Friday, August 1, 2008

William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, affiliated with the Program on Climate Change. He is the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press 2008) and thirteen earlier books for general readers.

Two exchanges from his interview with David Houle, July 2007:

2. Please define ‘Global Fever”?

Some people still think that global warming sounds cozy–but even they will recognize that a prolonged high fever portends dangerous consequences. A fever of two degrees above normal body temperature is very different from having three degrees of fever (in Fahrenheit, that’s at 104). In global warming, while two degrees C of fever above the 1990 temperature is bad, three degrees is terrible–a world full of climate refugees and, as they try to flee droughts and famines, there will be many genocides and wars. Who would lend money or write insurance in such an unpredictable world? The climate models say that we have to stop the annual growth in fossil fuel use by the year 2020 in order to avoid that three degree fate.

3. I love your phrase “Turning around by 2020”. Please elaborate what that means and why you came up with such a catchy phrase?

It’s meant to replace “stabilizing” emissions–which is particularly misleading terminology, as it implies solving the problem. It only means stopping the annual growth in emissions; we’d continue to make things worse, merely at a constant rate. This is the most minimal of goals, which is why I instead talk of turning around the growth.“Emissions” also tends to frame things badly, blinding you to enhancing sinks for CO2 via forests, phytoplankton, and–if we’re lucky–artificial photosynthesis that mines the CO2 in the air. It’s balancing the sources and sinks that keeps CO2 constant. But you really want to reduce CO2 with net sinking. Even with zero emissions, we won’t have begun fixing the climate problem. Nature takes several hundred years to remove half of the excess CO2, thousands of years to get rid of the rest. We cannot afford to wait for that.

My second goal is Sinking CO2 by 2040. That’s when enhanced sinks cancel out the remaining fossil fuel sources (aviation will need them for some time to come), and we finally start drawing down the atmospheric CO2. Until 2040, our climate problem will continue to get worse. In the decades that follow, we start reversing the desertification, extreme weather, and heat waves. Even if we get our climate back, the Amazon rain forest won’t come back nor will all the species that went extinct in the meantime – likely a third to a half of all species on Earth. Our ecosystems may well become fragile.

My third goal is Climate Restoration by 2080, when we finally get CO2 concentration back down to its 1939 value.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue