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May 2, 2013

Climate change called a “moral crisis”

iceClimate change “is really the greatest moral crisis of our time,” Joseph Romm said in inaugurating the University Honors College climate change lecture series April 17.

But he said it is not too late to prevent some of its effects.

In 50-60 years  —  “in the course of the lifetime of most of the students here,” he said — “we’re going to have to design a completely different energy system. We’re going to have to design a completely different agricultural system. We’re going to have to design a completely different hydrological system.

“The most important thing you need to know about climate change is that you need to know about climate change,” added Romm, whose work, including his blog, has been recognized nationally. In the future, he said, “They’re going to be puzzled why this generation, which is so fabulously wealthy, would not donate 2-3 percent of their wealth to prevent centuries of pretty harsh conditions.”

The effects of climate change cannot be reversed the way we can clean a lake or stream. “You can’t refreeze the ice,” he explained. “You’d have to cool the land much, much cooler than it ever was.” It is therefore best not to allow global warming’s worst effects to happen in the first place, he said.

When Romm held several top posts in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from 1995 through 1998, the office was promoting what staffers called “sustainable development.” Now Romm feels that idea is untenable: “It is like teenage sex — everybody says they are doing it but they are not, and everybody who is doing it isn’t doing it very well. The people who are behaving like teenagers now are your parents. They are behaving like there is no tomorrow.

“I’m not here to be the walking dead, somebody who says there’s nothing you can do and all you can do is watch in horror,” he added. While most scientists are disinclined to make a public fuss over an issue, he is not surprised that climatologists are speaking up about climate change. He compared them to doctors who are paid not to raise an alarm in front of their patients — unless it is warranted.

“If this were a medical diagnosis, everyone in this room would take the treatment” for what could be a fatal illness, Romm said. “If you have a tumor on your pancreas, you’re going to go to a pancreatic cancer specialist. The biggest regret of every single person in the room will be that we didn’t listen to the specialists who told us in plenty of time to act.”


“We are in the period of consequences,” Joseph Romm said at an April 17 University Honors College lecture. “How bad the consequences will be is still under our control.”

“We are in the period of consequences,” Joseph Romm said at an April 17 University Honors College lecture. “How bad the consequences will be is still under our control.”

The planet needs some greenhouse gases, Romm pointed out. If there were none at all, the earth would be 60 degrees cooler. But he likened the current system of energy and food consumption, which depletes resources and produces large amounts of greenhouse gases, to an unsustainable pyramid scheme that will collapse in the coming decades. “There are seven billion people and they can’t possibly live anywhere near the way we live” in the United States today, he said. For instance, Romm said we use 10 times the acreage of the average plant crop to raise animals for meat and burn 40 percent of our corn crop for fuel.

Excess greenhouse gases change the climate by speeding up the planet’s hydrological cycle, he noted. Warmer temperatures evaporate water more quickly from the land, drying it out and sending greater amounts of water into the atmosphere, resulting in more intense storms. Once the sun evaporates the water on land, it begins raising land temperatures as well, Romm said. He explained that because the Arctic sea ice is melting, the amount of heat released by exposed Arctic waters will raise the atmospheric temperature too, which will adversely affect the jet stream, causing extended periods of heat and drought.

He said climatologists predict that most Arctic ice will disappear in 10-20 years, which means higher sea levels worldwide and a one-foot sea-level rise by mid-century.

Don’t buy oceanfront or desert property, Romm advised: “Maybe your parents are thinking about retiring in Florida or Arizona. Those are places people will be leaving in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s.”

According to the International Energy Agency, we are on track to raise the Earth’s temperature 11 degrees by 2100 — just with all the fossil fuel-burning equipment we’ll have built by 2017.

“The climate on greenhouse gases is like baseball on steroids,” Romm said. Not every home run can be attributed to steroid use, but the record-breaking pace of home-run production certainly can be blamed on the drug, he said. Romm noted that the planet has warmed one degree Fahrenheit over the last century and already we’re beginning to see the effects in more extreme weather.


“We are replicating many of the equivalent conditions of the Dust Bowl,” he said, “except it’s going to be hotter.” Besides higher sea levels, the world also will experience more intense droughts. Some models of climate change’s effects show the entire breadbasket of the United States experiencing Dust Bowl-like conditions by mid-century, and as many as two billion of the world’s nine billion people starving. “Not all models agree,” he acknowledged.

He blamed the unrest in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East partly on the current drought conditions that are increasing food prices, and warned of more international troubles as we make parts of the world less and less habitable.

China is going to be hit harder than the United States, since China will be losing inland glaciers that feed half the country’s water supply, Romm said. In fact, the United States will be among the countries weathering climate change best, since we are rich and produce a vast food supply. Pittsburgh may end up being one of the best places to live, he said: “You are not a drought-prone place, you are not near the ocean and you are relatively close to the breadbasket.”


Climate change’s worst effects, Romm said, are so bad that the world will not let them occur. In a decade or two, he predicted, the world’s most concerted activities will focus on how to stop climate change and prevent it from getting worse, costing $1 trillion-2 trillion per year for decades. “The only question is whether we do it proactively and fast enough to avoid the most drastic impacts or we get dragged kicking and screaming by those drastic impacts. Every year we delay acting adds $500 billion to the cost,” he said.

Climate change also will be a tremendous source of new jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency, he added, as well as in low-impact agriculture and in providing water to increasingly dry locations in the world. But America, for one, has not shown the political will to create this new world. Solar cells are becoming more affordable, yet we have “old, dirty power plants” that we’ll need to shut down before their life expectancy is reached, Romm said. Power utilities, which make their money from increased consumption, will have to be rewarded monetarily for decreasing consumption, as some states, such as California, are doing already. And he said nuclear power, if it is to be part of the solution, will have to come down drastically in price, and with smaller, less expensive, modularly designed nuclear plants becoming standard before any company will adopt them again in the United States. In the meantime, this country remains “the Saudi Arabia of wasted energy,” he said.

However, he concluded, “doing nothing is certainly not an option. The people who want inaction have a staggering interest in the status quo” because they make lots of money selling fossil fuels. He cited a pre-World War II Winston Churchill quote: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

“We are in the period of consequences,” Romm said. “How bad the consequences will be is still under our control.

“The last group of people we are discriminating against are future generations,” he said.

“We have a planet with a fever that we have caused. We have already seen some of the symptoms, and the symptoms are just going to get worse and worse. Someday we are going to wake up to it.”

—Marty Levine

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