Michael Oppenheimer speaks at a press conference on sea-level rise in Florida in 2004. Photo: Phil Coale / AP

By Robinson Meyer
3 June 2017

(The Atlantic) – Michael Oppenheimer has been thinking about climate change about as long as most Americans have been alive. For almost four decades, he has worked on answering the phenomenon’s two most pressing questions: How dangerous will climate change get? And what can humanity do about it? So after President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Thursday, Oppenheimer was one of the experts I most wanted to hear from.

It helps that Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor since 2002, has worked on or in some of the most important environmental programs of the modern era. He is currently a coordinating lead author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and he edits the journal Climatic Change. From 1981 to 1996, he worked as the senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, where he helped frame the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act that reduced acid rain.

Along with other scientists, he lobbied the United States to start negotiating the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which President George H.W. Bush signed 25 years ago this week. Since then, he has attended the major UN climate negotiations, including Paris in 2015.

I spoke to him on Friday about his outlook for climate treaties looking forward, Trump’s ability to roll back older climate policies, and whether the U.S. withdrawal from Paris could make global warming significantly worse. Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Robinson Meyer: You’ve been involved in climate diplomacy for a long, long time. How are you feeling today?

Michael Oppenheimer: I’m upset and troubled—as I rarely am, because I’ve been involved in this issue for 35 years. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, but this is the most discouraging. It is more discouraging than when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.

The reality is the clock has been ticking all this time, all those 35 years the clock has been ticking. And because the clock has been ticking, Earth is already a degree warmer than it would otherwise have been. We don’t have much time to avoid the two degrees of warming that would destabilize ice sheets, entail extreme heatwaves, and potentially undermine food security. And this decision is just enough to push us over the edge, in my view. I think it’s totally unrealistic now to believe that we are going to meet that objective.

So in a personal way, for someone who has worked on the issue for decades, this more so than any other setback seems to indicate that it’s highly unlikely that we can make the two-degree goal. The Trump action pushed us over the edge, and basically Trump owns the responsibility now for this problem. [more]

Avoiding Two Degrees of Warming 'Is Now Totally Unrealistic'


  1. Anonymous said...

    In spite of this immediate setback thanks to Trump, which may not last, the controversy has ironically served to solidify the world's commitment to emissions reduction. People are now talking about the issue, even deniers. I have always thought reducing emissions was going to be a stretch; and now I'm amazed it seems ever more possible all the time. Such low demand for oil it's price can't support production! Who expected that? Plus we already realize that negative net emissions are required. We need to draw down CO2 out of the atmosphere and place the carbon into deep rich soils and flourishing ecosystems, and agro-ecosystems for food production. We know how to do this. Google Permaculture, or the Loess Plateau in China where ecosystem restoration on a vast scale has been done successfully. We also know a lot more about how to finance a moon-shot-scale international effort; just look at today's powerful interconnected global financial system. We have plenty of people who are under-employed. Hopeless prospects cause social pathologies like extremism. We can redefine the meaning of work, and educate and employ millions at all levels slowing, sinking and spreading the water needed to build up soils and their consequent ecosystems on vast extents of land made poor, dry and degraded by long term poor management. Migrant problem? Not anymore. We need all the hands we can get to partner intelligently with ecological flows on a fine-grained scale on landscapes all over the planet. We can in this way actively cool the climate while solving a lot of other social problems as a side effect. Once people get the idea, the work will catch on. I think it's our destiny.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    Humans don't have a "destiny" anymore than an ant colony has a destiny. We live in a deterministic universe, we don't "decide" things collectively or individually to any real degree. So far our "destiny" has been to pollute and radiate the planet, have endless war, violent dictatorships, slavery, etc. Some destiny.  


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