Wallace Broecker Interview
On August 8, 1975, Wallace Broecker published a prophetic text in the magazine Science. The article entitled Climate Change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming? warned that the temperature of the planet would increase over the coming decades. The reason for this “global warming”, a term coined by this very researcher from Columbia University, would be the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases from the burning of fossil fuels.
Nearly four decades later, thousands of scientific studies have made it clear that he was right. Despite the satisfaction that he may have drawn from his professional achievement, the researcher is overwhelmed by the certainty that the continued emission of CO2 will cause serious environmental problems and that those that could help avoid it do not show determination to do so.
Knowing what scientists have discovered about climate change, do you think we are taking it seriously enough?
There is much uncertainty about the magnitude of change, but although scientists accept this, our best estimate is that if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles, this will increase the global temperature by about three degrees Celsius. It might be five or two, but in any case, if we continue releasing CO2 into the air, we’re doing something stupid. The problem is that the price of fossil fuels remains low and that makes it difficult for solar or wind to be able to compete, so the transition is extremely slow and if one extrapolates, to make the transition will require 50 or 60 years.
“The problem is that the price of fossil fuels remains low and that makes it difficult for solar or wind to be able to compete”,
With the crisis in countries like Spain, climate change has gone down on the list of priorities. Is there any way to convince people to pay attention to such an important issue despite it not seeming so urgent?
That’s the challenge. We’re going to have to do it, but there has also been a lot of propaganda saying it’s not a serious problem. As the average citizen has the hope that it’s not a problem, they have made many converts. The trouble is that the only thing that has decreased is the public perception, not the problem.
However, recently, in the U.S., some large companies like Exxon have assumed that in their future plans it is necessary to include a price for carbon. If we emit carbon, we’ll have to do something to capture it and we’ll have to include these costs in the price of energy. That’s a big change because Exxon did not use to admit that CO2 is a problem.
As well, our Secretary of State [responsible for U.S. foreign policy], Kerry, recently said that his main concern over the next two years will be what to do about the climate.
Some politicians argue that a global fight against climate change could be a boost to the world economy similar to that attributed to the Second World War.
For me, whatever we do, if we’re going to switch to solar or nuclear or we’re going to remove the CO2 that we produce from the atmosphere, it’ll create a huge industry and there will be great opportunities.
We’re not yet prepared to capture and bury the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere. We should learn everything about that technology to know if we can use it or not, what it would cost and what the environmental impact would be, all the types of things that we aren’t doing. We live in a world where we spend huge amounts on internal security, armies or preventing diseases that can affect us, out of fear, but with respect to the greatest threat we face we are doing practically nothing. There is something wrong when the U.S. spends 500 billion dollars on defense every year and only one billion on environmental problems.
“We’re not yet prepared to capture and bury the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere”.
Do you think that scientists can do more to convince people that climate change can be more dangerous than, for example, terrorism?
One must face this problem in the same way that we confront those of garbage or sewage, which became huge problems in urban areas and the people decided they had to spend money to manage them. This is on a totally different scale. It affects everyone, and while the cities have governments that can make decisions, the world doesn’t have a global government capable of making these decisions.
Would it be possible to solve the problem of CO2 in the atmosphere with some sort of capture technology, even if it took a long time to start implementing it?
I am convinced that it can be done with a reasonable increase in the price of energy produced from fossil fuels, increasing the price between 10% and 15%.
There are many reasons why we should capture CO2 and start doing so immediately, because the longer we take, the more expensive and more difficult it will be. Also, if we achieved this, we could continue using gasoline as fuel for some applications where electricity would not be as practical, such as flying or driving long distances.
Do you think these changes are possible before we get to a critical situation?
I do not think we’re necessarily going to cross a threshold to suffer major problems. But the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more problems we will have, the more the glaciers will melt and there will be regions like Spain that will be drier… I don’t believe that if we continue in this way, in 2030 we will have a disaster, I don’t think in those terms at all, but I think the problem will become more serious.
What is necessary in order that finding the solution to climate change is seen as an opportunity for entrepreneurs?
For now, the business is very small because a price hasn’t been put on carbon. In order for someone to be responsible for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, it’s necessary to pay for the cost of its removal up front together with the use of the energy. Once that has been done, there will be all sorts of opportunities for industry.
Do you think China or India may be willing to put a price on carbon?
If China were to put a price on carbon, this would increase the price of its exports immediately and China is thriving on its exports. Industries in China don’t want this extra cost and in a time when money is tight on the planet, people aren’t going to want to think about this problem. And that’s what is going on and it’s very unfortunate and very stupid, because the problem is not going to stop growing and we are going to be hit very hard.