Eric Schreiber learned long ago that presenting Al Gore’s famous climate presentation is a lot like drinking from a fire hose. So the retired diagnostic radiologist and member of The Vice President’s crop of presenters has pared back to the essentials what we need to know about a topic that consumed 7 hours of a presidential town hall on CNN this summer, and has vaulted to the top tier of concerns in national polls.
He starts with the history of climate science: dating back to the 1800s when Europeans made important discoveries like infrared rays and pinned ‘coal gas’ or methane as the leading culprit for trapping heat in the atmosphere. Schreiber shows a slide where red squiggles representing infrared rays bombard the earth, and a thin blue layer around the globe grows thicker as carbon emissions, mostly from powering cars and buildings, run rampant.
“It’s like throwing an extra blanket on top of it,” he said, issuing the perfect metaphor.
Flash forward to the 20th century when young scientist Charles Keeling invented the method for measuring atmospheric concentrations of carbon. Keeling installed in Hawaii, high up in the Mauna Loa Observatory, in 1958, a machine to measure human-generated carbon emissions, in real-time. The Keeling Curve (see picture above) as its known for its one-way direction is the definitive record. It stands currently at 410 parts of carbon per million (ppm). For reference, normal is 300 ppm.
To find ‘normal’ Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center among others have drilled 2-mile deep ‘ice cores’ which serve as a record that reaches as far back into the past as 800,000 years ago. In 1850, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the number was 250 ppm. 300 ppm is the target to avoid catastrophe, the consensus of the world’s scientists have shown.
Unfortunately, that consensus has been undermined by a shadowy history of climate denial. Big Oil are the villains in the story, Schreiber said, citing Naomi Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes sources internal memos from companies like Exxon that show scientists on their payroll, who sowed seeds of doubt, had the data to confirm they were the largest contributor to global warming.
“If we had acted when (Big Oil knew) forty years ago, we could have moved systematically,” Schreiber says. “Now, we’re looking at maybe ten years (to mobilize a zero carbon economy).”
Thankfully, the world has made progress in making the transition off fossil fuels to renewables. In the absence of American leadership, China has produced solar panels at scale, bringing the cost down from dollars to cents per kilowatt generated from the sun.
“We have an abundance of solar power,” he said. The exponential growth in demand for solar power has led to a boom in battery technology to store excess capacity.
The economics of solar and wind makes nuclear ‘fabulously expensive’ in comparison, he added. Renewables are starting to fill the void left by coal’s exit, a historic turning point that the audience at a recent Schreiber presentation agreed could to form the economic turn-around for states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.
Even natural gas is being replaced by solar, Schreiber says, citing a news report that Florida Power and Light will replace two gas plants with the world's largest solar farms.
“It’s because the cost of solar is down to less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour,” he said.
Transportation which generates the most climate change emissions will need to be electrified quickly. The biggest opportunity will be electrifying buses, which 27 cities have committed to doing. The goal is to electrify half the world’s buses by 2025. “By 2050 we need to be carbon neutral,” he concludes. “It’s happening, but is it fast enough?”
Schreiber recommends joining a group engaged in the transition. He belongs to Gore’s Climate Reality Project, the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and helps out the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led effort to win a Green New Deal.