Stanford Roundtable – Climate Change

On October 24, Stanford University hosted a roundtable discussion on climate change. Leslie Stahl of 60 MInutes was the moderator, and the panelists were mostly Stanford faculty, with a Tesla co-founder and Obama’s former advisor on climate change.

The panel said that there is evidence of climate change, but this hasn’t been proven scientifically. But the changes we’re seeing are catastrophic. Therefore, as stewards of the world, we should take action without scientific proof, as we did with ozone depletion. Groundwater is being depleted in California and the rest of the world, and rising temperatures will make this worse by reducing the snowpack and increasing evaporation. The panel would like to see a carbon tax to mitigate carbon dioxide being dumped into the air.

There is evidence of climate change: the earth is 1.5 degrees warmer; the oceans have absorbed even more heat that that; glaciers around the world are melting. The high pressure ridge holding back rain from California is four times more likely now than before, according to a Stanford study.

But there is no 100% scientific proof that all this is caused by human actions. Climate change is complex and more like medicine, where doctors deal with probabilities, trying one medicine to see if it works, then trying another if it doesn’t.

But if climate change is caused by human action, the consequences — global warming and sea level rise — are severe. In management, the CEO doesn’t risk the whole enterprise if there’s a 95% chance of that occurring. Instead management buys insurance to guard against that risk. Similarly, we should purchase insurance for climate change.

There is inertia in the climate so we should start early. A low-cost action today is to increase the efficiency of water transport. If we have a level playing field that includes the cost of carbon dioxide, then the marketplace can solve the problem.

Costa Rica passed a 3.5% tax on gasoline to pay for reforestation. The law has not been changed by later administrations, and deforestation in Costa Rica has been reversed. 90% of the electricity comes from renewable sources. Action is possible without breaking the economy.

Ozone is a success story that can be emulated. If the ozone layer had been depleted, there would have been catastrophic harm to animals and plants. Instead, nations agreed on an insurance policy, Dupont developed a solution, and the agreement was codified in the Montreal Protocol. The solution worked, just in time. George Shultz advocates 1) government support for energy research and development, which will spur private investment, and 2) putting a price on carbon that is revenue neutral, so that it’s not viewed as a tax.

JB Straubel, the Tesla co-founder, sees gradual breakthroughs, especially in energy storage, such as batteries.

Microsoft and Disney has incorporated a price for carbon in their business decisions. Throughout the world, 90 companies make 2/3 of the world’s emissions. Making the new Apple iPhone creates 110 kg of carbon, which would cost a few dollars to offset.

The polluter should pay for the pollution. Everyone adds carbon dioxide to the air because it’s easy and cheapest. But we don’t dump our garbage on our neighbor’s front yard, even though that’s cheapest.

The energy grid  is susceptible to terrorism. We should pursue large-scale storage and small-scale solar power generation.

People generally agree with climate change arguments, but they don’t rank climate change high enough to be spurred to action. There’s not enough impact to people around them. To make people care, it has to be put into local and human terms. For action now, we need to put it in terms of doing it for ourselves, not future generations.

Does religion play a role in opposing climate change? People of all religious believe in stewardship and care for the most vulnerable. Our appeal should be based on being stewards of the earth and being respectful of the most vulnerable people of the planet.

Two satellites observing changes in the earth gravitational field have found significant aquifer drawdown in California. (Not discussed in the roundtable, the two GRACE satellites found that since 2011 four trillion gallons of water have been pumped from California aquifers each year, far more water than California’s 38 million residents consume in a year.) Groundwater is being reduced worldwide.

Climate change will reduce California’s water: reducing snowpack and that water storage, and increasing evaporation. 80% of California’s water is used for agriculture, with a complicated legal and regulatory framework.

We all need water, so water is an equity issue. Hillsborough residents use three times as much water as East Palo Alto residents. We can’t price water so that the poor can’t afford it. 60 Minutes will air a segment about San Diego treated water and pumping it into the aquifer.

Schultz pitched Game Changers, a free book by Stanford and MIT on energy.

The panel agreed that technology can help solve or mitigate climate change, but the government must prime the pump by taxing carbon emissions.



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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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