A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of talking to Dr. Robert Socolow, the Princeton physics professor who, along with colleague Dr. Stephen Pacala, developed the famous “stabilization wedges” concept for combating climate change.
The interview (available online now) will be running in the forthcoming issue of Momentum Magazine, published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Momentum's typically enlightening content continues with this issue -- themed “What Would It Take?” -- in which a dozen or so experts offer their thoughts on what's necessary to solve a variety of environmental problems.
Because of his work on the wedges, which provided a simple blueprint for how to stabilize carbon emissions, our conversation addressed the question: What would it take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change?
Unfortunately, Dr. Socolow is far less optimistic about the prospects for stabilizing carbon emissions than his wedges might indicate. In fact, back in March he actually told National Geographic that he somewhat regretted the wedges, worrying that they made solving climate change seem too “easy.”
"With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn't impossible, so it must be easy," Socolow said. "There was a whole lot of simplification that this is no big deal."
Of course, anyone who pays any attention to climate science, economics, or politics knows that solving climate change won't be a simple affair.
In our conversation, Socolow wanted to move past talk of “wedges" and examine what he feels is the most current political-economic threat to climate action. This isn't an overly simplistic popular perception of climate solutions, but rather the idea that current greenhouse gas reductions targets -- discussed everywhere from UN conferences to academic journals to the halls of Congress to mainstream media -- are so damn hard that there will never be any consensus achieved to actually work towards then.
Socolow put it this way:
The world’s diplomats and environmentalists have nearly universally endorsed a target that is extremely difficult to achieve. As a result, there is no appetite for discussion of any goal that is less stringent. Yet a consensus could develop—possibly quite soon—that the very difficult goal will not be attained. It would be desirable to prepare now to discuss some relatively less difficult goal that nonetheless requires, starting immediately, major national commitments and international coordination. We will greatly increase the likely damage from climate change if not achieving the current extremely difficult goal disheartens us and we respond by postponing action for decades.
Momentum: What is this “extremely difficult” goal?
The extremely difficult global target is known as “preventing 2 degrees.” Let me decode this. To prevent 2 degrees, those alive today and our successors must keep the Earth’s average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) relative to the value of the same temperature before the Industrial Revolution. Because the Earth is already on its way to warming by half this amount, largely as a result of the fossil fuel emissions of the past century, achieving the “2 degrees” target requires the termination of the fossil fuel era in just a few decades.
In other words: reaching a “2-degree” target (let alone the 1.5-degree target endorsed by the world’s most vulnerable nations and groups like 350.org) would be so freaking hard that we’ll never get anyone to agree to do it.
So what now? Shift the goal posts a bit to make the task seem less painful and more manageable and get started right away.
To say that Socolow's stance is a controversial one is an understatement. As Bill McKibben likes to say, physics and chemistry don’t negotiate. Moreover, the best predictions for what our world would be like at 3 degrees of warming are pretty terrifying. But Socolow maintains that getting started now on a 3-degree target is better than hopelessly flailing in garnering support for a lower, safer goal and obtaining firm commitments from world leaders. Our best hope, he believes, is to just get started.
We discussed some other risks and the challenges for weaning the world off hydrocarbon energy -- from nuclear proliferation to the responsibilities of the developing world -- but you’ll have to go to the interview itself for Socolow's thoughts on all that.