Clinton official fears climate catastrophe

Climate expert Joseph Romm said Wednesday during a talk titled “Hell and High Water: Global Warming — The Science, the Solutions and the Politics” that 10 more years of inaction regarding global warming will result in the irreversible loss of Greenland.

Romm spoke to an audience of approximately 30 people in the student lounge of Sage Hall about what he believes is a climate crisis and what must be done now to avoid the catastrophe in the not-too-distant future. Romm, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington D.C., was assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under the Clinton administration.

Commenting on the current U.S. administration, Romm said government scientists are often prohibited from speaking freely in public, and that to effect necessary changes requires government action and support the country currently does not have.

“Romm has great knowledge and concern about global warming, but also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the available solutions,” FES Associate Dean Dan Abbasi said.

In response to those who would argue that the Earth’s climate undergoes natural cycles, Romm said the Earth’s climate is not self-stabilizing and changes only when forced, by orbital changes, for example. Humans are forcing the climate to change 200 times faster than it ever has or should, he added.

Romm’s presentation included a PowerPoint slideshow with graphs and tables illustrating the correlation between rising carbon dioxide levels, global temperatures and sea levels. Another graph depicted the link between increasing sea surface temperatures and a spike in the number of tropical storms. Romm, whose brother lost his Mississippi home to Hurricane Katrina, said that although the government is currently denying the correlation between rising sea temperatures and the increasing number of hurricanes, the southeastern U.S. could see four to five super hurricanes per year by the 2020s.

But coastal inhabitants will not be the only ones affected, Romm said.

“We often focus on the coastline because that’s where the liberal intelligentsia is, but the rest of the country isn’t faring well either,” Romm said. “Fifty percent of the country is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought.”

Despite these alarming figures, he warned the audience about the loss of tundra, or permafrost.

“If we lose [the tundra] we’re out of luck for the next 50 generations,” he said.

Romm said there is as much carbon — in the form of methane, which holds 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide — in the permafrost as there is in the atmosphere. If no action is taken, 90 percent of the permafrost will be gone by 2090 and the methane subsequently released into the atmosphere will result in a 3-degree Celsius spike in global temperature that will cause sea levels to rise by 80 feet, he said.

Many audience members found Romm’s presentation informative, but some said they wanted Romm to speak more about solutions and how to implement them, rather than offering information and figures intended to convince them of the dire reality of global warming.

Ali Akram FES ’08 said he has seen too many similar presentations that offer the same images and graphs over and over.

“Romm advocated solutions, but I wanted more,” Akram said. “To a crowd like this, that has already internalized the problem of global warming and needs no convincing, I wish he had offered more solutions.”

Another Environment School student, Devorah Ancel FES ’08, echoed her classmate’s opinions and said Romm gave a list of solutions, but wanted him to elaborate on possible solutions.

Romm said that while his talks in the past were only 10 percent about the problem of global warming and 90 percent about solutions, he has revised this approach because it was ineffective.

Although Romm’s talks now focus more on highlighting the problem, he said global emissions must peak by 2025 and global carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by 50 percent by 2050. As daunting as these imperatives seem, Romm said the situation is not yet hopeless.

“These catastrophic changes are not inevitable,” Romm said. “This is what will happen if we continue to sit on our hands for 15 to 20 more years. It’s not too late. If it were, I wouldn’t be giving this talk.”

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