Personalities Plugged In: Carnesale’s Believe It Or Not Challenge

By Published On: October 28, 2011

Former University of California, Los Angeles, chancellor Albert Carnesale has a message for Californians: Don’t believe that what the state is doing abut climate change is going to protect you from its effects. Carnesale is a well-known nuclear engineer. Early in his career he helped the U.S. negotiate a nuclear weapons control treaty with Russia. This year, he finished up his latest job-- chairing a three-year long Congressionally-ordered study by the National Academies: America’s Climate Choices. Having graduated into the ranks of the emeriti, the engineer with a life-long career in the upper echelons of academia and scientific advisement to government exudes authority. Yet, he speaks in a down-to-earth style that any high school student can understand. “There is only one atmosphere,” he says. Despite uncertainty, scientists have what he called “pretty good” knowledge that the Earth is warming up due to emissions from burning fossil fuel. He said temperature records are reliable, especially those taken for the last 50 years using satellites. Scientists have conclusively shown that volcanoes, sun spots, and other natural factors haven’t been powerful enough to cause the rising temperature trend meteorologists have measured. That’s why he’s calling for federal and international efforts to get a handle on global warming by limiting use of fossil fuel or capturing and sequestering emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Short of such high-level efforts, he believes Californians are destined to experience dramatic effects due to climate change in the coming decades, irrespective of what the state does on climate policy. Without federal support, Carnesale even doubts that state climate change programs, such as California’s, are likely to survive in the long run. To illustrate what’s at stake, he cites the San Joaquin Valley--the state’s agricultural heartland. Today, valley residents typically endure 30 days/year when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Under a business-as-usual projection for greenhouse gas emissions, climate models project that by 2080 the valley will hit at least 100 degrees on 110 days/year. For utilities that means more electricity demand. For farmers it means no longer being able to grow many of the crops that have long been staples of the valley. Meanwhile, the climate is likely to become drier, with less water available for farmers and cities alike. Carnesale notes that the wide-ranging group of 90 people who produced America’s Climate Choices agreed on these conclusions by consensus. The group--which included business figures, such as Charles Holliday, Bank of America board of directors chair--agreed that use of fossil fuels is heating the planet and that national and international programs are warranted to protect against a variety of growing environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks. Yet, unlike the scientists, economists, and business leaders who participated in the National Academies study, Carnesale bemoans that for political leaders in Washington climate science is on a par with “creationism. Either you believe it or you don’t.” Citing polls, Carnesale notes that the dynamic in Congress has affected public support for greenhouse gas reductions. Public disbelief in climate science is growing. “It’s amazing what a recession can do to change your views on science,” he laments. Despite his gloomy observations, Carnesale is sanguine that in the absence of government regulation technological advances in the energy field hold great promise for reducing greenhouse gases. He cautions technological skeptics to exercise “humility” and to remember myriad advances in recent decades, from cell phones to cloning. That’s why he thinks that the key thing government can do today to help solve the climate change problem is to keep funding programs alive for scientific research and development.

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