Interview with Dr. John J. Berger on Climate Change

An Interview About Climate Change, Climate Activism,

 Renewable Energy, and Personal Responsibility with

Energy and Natural Resources Author John J. Berger

Q. How is Climate Myths (and the rest of the series) different from other climate-related books?  What does it add to the debate?

A. Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science is intended as a concise and easily understood popular book on climate change that you could give to that cantankerous old uncle of yours who believes climate change is some kind of a hoax dreamed up by leftwing environmental fanatics.

Climate Myths is unique in both exploring the massive disinformation campaign that’s been mounted by the fossil fuel industry on climate change, and then simultaneously coupling that investigation with rebuttals of popular fossil fuel industry-sponsored myths and misconceptions about climate change.

The book thus helps account for the fact that although the human role in disturbing the climate has been well known for decades and the role of greenhouse gases has been known for more than a century, U.S. climate policy and, by extension, global climate policy has been significantly stalemated for the past 20 years by opposition from people and institutions supported by the fossil fuel industry.  Climate Myths exposes this below-the-radar universe of powerful industry interest groups that has been so influential in molding public opinion on climate change, and with our legislators.

The operation of these well paid, skillful and predominantly right-wing groups is largely responsible for the fact that many people, including policy makers, have for years now been deeply misguided on climate and energy issues.  Thus, they are now suddenly shocked by the arrival of the extreme weather that that climate scientists have been predicting and warning of for decades.


Q. How did you do the research for Climate Myths? Whom did you talk with, where did you look, etc?

A. I’ve studied and written about energy and environmental issues for decades so I didn’t base this book on casual journalistic interviews.  I read thousands of pages of scientific reports and journals by climate scientists and attended scientific meetings.  I spoke or corresponded with a few scientists when I needed a better understanding of their research or technical questions. I reviewed government studies from NASA, NOAA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  I also read nontechnical books by scientists like Joe Romm, James Hansen, Mark Bowen, and Tim Flannery and by serious outstanding journalists like Mark Lynas and Fred Pearce.  Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, in particular, is extraordinarily useful.


Q. I know this is part of a series, and that you’re going to get into climate systems and solutions in the next two books. Do you have any big ideas or thoughts you’d like to give us as a preview?

A. The book that I’m finishing now is called Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis. Climate Peril shows how grave the climate crisis is—the tremendous price that we’ve already paid and are going to pay in terms of human and environmental health and socioeconomic well being, and how pervasive the increasingly adverse climate impacts are across many different ecosystems and natural resources.

The present is already deeply alarming: the oceans are rising at an accelerating rate and acidifying; ice is melting in Greenland and the rest of the Arctic and in Antarctica. Extreme weather and fires are on the upsurge. The Amazon and other tropical rain forests are beginning to dry out.  Frozen permafrost holding 1.9 trillion tons of carbon is beginning to melt in the Arctic. Millions of people have already been sickened or died from the effects of the rapid climate change we’ve had so far.  But the future is even more menacing.  If current emissions trends continue, we are heading straight toward temperatures in 2100 that haven’t been seen on this planet in 5 million years. We cannot allow Earth’s temperature to rise to levels that only prevailed long before humans even existed.

Even the so-called safe temperature increase of 2° C would be hotter than at any time in the past 800,000 years. That conceivably could drive the Earth’s climate past various tipping points that could trigger irreversible climate feedbacks.  We don’t yet know enough about the exact temperatures at which these triggers will fire and deliver uncontrollable additional warming.

Absent that knowledge, we are currently conducting a totally unprecedented and reckless experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Climate Peril shows what we’ve already done to the Earth and makes clear that we are heading rapidly towards a climate catastrophe.  One of the most important take-aways from the book is that the 2° C safe warming threshold we often hear about is really not an absolute guarantee of safety, and that we really don’t have much time left to change course in energy and environmental policy, given how vast the changes required of us are.

In the book that follows Climate Peril, a book titled Climate Solutions, I outline the policies that I believe are necessary to address the climate problem as effectively as possible by weaving together energy and transportation with agricultural and forestry programs that, taken together, will arrest the growth of emissions and begin to reduce the burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The primary goal of the book is to show how we can combine protection of the climate with economic policies that bring full employment and a just, sustainable economy.


Q. As a science journalist myself, I’d like to know what would you say about the role of science writing and journalism in the movement to restore and protect the Earth. What can writers do that adds to the work of the ecologists and other scientists?

A.  I believe that science writers, like translators, are vital to communicating complicated ideas of science into language the public can understand.  This creates a larger bloc of people who really understand climate issues and the choices that have to made about them.  Science writers understand the methods and language of science and ideally are able to convey it more simply and clearly in ways that are more interesting to people without specialized backgrounds.

One way they do this is to humanize the issue by writing stories in which scientists are protagonists portrayed as characters overcoming obstacles in a saga of discovery. Science writers also sometimes focus on the human implications of research, for example the child cured of asthma by a new medicine or a wetland restored by the ecologist or hydrologist who understands how nature operates and therefore can write a prescription for repairing it.

In that sense, science writers can highlight good work that can then serve as a model for others to follow. The science journalist can also synthesize and correlate important field observations and bring new scientific and investigative findings to light, as Rachel Carson did with the harmful effects of DDT. Cynics would have us believe that bringing truth to light and expecting change is naïve, but dispelling lies and inaccurate information was essential for controlling pesticides and tobacco and thereby protecting public health. It is equally or more important for science writers to dispel the lies and misinformation that are now so current about climate change so that public officials and leaders have accurate information on which to base climate policy. The information itself is not sufficient to bring sound policies—hard political organizing is necessary—but honest information is a necessary prerequisite.


Q. Who is the main target audience and what is the main goal of Climate Myths?  Is your primary goal to convince those skeptical about climate change, or to educate the general public, or to inspire activists to take even more pro-environmental action?

A. While I hope to reach the general public, I understand that most people are not buyers of books on climate change.  So I think this book will appeal mostly to intellectually curious people; to college faculty and students, environmentalists, activists, renewable energy advocates and entrepreneurs as well as legislators and their aides. As I mentioned earlier, it would be a good “pass along” book for a friend or family member who is confused or skeptical about climate science.


Q. What would you say to those concerned about the scalability of renewable energy technologies to people who say it can help on a small scale but won’t replace oil or coal anytime soon given our standard of living in the West.

A. If you look at the magnitude of the renewable energy resources and their declining costs and versatility and increasing adoption rates along with the still-extensive opportunities for increased energy efficiency, you can’t help but see that renewables have the capacity to meet very large energy demands indeed. Our wind resources alone are far greater than our electrical demand. There are huge untapped solar resources in the southwestern deserts of the U.S. and northern Mexico and on rooftops throughout much of the nation.  We also have important geothermal and biomass resources and new technology is emerging to harness wave energy. Hydroelectricity has been an important resource for generations. The main obstacle to the wider use of renewables is political rather than technological. I explain my views on renewables in some detail in previous books like, Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means for America (University of California Press) and in Beating the Heat: How and Why We Must Combat Global Warming (Berkeley Hills Books) and in “Renewable Energy Sources as a Response to Climate Change” a chapter I wrote for Climate Change Policy (Island Press), a volume edited by the late Stephen H. Schneider and others.


Q. Why and how did you choose to emphasize restoration ecology as an approach to caring for the environment?  What makes it especially important, alongside other strategies?

A. Restoration is a proactive way of addressing damage that’s already been done to the Earth.  Conservation is critically important.  But if we confine ourselves solely to conserving what’s left of Earth’s natural bounty, we will forever be forced to defend a steadily shrinking perimeter of relatively untouched, healthy resources.  Nature is always under threat and has to be defended vigilantly. Without a proactive environmental restoration agenda, we’ll always be on the defensive in simply trying to protect the environment.  Our goal should be to improve the environment, not merely to slow further losses. Moreover, restoration is often necessary to arrest environmental degradation, like soil erosion for example, and prevent further inexorable damage.

Overall, we’ve got a tremendous backlog of badly damaged natural resources on this planet in the form of severely disrupted mined land, clearcut forests, abused rangeland and prairie, toxic waste sites, and polluted rivers, lakes, streams, and estuaries. With ever-increasing global demands on natural resources, we need to return these injured resources back to healthy, productive condition wherever possible.


Q. What are some of the best ways ordinary people can get involved in helping our environment and transforming our energy systems? I know you’ve talked about that in Restoring the Earth (Knopf, Doubleday Dell).  What would you say people and policymakers should do that would be practical and have an impact? By the way, we’re an international magazine and plenty of our readers are non-Western (India, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, etc.) Would you have different thoughts and suggestions for them? I know the condition of the planet affects everyone!

A.  As you noted, whole books have been written on these questions. The answers vary a great deal depending on the nature of the problem, location, and the conditions surrounding it.  I’ll mention a few general principles first and then some more specific ideas.

First let me address the policy question.  Many constructive steps can be taken.  We need to phase out all public subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels. This will make fossil fuel use progressively less competitive and will provide revenue that can be used to build a renewable energy economy. The burning of fossil fuels is the main problem, and the use of nuclear power is not a cost-effective way of replacing them. We need to give producers of nonpolluting power generous long-term energy production tax credits to make clean energy even more profitable to producers and to help them in securing long-term financing. The use of coal power without carbon sequestration has to be phased out as quickly as possible and renewable energy R&D needs to be scaled up. The destruction of forests and wetlands needs to be stopped globally and policies need to be implemented in agriculture to reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

In the U.S. we need a comprehensive national energy plan aimed at nothing less than a total transformation of our national energy system.  It needs to include a steadily increasing national renewable energy requirement, the electrification of the transportation system, more and better energy storage technologies, and modernization of our electric transmission system and its reorientation to enable our remote renewable energy resources to provide their abundant power to major urban markets.  Furthermore, it needs to be designed in the context of a domestic full employment and economic revitalization plan aimed at creating a sustainable and more equitable society, so that ordinary people will both benefit from, and vigorously support the plan.  Calls for such a program initially have to come from below, from organized but ordinary working people.. Pressure will work its way gradually upward from this base to put powerful pressure on those in power at the top.

In terms of personal action, each person has different gifts and passions. We each need to do something that makes best use of our talents and determination not to stand by while the Earth and the climate are abused.  I don’t live in Eastern Europe or in a developing nation in Asia or the Southern Hemisphere so I’m not sure I’m in a position to advise people in those societies.

These are some general thoughts mainly for the U.S., although some may apply elsewhere. Fundamentally, protecting the climate is a large and complex issue.  Trying to work alone can be overwhelming, so work with others. Find organizations whose concerns you share and volunteer with them or support them in any way you can.  On a personal level, we can all try to avoid wasting energy and resources, and we can be conscientious when we shop or invest so we support companies that are trying to behave in environmentally and socially responsible ways, for example by observing Fair Trade practices and using renewable energy. We can also read widely and educate ourselves about climate problems, share our knowledge with others, and become involved in the political process.

The least we can do is exercise our right to vote, a right people fought and died for.  Yet almost half the American electorate doesn’t even bother to vote in presidential elections.  Far fewer vote in off-year elections. Less than 56% of those eligible voted in the 2012 presidential context.  People under 30 were even less engaged—about half of them didn’t vote.  My suggestion is, don’t fail to vote!  And during campaigns, support candidates who are working for climate protection, safe energy, economic justice, and truly representative democracy. When elections are over, demand meaningful action on climate change from your political representatives.  Let these powerful people know what your concerns are and that you will absolutely not support them—and will discourage others from voting for them—if they fail to stand up for climate protection, the environment, and the public good.  Don’t accept “no” for an answer.  Recruit others to join you in political action and organizing.  Support new candidates who understand the problems and what needs to be done.  Use people power to create a groundswell of political pressure for change.

Change comes from the bottom up. We may not have the financial support of wealthy corporations or major donors, but millions of people do care about the Earth and the climate. We need to find and connect with them to build a politically powerful base for change. Don’t forget to also commend leaders when they do the right thing. They also very much need encouragement and support.

I believe there is still reason for hope, but that we are perilously close to irreversible climate change that will trigger uncontrollable global warming.  We don’t know precisely how close we are—no one has a year and a date—but scientists at the prestigious Hadley Research in the UK have said that if we continue on our present course, it could happen as early as the middle of this century.  That’s less than 40 years from now and probably within your lifetime.

In terms of the rapidly rising carbon content of the atmosphere and the rising global average temperature, we are clearly close to the point at which, for example, we finish melting the Arctic sea ice, destroy the Amazon rain forest, release more carbon from permafrost, and possibly oxidize the massive Indonesian peatlands, putting so much carbon into the air that the strength of the ensuing positive feedbacks overwhelms anything we could conceivably do to counteract these powerful natural forces. The hour is very late to begin making the dauntingly vast and pervasive changes in energy production and use, along with the far-reaching land use changes required to rapidly and definitively set global emissions on a downward trajectory. The work that needs to be done is so enormous in scope and scale that the prospect is absolutely sobering, but I believe it is still conceivable to accomplish.

On the daunting side, population is still growing toward 9 billion; global energy demand is climbing; global oil and gas exploration and development is booming—including production of highly polluting tar sands and oil shales and oil and gas drilling in fragile frontier locations. Trillions of dollars have been committed worldwide to the fossil fuel energy and transportation enterprise. The quicker we change over to clean energy systems, the more of that infrastructure will have to be retired before it wears out. The large corporations holding those assets will resist that with everything they’ve got and will mobilize their lobbyists and pull all the financial strings that large campaign contributors hold to control Congressional representatives.  (It’s important to note, however, that some fossil fuel plants are old and have already been fully amortized.  Their outputs can readily and economically be replaced without much controversy by renewable facilities and by greater investment in energy efficiency.)

Meanwhile, construction of the needed renewable energy facilities and new transportation technologies is not going to be a walk in the park.  Expanding the electric grid involves jurisdictional issues and building new renewable energy facilities requires time-consuming environmental studies, permits, and battles over rights of way.  Better and less costly energy storage facilities are needed to compensate for the intermittency of some renewable technologies.  Better batteries are needed for electric vehicles.  Then people will take time to adapt to new vehicles and modes of transport. Less expensive biofuels with fewer environmental impacts need to be mass produced.  Forests, wetlands, and prairies that naturally sequester carbon in soils need to be protected, enhanced, and restored; global agricultural practices need to be improved to reduce their emissions.  A lot needs to happen very, very quickly.

On the encouraging side, the nation and the world have the natural resources, the scientific knowledge, the collective economic might, and the energy technologies to deal with the extraordinary global crisis we face.  When faced with epochal threats like Pearl Harbor and World War Two, the U.S. pulled together and rose to the occasion.  Once political leaders really fully grasp that we are in the midst of a global emergency with everything ultimately at stake and no time to waste, then they will finally get that we must slash carbon emissions and create a worldwide renewable energy economy. From that point, the shift will begin to accelerate and—if climate change has not by that time begun to undermine our economy—the creation of the new energy economy will revitalize the global economy. Then as new jobs materialize and emissions fall, the process will inspire new hope for a sustainable future.

To accomplish this, our greatest challenge is develop the political will as a nation and as a family of nations to take the bold and far-reaching actions that are absolutely necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the climate, human life, and the environment that sustains us.

We don’t have time any more to lament the situation or make excuses for inaction.  Everyone can do something.  We need all hands on deck.  Be determined. Fight the good fight.  Do something, no matter how insignificant you may think it is. Chances are you have more power and influence than you think. Millions of other people are out there who already silently agree with you. They will stand up if you do.  Use your power.  Amazing and tremendous things have been done and will be done by committed individuals.