse gasses that we’re putting into the atmosphere is that they have models and rely on very sophisticated, I want to emphasize this, very, very sophisticated models that almost include hundreds of different variables, including solar flares, volcanoes, cows and people doing what we do when we eat food. It includes all of that and historic data on everything you can imagine, and then it includes economic factors, technological factors, the use of energy, etc. It’s very sophisticated.
‘When it comes to changing the world don’t be scared.’ — Bill Nye laid out a plan for these grads to address climate change pic.twitter.com/DkQg3IizW0
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) May 29, 2019
I say this because people say to me, “What about solar flares? Hm? You didn’t think of that, huh?” Of course they thought of that. Some of these deniers come to me with the most mundane, basic questions that an 8-year-old asks as if all these scientists that have spent their whole professional lives looking at this would not have thought of that.
Ideology is a big one. What does ideology have to do with accepting science? Well, my conclusion was that there are people whose ideology is such that there is a level of anti-authoritarianism in their way of looking into the world. They don’t want to be told to live their lives in a certain way. It’s kind of a reaction to being told that you have to use less energy, that you have to use a smaller car, you’re using too much fossil fuels, etc. On top of that, there is this notion that, particularly with ultra right-wing ideology — and I’m not having a go at anybody here, but just giving you what the research is telling me — there is a feeling that instead of being told what to do, maybe the market should decide what is best for the economy and what is best for us.
The market decides how much tomatoes cost, how much your car is worth, etc. If, for instance, we run out of oil, then oil will become more expensive and less people will use oil. You get the point. As it turns out, very reputable economists whom I mention in my book have said that, in fact, climate change is possibly and probably the biggest failure in the marketplace. A failure because the decisions we have made since the industrial revolution started, the decisions we have made in deciding what kind of economy and what kind of power system we have, and transport systems — major decisions we’ve made have not incorporated the environmental damage and climate change.
If you believe in the market making decisions for us, then sometimes the market does not get it right. It does not always get the price of a tomato correct. And that’s when usually governments step in and provide subsidies and provide some sort of adjustment to these things to change the market.
That’s ideology. But wait, there’s more. It turns out that apart from ideology, theology or religion, has an impact. You might say, What does religion have to do with climate change? Well, I’ve been told by highly religious people, and again studies show this, if you truly believe that God, a god, is omnipotent, omniscient and is in control of this whole thing — of the existence of humans on earth, of the existence of the earth, how these things happen — then they say that God after all determines our climate and determines whether we survive or not.
I even asked a very religious person, “Wait a minute, you’re saying that you’re willing to leave all of this for God to decide?” And he said, “Yes, absolutely.” So if we’re going to be wiped off the face of this earth, he said to me, “Well, maybe this is part of God’s plan.” But I didn’t have the heart to say to him, What if you had a really, really almost fatal disease, but a curable one. Are you going to say, “Well, it’s God’s will, so I might as well die,” or are you going to go to the doctor and say, Please cure me, get rid of this damn thing? So again, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it is.
But fortunately, the current pope has responded to this very question. A very important paper, Pope Francis’s Encyclical on the Environment, released about two years ago turns that argument completely upside down. What his paper basically says is, yes, God gave us this incredible gift — the gift of this earth, the gift of the beauty, our lives, on this earth — and we owe it to God to look after it for him (or for her).
So far, we have ideology, theology, the marketplace fallacy, and then it goes on and on. There’s fear, and it kind of addresses what you said about people who have a vested interest. People are afraid that if we change all of this — [if] we get renewable energy, rely more on renewable energy than on fossil fuels — then somehow our lives are going to be worse off, the economy is going to suffer, etc. There’s this fear of change. Humans, generally, do not like change. Nobody likes change, because change means uncertainty; we don’t know what’s going to come, we don’t know what’s ahead. We don’t want to change our way of life. I want to keep my car. I want to drive it everywhere I want. I want to put my air conditioning on. I want to stay cool. I want to stay comfortable. All of that.
But here is the counterargument to that fear: What if we had our entire energy provided by renewables? What if? It’s a big hypothetical, I know. Imagine that. All of our energy comes from renewable sources. Guess what? You won’t even have to turn your lights off. You won’t have to turn your air conditioning off. You’ll be able to run your electric car until it falls apart. What I’m saying is that if we have renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, none of these fears would happen. The only problem is, how we do get there? That’s the biggest issue we have.
Yazdani: You mentioned earlier the resistance to authority, God’s will, market shortfalls: How can we — or political leaders, religious leaders, people who have influence, scientists — more clearly communicate the reality of climate change?
Sinanian: It’s interesting that you say that, because the reason why I thought my research and book are important, is because I think communication needs to change. I’ll start with the scientists. The scientists have done themselves a disservice. It turns out that for a climate denier, the last thing you should give that person is more graphs, numbers and data. It’s more to do with ideology than figures, graphs and numbers. It’s convincing them that the fear is unjustified, the market is not going to work and these catastrophic things will affect us.
Really, the communication ought to be more positive than that. At the end of the day, it becomes a philosophical question rather than a scientific or political one. The question is, Do we really care about future generations? It’s as simple as that.
The scientists have to present the information, the data in such a way as not to talk down to people. They think they know everything. Well, between you and me, they do — they know a hell of a lot more than the average person on the street, and know a hell of a lot more than most politicians and corporate leaders. But it’s how you communicate. Instead of talking down to people and saying you’re ignorant and don’t know a thing, the way to communicate has to be more inclusive and understanding of these fears and denialist tendencies that I talked about earlier.
This warning just popped up on my phone. Tornadoes in Brooklyn = Climate Change 😥 pic.twitter.com/pcSzHonZvu
— Elizabeth Yeampierre (@yeampierre) May 29, 2019
At the personal level — that’s you and me — what can we do about it? Other than making our own small decisions in the way we live on this planet, I think we can also make decisions when we come to vote. Most people [live] in a democracy, and in a democracy we have ways of choosing our leaders. The people we choose to represent us agree with our values, morals and ethical standards, including climate change. When I vote, there is no way that I will vote for someone who doesn’t believe in climate change. Why? Because as I said, it’s going to lead to catastrophe for future generations and I will not be able to die in peace knowing that I gave power to that person.
Now, this doesn’t guarantee anything of course, but even if a leader is voted in who doesn’t agree with it, we can write to politicians, express our disappointments in their lack of climate change policy, because not doing something is as bad as doing something bad.
Yazdani: Earlier you mentioned that many people see climate change through a generational lens. Last month, youth from over 100 countries around the world walked out of their classrooms to participate in what they called a Climate Strike to demand leaders to respond with greater urgency to climate change and take more action. We have also seen a Green New Deal put forward in US Congress. Do you think leaders are feeling pressure from the public, particularly the youth, to do more to address climate change and make hard decisions?
Sinanian: Absolutely. I have contacts all over the world, and the response to [the student strikes] all over the world was fantastic. In a way, the strikes were the best way to tell leaders, particularly coming from the youth, because, as I said, this is an intergenerational problem. To be honest, my generation is probably not going to suffer anywhere nearly as much as future generations. The strikes were fundamentally important — and I would say fundamentally successful.
You mentioned a tipping point earlier. I think we are reaching a tipping point in climate action, because there is a change in the mood around the world. In Europe, France, Germany, have been way ahead of America and Australia on this. They’re already there. There are now movements in the mood and in the feeling among politicians — and politics — around the world. The mood of the community and the action of what the young people are asking for is changing.
So how is this going to change policy? Because there are very young people that went on strike, if you’re a politician, you’re thinking, Those young people are going to vote in a few years’ time and going to put me, or my party or my congress out of [office]. There is now this feeling around the world that we better change our colors. We better change our policies, otherwise we’re going to be dinosaurs, so to speak.
Yazdani: Bringing it back to the US, last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that greenhouse gas emission had decreased by 2.7% from 2016 to 2017 during the first years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, claimed that “these achievements flow largely from technological breakthroughs in the private sector, not the heavy hand of government. The Trump administration has proved that federal regulations are not necessary to drive CO2 reductions.” What’s your reaction to this press release, and can we significantly stem greenhouse gas emissions without government regulations?
Sinanian: No. I totally disagree. I don’t feel capable or justified in what I’m about to say. I have a lot of respect for the EPA. However, I cannot help but feel that that statement was a political statement rather than a technical one. I’ll talk generally about agencies like EPAs around the world. They are absolutely fundamental to monitoring and measuring our emissions and what impacts policies are having on our emissions. They measure our fuel, energy usage per capita, sector, economy, city, state. The first thing about management of anything, not just science or climate, requires data and monitoring and reporting.
Now, EPAs of this world are in the best possible place to do these measurements and collation of data and then to report, because that then gives the decision-makers the tools and data they need to put the appropriate policy measures in place. Regulators such as the EPA also are involved with the actual implementation of policies and regulations. We need regulations to stop people polluting and doing unlawful acts according to the country or state’s regulatory framework. Otherwise, if we didn’t have EPAs of this world, I could put cyanide down the sink or put toxic chemicals down the river. They fill a very important function not only for climate change but also for regulating and policing environmental issues, and monitoring and reporting to politicians to advise them.
Yazdani: Regulations aside, what are other steps that the government can do to help foster investment in renewable energy and discouraging the use of fossil fuels?
Sinanian: There is a fear that somehow transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is going to be painful, costly, a nuisance, [and will] degrade our quality of life. What can they do? As it turns out, investment in renewable energy is at the highest it has ever been. The US is not a bad guy here. On the contrary, after China, the US is the second biggest investor in renewable energy. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for what’s happening in the USA. A lot of this is happening because of the market. What’s happened, for instance, [is that] solar panels and wind, the cost of renewables, the installation and operation, have come down. The costs have come down significantly.
Not only that, but the technology has improved. Solar power is far more efficient than it has ever been. You add that to the cost reductions as well, and it’s got to the point that in many parts of the world solar energy and wind energy are challenging the cost of coal-powered electricity. In many parts of the world, coal-powered generation is by far the cheapest option. If that’s our baseline and what we’re aiming for, it turns out that solar and wind power is now challenging that economic argument.
What can the EPAs of this world do? They can mention that and show the success and the economic, as well as the environmental, benefits of renewables. Incidentally, economists are also saying — and have done the calculations — that not addressing climate change is going to be costlier than actually addressing it.
Yazdani: We talked about how climate change can look like at the individual level, at the national level, and what governments can do. To bring it to the global level, how effective are international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement in compelling signatory countries to meeting their emission targets? So unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement is not a legally binding treaty, therefore there are enforcement mechanisms for countries’ non-compliance with the agreement. Are pledges enough to ensure that warming does not surpass 2˚C above pre-industrial levels?
Sinanian: Unfortunately, no. The Paris Agreement is a compromise. It’s an agreement to agree. It’s like you and I agree that we’re going to do something. High five, we’ve agreed to do something. The reality is that the global agreements have always been extremely difficult, even more difficult than the national ones. I’ll tell you why. In all of these meetings that they have in the United Nations, just imagine almost 200 countries coming together to agree, as I said, to agree to change the way we live on this planet. That is an incredibly difficult thing to do. They can hardly agree to the time of day, let alone how we’re going to change.
There are many problems, but the main problem is this: There are around the world the haves and the haves not. There is the industrialized countries, USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, etc., and then there are the other countries that are still developing, including China. China is still predominantly an underdeveloped country. Don’t be fooled. Yes, they’re making everything we wear, use and buy. You’ve got India coming up and many other Asian, African, South American countries that are predominantly underdeveloped. How does one provide a bridge?
India is about a billion people, [and some 31 million people] don’t even have electricity yet. Here I am thinking about turning my air condition on and off. In many parts of India, they cook with little sticks of wood. So how are we going to [tell] these people, No you cannot have electricity, sorry — you could only if you have solar wind, but you can’t have electricity because that’s going to add to greenhouse gasses. You can’t do that to people. They have as much right to come to our level of affluence and quality of life as we have established for ourselves.
You’ve got a huge discrepancy between the developed and underdeveloped economies. How are we going to bridge that and let them develop, because development ultimately requires energy use. If they’re going to develop and require more energy, how can we make sure they do all of this without adding to greenhouse gasses? It’s a huge problem. That’s why global agreements have failed.
What [such agreements mandate] is for the developed countries to reduce emissions enough to allow the underdeveloped countries to come up mid-way. Kyoto did that, and I was personally involved in implementing the Kyoto Protocol for the United Nations. The way that Kyoto tried to do it was encourage cross-subsidization for developing countries to put in renewable energy and energy efficiency systems to that they could develop — transfer technology to them, teaching them how to do it better, but also at the same time to encourage them with economic assistance, to embed low carbon technologies and low carbon energy generation.
It’s a big problem. That’s why the Paris Climate Agreement is non-binding and just an agreement. Let’s meet for a few days, have lots of cups of teas and agree to do something. We don’t know what it is, and even if we know what it is, we’re not bound to it.
*[Updated: June 6, 2019.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.