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El Nino Expert Discusses Global Warming
A Conversation with Orman Granger

by William Le Bon

Orman Granger is a professor of climatology at the University of California at Berkeley.

WL: "Are global warming and El Nino related phenomena?"

OG: "El Nino is a separate event from global warming, however there is a strong interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere through latent and sensible heat flux. So, if the atmosphere is getting warmer from global warming it makes sense that this would cause the ocean temperature to rise as well leading to a stronger El Nino; it's purely thermodynamic analog reasoning. (The day after I did this interview, Vice President Al Gore linked El Nino to global warming at an El Nino disaster preparation summit in Santa Monica. (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/15/97))

WL: "What do you think of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) in Washington D.C.?"

OG: "The GCC is an international lobby group for the fossil fuel, automotive, etc. industries. When you hear skepticism about global warming it is likely to come from this group. But they are not scientists, they are lobbyists."

Note: British Petroleum has just dropped membership from this group and has admitted that global warming is real. (Apparently the executives of that company care about their grand kids. At least more than the US fossil fuel industry does.) Source: NY Times

WL: "In your opinion, what needs to be done to avert the serious consequences of global warming?"

OG: "There is now a very strong consensus among scientists that global warming is happening and something must be done about it. Although the burning of fossil fuels is the prime factor in global warming other activities such as deforestation and urbanization are strong factors as well. Agriculture contributes a large amount of methane (a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2). If we were to cap CO2 emissions to 1990 levels that would be a significant improvement. A cap at 1985 levels would be even better. The problem though is the lag time. What we do now shows up in the atmosphere 10 years later and shows up in the ocean 20 years later, so even if we were to stop burning fossil fuels and deforestation today we would still see the effects of global warming increasing for another 20 years at least."

The 2,500 scientists of the UN's IPCC said we need to cut emissions of CO2 by 60% immediately if we are to avert catastrophe. In other words, it's going to get worse before it gets better no matter what we do but we still need to act as soon as possible if we care about future generations.

The U.S. has agreed to a 7% reduction from 1990 levels and is pushing the market solution of pollution certificate trading. It is unlikely though that this will achieve the necessary cut back in CO2 to avoid disaster. The worst of these potential disasters is the phenomenon known as the runaway greenhouse effect. The runaway greenhouse effect is when the climatic balance of the planet is pushed beyond the "point of no return". Venus has a runaway green house effect. The surface temperature is 700C degrees, hot enough to melt lead. We don't know what the "point of no return" is for the Earth, but right now we are gambling with life on Earth. This is the same behavior of a drug addict. Someone who keeps on smoking even though they know it's killing them. Except this time it's the entire planet that is at risk.

OG: "A runaway greenhouse effect is a positive feedback system. One example of how this works has to do with the oceans' ability to absorb CO2 making the oceans what is known as a CO2 sink. The colder the water, the more CO2 the ocean can absorb, the warmer the less it can absorb."

So, the warmer the ocean gets from global warming, the less CO2 it can absorb, which in turn increases global warming which warms the ocean more and so on.

The Sun has gradually gotten 25% warmer since its birth (Stellar Inventories by CJ Hansen and SD Kawaler) and the atmosphere of the Earth used to have a lot more CO2 in it. But through a few billion year process of plants taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and locking it up in fossil deposits, the Earth has been able to keep it's temperature at a stable range suitable for life. We are now taking a process that has taken millions and billions of years and reversing it in a century or two. The Earth has, in effect, been taking "blankets" off gradually, as the Sun's heat has increased, and now in a very short period humans are putting those "blankets" back on, while the Sun is still getting warmer.

The problem with cutting CO2 emissions is how to be equitable to developing countries. The developed countries owe much of their wealth to the use of fossil fuels. If fossil fuel use was capped at past levels (i.e. 7% below 1990 levels) for each country that would mean that US would continue to burn 40% of the world's fossil fuel while only having 3% of the population. In order to be fair to all nations fossil fuel consumption would have to be capped on a per capita basis. If we put the cap at one ton per person per year, China would be allowed to increase by 20% but the US would have to cut back by 80%. This is what makes negotiations so difficult for a nation that's hooked on petroleum.

OG: "One thing that the developed countries could do to make things more fair is transfer less polluting technologies to developing countries. Solar panels are very expensive in third world countries and there is no servicing once they buy them."

WL: "I remember from a class I had with you back in the '80s that you said the only thing we know for sure is something called "increased variability". What does that mean and is it still true."

OG: "Yes. Very much so. There is a tendency toward disequilibrium in global weather and it is getting more extreme each year. What we are seeing is more droughts, more floods, an increase in weather extremes that the scientific community has now reached consensus that is anthropogenic in its cause."

WL: "How will global warming effect species migration?"

OG: "If models for 2100 A.D. are true, high latitude temperatures will increase more than equatorial regions. Polar regions are expected to see an increase of 8-10 degree warming while the equator is only expected to rise 1 degree over the next century. California is predicted to warm 3-4 degrees. We don't know how precipitation will change, however models show a 10-15% decrease in the midwest. In California the temperature zones will shift north. Vegetation migrates much slower than animals. There are also barriers to vegetation migration such as urbanization, soil and geographic boundaries such as mountains and oceans. Plant species will die out at barriers and boundaries. Soils can not migrate rapidly, they take hundreds to thousands of years to form. Climatologic records over the last 10,000 years show that species move north (in the Northern hemisphere) roughly 500km for every degree C temperature increase."

Presuming California temperatures increase 3-4C degrees in the next century, as predicted, species will have to migrate 1,500 to 2,000km (1,000-1,400mi) north. If this model holds true for the California Coastal Redwoods, then, in order to survive they have 100 years to move to Canada, unless we can reduce our energy consumption rapidly and significantly! Being auto-free is a large step in that direction.

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