This is the eighth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.
As the Copenhagen summit prepared to open, we asked geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter to talk about the prospects. While at sea, Mutter investigates the workings of deep ocean floors; on land, he directs the Earth Institute’s Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and works to focus science on humanitarian causes. Among other things, he pinpointed who suffered most from Hurricane Katrina, and has championed development of bamboo bikes for cheap transport. Journalist Kim Martineau spoke with him in his office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Let’s say the impossible happens: a climate deal gets signed in Copenhagen. Is the world ready to meet a CO2 target—any target?
Probably not; we need to make big investments in technology. The lifestyle changes that we have made to feel better about ourselves don’t amount to much. I’m not sure driving silent, ugly cars is going to help in the way people think they will. If you were to switch from a Hummer to a Prius that might do some good, but if you’re switching from a moderately efficient car to a Prius, that probably won’t make a lot of difference. It is the single action bias, the idea that if you do one thing, that will be enough and remove obligations to do other, more effective, things. I heard recently that the idea of buying carbon offsets for air travel has had the opposite effect, [and increased] air travel. The serious actions that need to be taken are likely to be far more than the sum of individual actions.
How can scientists better communicate the risks of climate change?
We lost that chance. In the early days, scientists, who are normally associated with rational people, got associated with fringe environmentalists without intending to. Then along came Al Gore, a Democrat who lost the election for president. Climate change became a partisan issue. We could have used a Carl Sagan of climate, a serious spokesman for science.
Who will be hardest hit by climate change?
Most of the large temperature changes will happen at the poles—where no one lives. The next largest will be the temperate zones, home to wealthy countries with manufacturing and service-based economies. But our wealth will permit us to cope. It will not be pleasant, but at least we will be able to manage. The real irony is that temperature change will be smallest in the tropics and subtropics, but because these areas are poor, densely populated and dependent on agriculture, they will suffer most. If you’re on the edge of survival you can’t take small change[s].
What would you most like to see happen at Copenhagen?
A serious discussion about adaptation: What we are going to do for [low-lying islands like] the Maldives and climate change refugees? Normally, refugees are people who have been displaced by somebody else—persecuted. One of the obligations we have to refugees is to repatriate them to where they came from. But if where they came from is under water? We don’t have language to describe the international community’s obligation for people persecuted by climate.
What will it take to get people to act?
If people see countries going under water, the spread of conflict in the drylands of Africa, with implications beyond, and people displaced from their homes, we will do something. We’re altruistic as a species. It calls on our core beliefs. We can ignore polar bears and still go to heaven, but we can’t ignore people.
The climate may still be warming while we wait for our humanitarian impulses to kick in. Will it be too late?
It will certainly be too late for some people. Hopefully not too many, before we take actions at the correct scale.