A leading atmospheric scientist said it’s late in the game as far as correcting climate change goes — but not too late.
“If we had acted 30 years ago, then it would have been a much more gentle curve for us to bring down our carbon emissions,” Dr. Michael E. Mann said after an hourlong lecture Thursday in Eberly Auditorium on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus. “We could have done that more gradually and still avoided warming the planet beyond dangerous levels of warming.”
A jam-packed audience in the Eberly lecture hall heard Mann, a distinguished professor at Penn State University, best known for his research of historic climate change based on temperature records of the past thousand years.
He addressed a situation that produces 90-degree days in September as well as a downside that includes a shifting, slower jet stream, rising oceans and more intense hurricanes.
“We are still in this madhouse where some of our most highly placed politicians still deny that the problem even exists, and that of course includes our president, who has dismissed climate change as a hoax,” Mann told the audience. “That is a real challenge when you want to have a meaningful conversation about what we can do about this problem.”
He focused on President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 by 196 nations and other state parties within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and take other actions to reduce a rise in global temperatures.
He called it “a monumental success,” and a “launching point” to future progress in turning back climate change.
Mann said clauses in that agreement prevent a complete United States pullout “unless Trump gets a second term” in 2020.
He said policies under Trump run counter to those of predecessors in both political parties, dating to President Richard Nixon, who proposed creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Still, as he summed up his comments later, more could have been done.
“Because we’ve delayed action so much, we have to bring our carbon emissions down far more quickly and far more dramatically to avoid those dangerous levels of warming,” Mann said. “So that’s the sense in which decades of inaction have brought us a much tougher challenge.”
He disagrees with the doomsayers, “based on science every bit as bad” as that of climate change deniers, who go the other way.
He cited Dr. Guy R. McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, who said, “I can’t imagine there will be a human on the planet in 10 years,” in a 2016 YouTube video.
“It’s not past the point of no return,” Mann said. “The doomists, as I call them, argue that somehow it is too late to act, and that simply isn’t true. We can prevent the worst impacts of climate change from acting if we act now.”
He drew on a wide variety of visual aids, including cartoons drawn by The Washington Post’s Tom Toles that are featured in his 2016 book, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy.”
He said college students in Pennsylvania could take an example from students at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was an undergraduate student from 1984 to 1988.
He said student actions beginning in 1984 helped bring down apartheid, the racist policy of what then was a white-dominated government in South Africa.
“It grew into this huge campuswide movement,” Mann said. “UC-Berkeley students were demanding that the UC regents … divest holdings in South African companies. And it worked.”
It took 18 months but in the end the University of California system divested $3.1 billion in holdings in South Africa — the largest investment by any American university in South Africa businesses.
“In turn, it started a nationwide movement,” Mann said. “It led to the collapse of the South African government and the end of apartheid.”
Mann said the University of California announced this week that, “in response to similar protests, they are now divesting all holdings in fossil fuel interests,” a part of the UC system’s $80 billion portfolio.
He didn’t have a choice among those challenging Trump in 2020.
“I’d prefer to leave that to the people,” Mann said after his lecture. “I prefer not to get too involved in trying to dictate people’s political decisions. There are some Republicans that I think are great on this issue.”
One is former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., whose bid for a fourth consecutive term in 2010 was turned back in a primary runoff by regional state prosecutor Trey Gowdy, in what Mann called “one of the most conservative districts” in South Carolina.
“He has a nearly perfect lifetime voting record, a conservative voting record,” Mann said. “He’s an evangelical Christian and he really cares about climate change. He was defeated in his re-election bid but now he travels around the country, speaking to conservatives and arguing for market-driven approaches to solving this problem.”
Mann said other congressional Republicans are “sort of coming along,” too.
“I think that is what we need,” the Penn State professor said. “I think we need a good faith debate among politicians on both sides of the aisle, as to what the form of the solutions should look like, but we can’t pretend that there isn’t a problem. We have to get past that fake debate, so we can the worthy debate about how to solve it.”
Mann’s appearance at IUP was sponsored by the Sustainability Studies Program, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the John J. and Char Kopchick College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Science Inspires Speaker Series, and the departments of Economics and Geoscience.