Taipei Times: Drawing from 35 years of research, what do you think people should know about climate change?
Ralph Cicerone: First of all, not everyone is aware yet that humans are capable of changing the climate of the whole Earth. It’s a difficult notion for some people to accept, [but] the warming is not just caused by the energy we release, that’s only 1 percent as much … The greenhouse effect [is] a leverage 100 times stronger than the release of all the energy we are using worldwide.
While visible light from the sun penetrates the air and comes to the surface of the Earth, the Earth also releases energy to space invisibly in infrared light. [But] the balance has been disturbed by the changes in the chemistry of the air.
The greenhouse gases are mostly carbon dioxide and are the result of burning of fossil fuel — coal and oil and natural gas — but there are many other greenhouse gases.
Some of them are natural, but humans are releasing more of them than nature would, and some of them are totally synthetic and are released by some chemical manufacturing operations.
TT: Skeptics say humans are not responsible for climate change. Are you saying that we are?
Cicerone: Yes, I think the evidence is overwhelming; the evidence is also completely scientific.
There is a misunderstanding that this issue is a political one. Certainly there are choices that need to be made, which are governed partly by politics, but I am referring to the scientific evidence, and these changes are caused by human activities.
Up until maybe 10 years ago, some people thought the sun was causing some of the warming … but we now have enough high quality data [that] show the sun’s output is not increasing during this period of climate change, so [this] theory is no longer tenable.
TT: Some scientists say governments are not making fast enough decisions to overcome global warming. So what is stopping politicians from acting?
Cicerone: I agree we can do a lot better; it’s frustrating. But it’s even more than political will. [It’s] a difficult problem we are trying to solve — governments can pass laws and regulations, but that will not solve the problem physically.
Greenhouse gases are coming out of our use of energy in lighting, air-conditioning and heating, transportation. Everything we do requires energy.
The most advanced countries are using energy more inefficiently — they’ve achieved all of their needs and they still use more and more energy. The developing countries want to use more energy for agricultural production; [it] takes more energy to produce meat than it does grains. The human’s appetite for energy is extremely high.
The problem is, while each of us can conserve a little energy by, for example, doing all our shopping by car in one trip instead of going back and forth six times, once you get into the car, the car can only attain a certain efficiency.
We cannot solve this problem only by our own individual moral behaviors, or with a government’s political will; we need empowering technologies to make it happen.
TT: So it is a three-way effort of the public, technology and government?
Cicerone: People have to be empowered by what’s available to them; companies and the government have to work together to create more efficient products for people; and people need to be willing to change their behaviors somewhat to use them.