In this episode, we hear from John Harte, Ph.D. and professor at University of California, Berkeley. Harte has studied the effects of climate change on our lives and our ecosystems in various habitats around the world. The science states quite clearly and unambiguously that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate, and that these changes are due to human activity. Additionally, Harte describes a feedback effect in which the ecosystem responds to these changes in a way that actually exacerbates the problem.
Climate change threatens all of life on earth, yet denialists and political pressures are impeding our transition to more sustainable ways of living. Click play to hear Harte discuss global warming, the biggest culprits, and specific ways we can help reduce our impact.
To learn more, go to https://hartelab.weebly.com.
Richard Jacobs: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with the future tech and future tech health podcast. I have John Harte, he’s a professor at Berkeley University. We’re going to be talking about a global change, ecosystem biology and biodiversity. So John, thanks for coming. How are you doing?
John Harte: I’m doing fine.
Richard Jacobs: Well, if you would, tell me few details about your research and your work. What are you focused on?
John Harte: I’ve been focused for the last 30 years on how climate change is going to affect our lives and also our ecosystems. I’ve been studying this and various habitats in the mountains of Colorado, in California and actually in places in Tibet and around the world. The concern that I had about 35 years ago when I got interested in this topic was that not only would it be devastating for biodiversity if the climate kept warming, but ecosystems would respond to climate change in ways that would make the climate problem even worse than it would be otherwise. And in other words, there are feedbacks between climate and the environment between climate and ecosystems. And these feedbacks are going to exacerbate the global warming problem. And I’ve been studying that phenomenon for the last 30 years.
Richard Jacobs: And I know you’ll probably roll your eyes, but you know, I just have to get it outright in the beginning. What’s your thought on the fact that no climate change becomes a political football instead of just relying on the science? And what does the science actually say in your as you’ve been around him for a long time?
John Harte: The science unambiguously tells us that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate that it’s doing so because of human activity, in particular, the burning of fossil fuels and that this warming is leading to an earth that could well be uninhabitable for humans, let alone all the rest of the creatures that we share the planet with.
Richard Jacobs: So how could such a thing become political where people say, oh, scientists don’t agree and they do agree and like, where’s that coming from? Is there a particular study that somehow was compromised? What’s your thought?
John Harte: We call the folks who don’t get the science denialists they deny scientific reality. And where are they coming from? Mostly they’re coming from large vested interests, economic interests that will suffer if the planets stop using fossil fuels, oil companies, coal companies. They are doing all they can to put up smoke screens so that the public gets confused about what the science actually says and they’re doing all they can to influence politicians to block any kind of legislation that might help reduce the threat of climate change. So it’s mostly, I guess you’d say greed. They will suffer some if we respond as we must to climate change and they don’t want to, they want to keep things going just as they were.
Richard Jacobs: Right. So what does the trajectory look like with our models, over the next 20, 50,100 years? Where are we headed right now with the current situation?
John Harte: Great question. And the simplest way to say where we’re headed is to look back at the last 30 years and look at the trends that we’ve seen. We’ve seen the warmest years on record. In the very most recent years, we’ve seen the ocean warming. We’ve seen polar ice melting, we’ve seen storms becoming more intense and more frequent like hurricane Dorian. We’ve seen droughts become more intense and more frequent like the recent four-year drought in the southwestern United States and in other parts of the world. So all of these trends are simply going to get worse and worse and worse. We will lose most of our north polar ice. We will see food production all around the world, impaired by drought. We will see sea-level rise inundating coastal cities and infrastructure and the effect is going to accelerate as the temperatures rise. We start to see these feedback effects that I mentioned earlier kicking in and that will speed up the rate at which the planet warms and make the warming even greater than it would be. So picture what we’ve been seeing just the glimpses of in the last 20 or 30 years and now imagine multiplying that fivefold or 10 fold over the next 30, 40, 50 years. That’s what we’re in store for. If we don’t take action essentially immediately and begin to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.
Richard Jacobs: Are there places that would benefit? What do you think?
John Harte: That’s an interesting story. For a while, Russian scientists had tried to argue and maybe this was politically motivated, but they were arguing that perhaps in Siberia a little warming would be good because there are places with huge source supplies of mineral resources in Siberia and a lot of this land is really hostile to human settlement because of the cold temperatures and perpetually frozen ground that’s hard to extract resources from. So they were arguing at one point that a little warming might be good for them. Well, guess what’s happening now in Russia? First of all, the permafrost is melting and the ground is no longer frozen, but the roads that one might build to go into that region to extract the resources sink into the wet soil when the permafrost melts. And so they being difficult for get large trucks up into northern Siberia. Secondly, Russia is having some of the worst forest fires anywhere around the world. Not as bad as Brazil today, but close. And this is because of longer hotter summers, a heat waves drought, all making the problem of wildfire worse. So Russia has learned to its regret that climate change is no friend. For them, it’s going to bring up out very difficult conditions. I cannot think of any place on the planet that will clearly benefit from global warming except maybe the headquarters of Exon who will continue to rake in huge amounts of money if we keep burning fossil fuel and keep warming the planet.
Richard Jacobs: Those are safe to say that global climate change is literally is endangering all life on earth.
John Harte: Yes. We have already begun to see signs of this. Wildflowers in the Alpine meadows and the Colorado Rockies are being displaced by woody shrubs. This is some of the research I’ve been doing. We’ve seen the devastation in some of our coral reefs around the world, like the Great Barrier Reef and others. We’ve seen damage to tide pool life along the Pacific coast from warmer temperatures. The fires in the Amazon, which are destroying large patches of Amazonian tropical forest are partly the result of climate change. There are other factors involved there as well. So yeah, we’re seeing the effects already. But as I say, we’re just seeing the tip of an iceberg. It’s going to get worse and worse.
Richard Jacobs: We’ll need to act to do counterbalances at all, even though it may not be enough. What are some of the counterbalances that will probably happen?
John Harte: Well for a while people thought maybe as we put more carbon dioxide into the air, maybe that will encourage the forest to grow more because the carbon dioxide is the source of the carbon that the trees take up when they grow. And so the hope was the trees will grow more and that will take the carbon dioxide out of the air. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works. Most plants are not limited by the amount of carbon in the air. They’re limited by things like water and nitrogen and phosphorus. And if anything, those limits are going to get more severe because of factors like drought which will reduce the water available for plant growth. So the biggest single hope for some kind of cure from the natural world was that the forest would grow bigger and take up the carbon. But the evidence today suggests just the opposite, that with climate change, the forests are suffering and therefore taking up less carbon. And so the carbon dioxide levels actually increase because of the forest response and that makes the global warming problem worse.
Richard Jacobs: And then what I’ve read the price of solar per kilowatt-hours come way down. It may not be equal to fossil fuels, but it seems like renewable energies, the economics of them are improving a lot. What’s the plan look like to slow down global climate change and maybe can reverse it?
John Harte: There’s a good reason why states like Texas and other states in the country are actually building wind turbines and putting a lot of money into wind energy. And the good reason is that wind-generated electricity is now as cheap as coal-generated electricity. So the economics is now favorable. The barrier to the use of more and more wind and the sun is really mostly political. And there are subsidies that we give to the fossil fuel industries, which are impeding a transition to renewable, clean energy. But coal is on its way out. The signs are clear and despite all the efforts and the rhetoric of the current administration in Washington to say that we’re going to save coal, coal is not saveable, coal is on its way out. It’s dirty and it’s becoming less and less affordable. And it’s, of course, a major contributor to global warming. The next, the real fight is going to be over the transportation sector and the use of oil today to make gasoline. What we, of course, have to do is replace our internal combustion engines with electric vehicles and slowly that’s happening. But the way to speed up that transition is to impose fuel efficiency standards on the automobiles. And this is what the Trump administration is now opposing. So there’s going to be an interesting court battle to see whether states like California have the right to impose stricter fuel efficiency standards than the ones that Trump’s EPA are wanting to impose. And we’ll see how that turns out. But again, in the long run, we are going to be a nation running on electric vehicles. The only question is, are we going to delay and delay that transition until climate change has become catastrophic? Or are we going to make the transition expeditiously and prevent the worst of global warming, but just as coal is on its way out the internal combustion engines years are numbered. And it’s just a question of if it’s 30 or 40 years, it’s going to be too late. And we will see catastrophic climate change. If we can make that transition over the next 10 or 15 years, we could get through and have a livable climate.
Richard Jacobs: Well, what have we transition but nations like China, they don’t.
Johan Harte: China today is the world’s leading producer of wind turbines and solar panels. Their leadership recognizes the problem unlike our leadership and they understand that if this problem is not dealt with no country on earth is going to have a viable economy. So yeah, they’re not doing fast enough, but they’re at least pointing in the right direction, unlike the current administration in Washington. So yeah, China, if we act and China and India don’t do anything, then the game’s over. But I think that if we returned to the Paris accord and made the commitment imposed fuel standards, so on, we would be encouraging the other countries in the world to do the same. Everybody wants to be an economic winner. And when China sees the US turning its back on sensible solutions, then it says, Gee, if we do it and the US doesn’t, we won’t survive this. So in a sense, we all have to work together. And the country that has opted out of working together is not China. It’s the US. Opted out in the sense that the Trump has pulled out of the Paris accord and essentially said there’s no problem. So other countries see those and they say, well, Geez, that makes it difficult for us to act.
Richard Jacobs: So in terms of fuel automobiles and transportation, what percentage of global emissions do they comprise?
John Harte: Well, in the US the percentage is quite large. We’re a nation on wheels and something like 30% of our emissions come from the transportation sector. Worldwide the percentage is lower, but not in a lot lower. It might be, I don’t have that number in front of me, but I would guess it’s on the order of 20%. Which is still large, maybe 25%. Electricity is a big factor, but the transition to renewable electric generation, clean electricity generation is happening if it needs to be speeded up, but it’s happening. And now what we need to do is electrify the automobile sector, which means we’re going to have to have more electricity than we have today because we’re going to be replacing gasoline with electric generation. And that means we have to speed up tremendously the rate at which we’re generating renewable electricity, more wind turbines, more solar power plants, and this is not happening fast enough, but at least the trend is right. So I’m hopeful that clean electricity will happen. What I’m worried about is that clean transportation is going to be harder to achieve.
Richard Jacobs: What would be a miles per gallon benchmark that would essentially force the auto industry to go electric? Is there a certain number range?
John Harte: Well I think Obama had come up with a set of fuel efficiency standards. They vary with the class of vehicle, but for regular passenger cars, it was 50 plus miles per gallon. And that was a very well-crafted piece of regulation because it was both achievable today by the carmakers. The carmakers, they griped and gravest about it a bit, but they can do that. And yet it also is a tight enough standard that it will strongly encourage the transition to electric. But today in many parts of the world transitioning to electric is not good because there still is a lot of coal-generated electricity. So if you’re running an electric car on coal-generated electricity it doesn’t help things. So you got to accelerate the transition to clean electricity and at the same time tighten the fuel efficiency standards and decrease the subsidies to the oil industry and possibly increase subsidies to renewable energy production.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. So we’ve got the transportation industry. What’s another really big chunk of emissions that needs to be addressed? Where’s that coming from?
John Harte: Well, besides transportation and electricity, there is industry and in many homes, of course, are heated by fuel, oil or natural gas. And so that sort of the third major sector. Industry worldwide is on the order of 20, 25% of total production and greenhouse gas production and everything from steelmaking, cement manufacturing every kind of factory you can imagine uses energy in some way or another to operate. And that is also a difficult sector to change. But there is some progress. I think the connection with energy is interesting because a lot of this has to do with consumption, how much throughput, how much material goods does the world consume. And many people have argued and I agree that in the rich nations, we are over-consuming and we could be recycling at a greater rate instead of manufacturing new things from scratch, which generally takes more energy. We are kind of a throwaway society that we get tired of an appliance and we junk it and then we buy a new one and making that new appliance and also operating it causes a lot of energy. So the industrial sector is a tough one and I don’t have a simple set of answers for what to do there. But increasing the efficiency of manufacturing is clearly important. Reducing the throughput. In other words, the amount of consumption is a part of the answer. And using electricity instead of fossil fuel to run the factories is an answer. If the electricity is produced from Sun and wind, not from coal. In terms of home heating and cooling, the biggest changes that have been made so far mostly have to do with increasing the efficiency of homes. Double pane glass and windows made a huge difference in reducing wintertime heating des need that use of fuel loyalty heater homes. White roofs are interesting solution to the problem of houses that are too hot in the summer. We can reduce the demand for air conditioning by putting lighter colored shingles on our rooftops. I recently had to redo my roof. It was a 25-year-old roof and I got the lightest color Chingos I could, they’re sort of a light gray instead of the dark, nearly black shingle. That’s typical.
Richard Jacobs: A lot of HOAs cry about that kind of stuff. They cry about it. That’s all it is. It’s restricted actually in a lot of places. It’s ridiculous.
John Harte: I’m sorry, they do what?
Richard Jacobs: I said, homeowners associations are literally saying no in a lot of areas to solar, to different colored shingles and things like that, which make it impossible for a significant number of homeowners to do this. But anyway, well go ahead.
John Harte: Why do they say no?
Richard Jacobs: Oh, they say it violates community standards and they won’t let you put up solar
John Harte: At least out here in California, we’ve not had that problem. But yeah, increasingly you see lighter colored roofs, so you’re reflecting the summer sunlight and that makes a huge difference in the heat load to the house. And interestingly in summer, the sun is high in the sky and so the sun beats down on the roof. If you lighten the roof, you don’t decrease the heat gain from the sun in winter very much because in winter the sun is lower in the sky and it’s mostly hitting the walls of the house, the outside vertical walls rather than a roof. So it’s kind of a win-win to do this and really increases the comfort level in the home to have a white or light-colored roof. And as far as I know, I’ve not encountered any complaints from neighbors or communities about this.
Richard Jacobs: Good. So how your experiences impacted your electric bill by having lighter colored shingles?
John Harte: Yeah. I also have solar panels on my roof. I put those in about 15 years ago and that reduced my electric bill tremendously. And then just a year ago when I had to redo my roof we went to the light-colored shingles. So now we have light-colored shingles and on top of them, we have our solar panels. So we’re doing as much as we can just to make our own a little home sustainable.
Richard Jacobs: So how much emissions need to be reduced in order for us to be in a sustainable half? At what time frame.
John Harte: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that because I see a good deal of confusion about this. There’s this idea that we have to reduce emissions to zero. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. For example, running airplanes on anything other than fossil fuel would be very, very difficult. The good news is that you don’t have to reduce emissions all the way to zero to essentially deal with the global warming problem. Today. If you look at just the last few years, each year we emit to the atmosphere about 10 billion tons of carbon as carbon dioxide. But at the end of each year, only about 5 billion extra tons are in the air. 5 billion have left the air and gone into soil and forest and natural processes, things that what we call sinks for carbon. A lot of it goes into the oceans. It just gets absorbed by the oceans. If we could reduce emissions down to 50% of what we currently emit, cut emissions by a factor of 2 then we would actually see no increase in the amount in the atmosphere at the end of the year, the sinks would take up an amount equal to what we emitted. Now that’s still not good enough because we don’t want to stabilize the atmosphere at today’s level. We have to draw it down. But if we could reduce emissions down to one-quarter of what they are today, then we would see the level in the air slowly dropping. And I think our goal should be to get emissions down as much as we can, but it’s not necessary to get to zero emissions. There’s nothing magic about the number zero. We would start to see climate improving. We’d see the level of carbon dioxide in the air dropping. If we could reduce emissions to a quarter of what they are today because the natural syncs, the ocean, in particular, would take up more than what we emit, at least for a while, at least for a decade. And so what we need to do is reduce emissions as much as we can, as fast as we can, as smartly as we can, but don’t think that we have to get to zero emissions. That’s a very difficult goal. And we don’t want the perfect to get in the way of achieving the good enough.
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