The Science of Climate Change Panel

James Hansen:
This is a time pregnant with danger. This danger exists because of a large gap between what the science has made clear and what the public realizes.It has become clear from the science that we are in a dangerous situation. The climate system responds slowly to man-made factors. But it does respond. And we’re pushing the system to the point where we can guarantee that large changes are going to become evident in the next few decades. But the public at large is not well informed because of the nature of discussion in the media. The public thinks scientists are still debating whether Climate Change (CC) is happening.

But it’s clear that we’re passing major tipping points. For example, the possibility that the Arctic ice caps will melt and lead to massive sea-level rise. We can already measure such rises in sea levels. Another tipping point is the increasing mass extinction. CC will drive even more species to extinction. This is a non-linear event; as individual species become extinct, others that depend on them will follow, creating potential collapse of entire ecosystems.
The CC contrarians and deniers are having a field day with “Climate-gate” and the IPCC errors. But in both of these cases, the scientific evidence is irrefutable that the climate really is warming. Glaciers are melting all around the world. So the science is clear, yet the public continues to buy into the idea that the whole thing is a hoax.
This is because the people who prefer business as usual are more successful at controlling the media. But the science tells us that a safe level of greenhouse gases is 350ppm. If we’re going to get CO2 back down below this level, we cannot burn all of the coal. We’re going to have to phase out coal emissions. And we cannot exploit unconventional sources like tar sands and shale. And we shouldn’t be going after every last drop of oil. We need to move promptly to clean energy systems.
This has implications for what is needed. We cannot achieve what is needed through distant emissions reduction goals. Such promises are worthless. What we actually need are policies that move us to clean energies of the future. This means that cap-and-trade with offsets is a method to continue business as usual. What we must do is put a rising price on carbon emissions so that alternative fuel sources will become more competitive and allow us to move to a clean energy future.
Governments are continuing to go down the opposite path, with more and more coal and other conventional sources.
We need to realize that this is a moral issue. This means that we must realize that it is a question of inter-generational injustice if we think we can address the problem by having goal for emissions reductions in the future. We must give priority to mitigation of the forces that are driving the carbon cycle. If we put CO2 in atmosphere now, it’ll remain there for generations.
This has implications for developed countries, which must develop policies we need for the future. But developing countries should also not put first priority on adaptation. We must put first priority on mitigation.
Edson Ramirez:
Scientist who studies glaciers in Latin America, which has 5% of the world’s glaciers, 99% of which are concentrated in the Andes, 70% in Peru, 8% in Boilvia. The Andes have more than 40 million inhabitants. Glaciers are an archive of a climate hurtling towards extinction. Similar massive change going on today.
Foster Brown, “Climate Change and its Synergies: The Case of South-West Amazonia.”
The Amazonia region is experiencing increasingly dry weather.  The drought in the region in 2005 finds hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest burning down. Result is more than 20,000 people affected by severe flooding. Many cities (such as Cobija, Madre de Dios) are vulnerable since over 50% of the population of this region is urban. Also, we’re looking at greater rural vulnerability due to the creation of novel, fire-prone ecosystems. Literature on global CC growing rapidly – several articles being published per week in the top scientific journals. It’s hard to keep up with all this new knowledge.
Central observations in Amazonia: forest fires in 2005 & 2007, flooding in 2006, 2009, and 2010, patterns suggesting greater extreme climate events. These extreme events are likely to become the rule. South-Western Amazonia is where CC is on fast forward.
Risk management approach: we cannot wait to be absolutely sure about CC. Evaluate the risks then chose the lesser risks.
Ricardo Navarro:
We’re looking at catastrophic consequences if temperature goes up above 4° C. This climate crisis will never be resolved until we adopt the perspective of climate justice. We need to challenge the big corporations. Production of beef creates as much emissions as all transportation.
Bill McKibben:
Beginning with science issue. My first book was written 21 years ago. Then we already knew a lot about the science. What we didn’t know was how much CO2 would be too much, and when effects would manifest themselves.
Unfortunately, it’s become very clear over last 20 years that problem is bigger than before. The tipping moment was summer of 2007 when Arctic ice caps melted faster than ever before. We’re seeing rapid changes in hydrological cycles. Air holding over 4% more water than 20 years ago. Also, the chemistry of the sea is changing and becoming more acidic, with resulting death of the coral reefs. All of this with only 1° change.
We’re being told that 3-4° change this century is possible.
One good thing from the last few years is that we finally have a number around which to rally. This comes from James Hansen in a January 2008 paper. Any value of CO2 greater than 350ppm is not compatible with human civilization.
But we’re already at 390ppm and rising fast. Official negotiating positions of many environmental groups and governments are for 450ppm. Question is how we go back down to 350ppm.
This isn’t too complicated. We’ve got green technologies. Hard part is mustering the political will to make something happen. We saw at Copenhagen how difficult it is. 150 countries endorsed 350ppm, but they were not the ones that counted when the Copenhagen accord was written.
When we started 350 in 2008, many said it was too complex and scientific. We feel that it’s clear: one simple number. This is the case. Last October, we put together 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations around the world. This was the most widespread day of political action in the world’s history, the largest coordinated protest in world history.
We need to keep this movement going and growing. We want people to use October 10th as a global day of work installing green technologies. We don’t think this will solve the problem. It can only happen through an international agreement that puts a price on carbon and lowers emissions. But this day will show politicians that they have to get to work all around the world.
It’s crucial that civil society be part of this story, because cooperation between civil society and government must happen. This is THE movement for the future of the planet. If it doesn’t win, we won’t have a future. But we feel that it will win. We’re so grateful to you for organizing your conference, and to the scientists for showing us where we need to go.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.