Source: BBC Radio 4: Today Programme
Date: 13/07/2012
EventProfessor Ralph Cicerone talks about climate change

  • Professor Ralph Cicerone: President of the National Academy of Sciences
  • John HumphrysPresenter, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

John Humphrys: Well, you would need to be a very brave person to come to this country in the middle of this excuse for a summer, and warn of climate change, of global warming. Well, Ralph Cicerone obviously is. He's also a highly qualified person, he's president of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, Professor Emeritus of Earth System Science at the University of California. He's about to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, in this country. One of the world's leading climate scientists. Do you accept that if you live in a country like this, where we've had a series of rotten summers, which are never hot any longer, we never have that sunshine we all remember as youngsters, that actually we're entitled to be a bit sceptical?

Ralph Cicerone: Well, of course. Every time we have a cold winter - which has not been that frequently, recently - people raise the same questions. However, in the United States this summer, we've just had the 6th hottest months on record, the 6th consecutive months are the hottest 6th consecutive months on all records, in the United States. So things are different. A couple of years ago, when we had chilly winters, Montreal had all-time record warm winters, at the same time.

John Humphrys: But that's - the climate, isn't it. I mean, it does all sorts of odd things. I mean, we remember the Great Ice Age [sic] in this country, a few centuries ago. You know, the weather changes, that's what weather does. 

Ralph Cicerone: And what we have to do is to continue to sort out those changes. Are they localised or do they represent really large regions, like the Little Ice Ages, the Mo- [could he have been about to say "Modern"?] the Medieval Warm Period? We're continuing to sort out just how large those changes were.

John Humphrys: So you don't know that yet? You don't know whether it's local or - 

Ralph Cicerone: Better than we did, a lot better. So right now, in the temperature records that we're seeing around the world, nearly every spot on the world has warmed significantly in the last 30 years, averaging over summer and winter, and day and night. So this is different. 

John Humphrys: But - 

Ralph Cicerone: The entire planet is warming.

John Humphrys: But to say nearly every spot on the globe has warmed significantly over the past 30 years - and indeed that the entire planet is warming - is different from saying it's going to continue to warm to such an extent that we have to spend vast, unimaginable amounts of money to protect ourselves against a catastrophe that many people - some, distinguished scientists - say isn't actually proven. 

Ralph Cicerone: Well, of course, the way you've worded it, that was quite strong. "Vast, unimaginable sums of money" - I don't think I've ever heard anyone make such a proposal. 

John Humphrys: Well, huge amounts of money are needed to combat CO2 emissions, for instance.

Ralph Cicerone: And also to adapt - 

John Humphrys: Huge amounts.

Ralph Cicerone: And also to adapt, not just to try to prevent further changes, but to adapt to what's coming. Which, for example, the change - some of the changes that are coming might be natural and not even human-produced. But to adapt to them, to be able to avoid disruptions, is also a worthy kind of preparation. And we have to be sensible about it. I see where you're headed.

John Humphrys: Well, that's the point, isn't it. You have to be sensible about it, and if - because, after all, the money that's spent, say, on capturing CO2 from power stations - it's a huge amount of money - that could be spent alleviating poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. It is, in that sense, it is a zero-sum game.

Ralph Cicerone: I'm not so sure. Because there are many people who say that economic growth can - if achieved, can enable all of these things. But, in any case, capturing of carbon dioxide emissions, let's say, from smokestacks before they enter the atmosphere, is not going to be an easy task. And, personally, I think the only reason that that idea is on the table for serious discussion is that we have such a strong dependence on fossil fuels, which is likely to continue.
John Humphrys: Yeah, but you can't absolutely prove, can you - and you're the scientist and I'm not, obviously - but you can't absolutely prove that CO2 in the atmosphere is responsible for global warming.

Ralph Cicerone: We will never have absolute proof, but to all reasonable tests - yes, we have the evidence.

John Humphrys: So to somebody like Professor Richard Lindzen, who is sceptical - I mean I hesitate to say "a sceptic" because we don't label you as "a enthusiast" [sic] or whatever it is [Ralph Cicerone laughs], so in a way, you shouldn't categorise people like that, should you - the fact is, he is a scientist as well, and he says, effectively, that you've got it wrong and that CO2 emissions are not doing what you believe they are doing.

Ralph Cicerone: That's not quite what Dick Lindzen says. Dick is concerned about the future effects of whether or not there's an amplification of the original warming due to CO2. I think he's wrong. I think I know the reasons why. Most scientists believe that there is going to be an amplification of the original CO2 stimulus. But the judgement call is how we prepare for the future. This is a judgement call based on all the evidence we have, based on reasonable projections as to human behaviour in the future, and on what's attainable. And what's feasible, financially.

John Humphrys: So what would you have us do? To prepare for the future, as you put it.

Ralph Cicerone: The first step, I think, in almost every country of the world, is energy efficiency. That's because of the increasing costs of energy - and they're already high enough. There's great benefit to be had by simply using the energy that we're already counting on, more effectively, more efficiently. To get more productivity out of a given amount of energy. There's some low-hanging fruit there. In almost every country, there are great efficiencies that can be achieved simply by using the energy more wisely. That's a good first step.

John Humphrys: You don't sound - if I can use this word - apocalyptic. I mean, you're not saying "If we don't do these things, we're going to go to hell in a handbasket, we're going to fry, in a few years".

Ralph Cicerone: Well, there are people who are saying those things - 

John Humphrys: But not you.

Ralph Cicerone: No. I don't think it's useful, I don't think it gets us anywhere, and we don't have that kind of evidence. Obviously, what a self-fulfilling prophecy that would be. It's like someone running down the main street of a small town saying "The bank is going to fail! The bank is going to fail!" And sure enough, everyone goes to the bank and removes their deposits, and guess what? The bank fails. So...

John Humphrys: Professor Cicerone, thank you very much indeed.