William F. Stewart is the author of Climate of Uncertainty: A Balanced Look at Global Warming and Renewable Energy, from Ocean Publishing. He is co-chair of the climate change and energy practice at Cozen O’Connor.
CleanTechies had four questions about his new book.
CleanTechies: You promise a balanced look in your title, and you give the global warming nay-sayers a chapter. Why do you feel it’s important to take this approach?
William F. Stewart: I know it is a cliché, but skepticism really is the lifeblood of science. Historically, it is through the intense questioning of conventional wisdom that advancement has been possible. Although there are certainly a lot of cynics and charlatans masquerading as skeptics, good faith skepticism itself must be embraced if we are to achieve new discoveries. The reality is, climate science is still in its adolescence–just decades old. If you mentioned “global dimming” a decade ago, you would have elicited blank stares. But now, aerosol related dimming is a widely accepted climatic forcing mechanism.
Similarly, solar variance and the urban heat island affect, as contributors to global warming, are no longer the fringe theories that they once were. Finally, while climate models and computer programs are doing some incredible things, we have not yet figured out a way to account for all intricate and integrated climactic forces and feedbacks.
None of this is meant to suggest that we do not know enough to be very, very concerned about anthropogenic climate change, but I think it does more harm than good to belittle skepticism out of hand or to sugarcoat the uncertainties.
CleanTechies: What are the three keys to unlocking the mysteries of climate change?
Stewart: First, bias and propaganda can be found on all sides of the global warming debate. It is generally recognized that proposed climate change solutions would result in large-scale economic changes, but these solutions also contain divisive ideological components involving the role of government and internationalization. The book provides several examples of how these “hot button issues” lead to subtle and not-so-subtle bias.
Second, much about our climate remains a mystery. Although the basic mechanisms of global warming are well understood, many of the critical details, for example the impact of climate feedbacks, remain shrouded in mystery.
Third, global warming is not just a scientific challenge, but rather presents highly contentious political, economic, and social problems. Because nations of the world will be affected differently, bear different historic responsibility, and assign different priority to climate change, any international agreement will require an “apples to oranges” compromise that will present formidable political barriers.
CleanTechies: Give us a glimpse of your visions for the sustainable future.
Stewart: While it’s obviously a plus to upbeat, I am going to be realistic here. Sustainability can only follow an international commitment, and an international commitment will only follow a more broad-based acknowledgement of the peril. Let’s face it, volcanoes, the ice-albedo effect, carbon sinks, el Niño, the Kyoto Protocol, population growth, melting permafrost, peak oil, and the Hockey Stick Graph are a lot to swallow–not to mention integrate.
The IPCC, NOAA, and the National Academy of Sciences have sounded the clarion call, but real solutions will require a grassroots call for action.
The truth is, the question of whether substantial action will occur before some semi-apocalyptic combination of resource depletion and warming remains squarely in doubt. The good news is that, while no single renewable energy will likely serve as a silver bullet, promising new technologies continue to emerge.
CleanTechies: What are the short-term solutions to climate change?
Stewart: There is a section near the end of the book titled “Picking the Low Hanging Fruit.” Chief among the immediate, no-brainer, opportunities are energy efficiency, combining climate change and energy security strategies, encouraging a robust debate on nuclear energy, implementation of smart grid technology, and development of infra-structure and incentives for wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and other renewables.
By comparison, hydrogen, carbon sequestration, biofuels, tidal, and wave energy offer long term potential, but are not short-term solutions.