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Tony Jones speaks with Ross Gelbspan about gl -

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Tony Jones speaks with Ross Gelbspan about global warming

Broadcast: 21/08/2006

Reporter: Tony Jones

Tony Jones discusses global warming with Ross Gelbspan, a key advisor to former United States Vice
President Al Gore.

Transcript

TONY JONES: Well from local to global now - and with vice-president Al Gore's controversial global
warming film 'An Inconvenient Truth' soon to screen at Australian cinemas, we speak to one of his
key advisors on climate change. Ross Gelbspan published his first influential book on global
warming in 1998. It was called 'The Heat is On: the Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the
Prescription'. Two years ago came the controversial sequel, 'Boiling Point'. Ross Gelbspan joined
us from his home town of Boston. Well, from local to global now, and with Vice-President Al Gore's
controversial global warming film 'An Inconvenient Truth' soon to screen at Australian cinemas, we
speak to one of his key advisors on climate change. Ross Gelbspan published his first influential
book on global warming in 1998. It was called 'The Heat is On - The Climate Crisis, The Cover-Up,
The Prescription'. Two years ago came the sequel 'Boiling Point'. Ross Gelbspan joined us from his
home town of Boston. Ross Gelbspan, thanks for joining us.

ROSS GELBSPAN, AUTHOR, 'BOILING POINT': Tony, thank you so much for having me on Lateline.

TONY JONES: We're starting to see in this country that global warming is becoming something of a
local issue. There've been towns in which the dams have dried up, they don't have any water
anymore. And there's cities like the Queensland tropical resort of Cairns that are worried that
their houses built right on the coast could be devastated by more frequent cyclones. Is this the
way in the end that governments at a federal level are going to be affected? That local people who
see the problems happening to them are going to be pressuring the Federal Governments to do
something about it?

ROSS GELBSPAN: I certainly think that's going to be one large source of pressure, for sure. When
you talk to me about the development on the water's edge in Cairns, this really is reminiscent of
the scenario that preceded Katrina and the hit on New Orleans. Briefly in terms of that kind of
phenomenon scientists have found that about 84% of the excess heat that is being generated from
global warming is absorbed by the surface waters of the oceans. That's what gives hurricanes their
strength. An MIT researcher published a report before Katrina hit saying tropical storms all over
the world have become 50% more intense in the last 30 years. So I say this, building on the edge of
the water is a very very dangerous practice indeed and it's a very good example of how local
impacts will certainly pressure national action.

TONY JONES: Indeed. In the story we've just seen the local scientist Jonathan Nott who's an expert
in extreme climate events has been sort of a lone voice in that city of Cairns for a long time.
He's been making this argument that terrible things could happen. People thought he was crazy and
now they're starting to listen to him.

ROSS GELBSPAN: I'm glad people are starting to listen. It's interesting that since global warming
really was established by the scientific community in the early '90s its first consequence is more
extreme weather and that's been universally agreed upon, as the atmosphere warms we have more
frequent heatwaves, we have more intense downpours, we get much more of our rain and snow in these
severe downpours. We have more protracted droughts and much more intense storms and that's the
first earmark of global warming, basically.

TONY JONES: Can I ask how you got deeply involved in this issue? You're not an environmentalist,
are you? You've written you don't love trees, you tolerate them.

ROSS GELBSPAN: That's right. I really didn't get into this issue because of a love of nature. I
personally got into this having been an investigative reporter because I found out that the coal
industry was paying a handful of scientists in the US to say climate change isn't happening and I
said, "If there's this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?" There went the next 10 years
of my life. But basically you're right, the impulse that propelled me into this work has nothing to
do with a love of nature. It really comes from a deeply-held belief upon which I based a 30-year
career as a journalist that in a democracy we need honest information and in this case I found that
very large interests were stealing our reality and I think, and I know in my bones from all my
experience that really bodes very badly for the democracy. And as we've learned since it also bodes
very badly for the planet.

TONY JONES: In fact, you've said, you've written, that the world was effectively blindsided by the
pace of climate change. And I'm wondering if you actually believe that was a deliberate policy?

ROSS GELBSPAN: No, I don't believe it was a deliberate policy. I think there has been this
resistance, but I also think that the scientific community in no way expected this to happen as
quickly as it has. As you've said we've been blindsided by the speed with which this has taken
place. Global warming wasn't even on the radar screen in the US until 1988, that's when the
governments of the world formed the inter-governmentalpanel on global warming change. It's when we
went before Congress to say global warming is at hand. A mere 18 years later we're being told we're
either at, or beyond or approaching the point of no return. And that is way more quick, way more
rapid than any of the scientists anticipated. Dr Paul Epstein at Harvard University said to me
recently, we are seeing impacts now that we did not project to occur until 2085.

TONY JONES: Indeed the parameters of the debate have changed rapidly, too. It's not so long ago
that the big coal-producing nations like Australia and the US refused to accept the idea of climate
change. Now they both do in their official policy. The interesting thing is they have very
different solutions. They have coal or fossil fuel solutions that they're putting forward to fix
these problems. This is happening in Australia. The Australian Government believes it's possible to
have cleaner coal, and also to have carbon sequestration. In other words, pump the carbon gas
underground from these coal stations. Where do you see these technologies going?

ROSS GELBSPAN: Basically I see them as a real attempt to keep alive the fossil fuel component of
our energy diet and I feel that's extremely wrong-headed and extremely destructive. First of all,
you cannot clean the carbon out of fuel, you can clean the low-level air pollutants out of coal,
but not take the carbon out of coal, otherwise it wouldn't burn. In terms of sequestration where
you draw the carbon dioxide from power plants and try to bury it under ground, essentially I see
that as a public works employment for companies like Bektel and Halliburton. But on a substantive
basis there's no evidence that the carbon dioxide will stay down there and there is new evidence
that the carbon dioxide once it's pumped into these receptacle areas underground produces toxic
chemicals that erodes the limestone and sandstone that's supposed to be capturing it. It really
strikes me as a way of avoiding what we need to do which is make a rapid transition to clean
energy, to wind and solar and tidal and wave power and eventually to hydrogen and this is
essentially an effort by the fossil fuel industry to stave off that inevitable transition.

TONY JONES: Let me ask you this, how big a political issue is this likely to be in the United
States, which with only 5% of the world's population has 25% of the world's carbon emissions? We've
seen here only snippets of Al Gore's upcoming film, but is there an opportunity here that it may
become a very potent political issue in the United States? Al Gore certainly thinks so.

ROSS GELBSPAN: I think that was one of the main motivations of Al Gore's making of this film is to
sort of raise the profile of this issue so that it becomes a mainstream political campaign issue in
the next presidential election. I think if that were to happen Al Gore would probably run on the
issue of global warming. If it doesn't happen I don't think he would particularly choose to run
again. But I think that's what all of us who are working on this issue are trying to do, elevate it
to this level. I think in the US Katrina had a major, major impact on the American psyche. And so I
think that really set in motion the elevation of this issue to becoming a major political issue. I
think as we have more and more extreme weather events that reinforces that message. I think people
in the US, even those who know nothing about greenhouse gases or anything about the details of
global warming know that the weather has changed. They're sort of freaked out by the changes around
them. They know something is wrong. So I think it will take very little to really elevate this to
be a mainstream political issue by 2008.

TONY JONES: I know you've been working with Al Gore on his presentation. Is that literally his
strategy?

ROSS GELBSPAN: I believe that's his motivation underneath. I really think he really is trying to
give himself to the mission of making this a central issue in American political life. And I happen
to think his movie is extremely good. I think he did a very very fine job in explaining in a very
clear way all the various mechanisms and dynamics involved in climate change. I think the movie is
a little bit short on solutions and I think one of the reasons for that is that this problem
requires large global big macro scale activities and I think Al Gore may be a little concerned that
if he does want to run on this issue later he doesn't want to be hung with some solutions that
might really alienate some potential voters.

TONY JONES: Alright, let's devote the rest of the interview to talking about solutions before
people get too depressed and think there's no way out of this problem. You say, however, that
lifestyle changes will not help that much. It needs legislation from governments?

ROSS GELBSPAN: Absolutely. The science is unambiguous. In order to allow the climate to stabilise,
we need to reduce our emissions globally by 70%. That cannot be done by lifestyle changes. Even if
we all sat in the dark and rode bicycles it would not reduce the carbon emissions by that amount.
So what we really need to do is to change our fuel sources, and I think at one level we need to
pass laws that require lightbulbmakers to sell only compact florescent bulbs. Laws that require
utilities to sell electricity that only comes from wind and other clean sources, that requires
automakers to only sell hybrid cars and eventually hydrogen cars. I really think this is much more
of a political than a lifestyle kind of issue. That said, there are a number of conscientious
people around the world, in the US, I'm sure and Australia as well, who are making lifestyle
changes and are trying to cut their own carbon footprints and I think what's more important than
what they actually do is how many people they tell about this, because more important than the
emissions avoided by individual lifestyle changes is the act of telling people to create a
political base that would permit the passage of really large-scale changes.

TONY JONES: Now, you're also a proponent for changing subsidy policies, for shifting subsidies from
fossil fuels to renewable energies. What sort of figures are you talking about in terms of the
subsidies that now exist globally?

ROSS GELBSPAN: In the US right now the Federal Government spends about US$25 billion every year
subsidising coal and oil. In the industrial world overall that figure is about $200 billion a year.
We're saying take those subsidies away from coal and oil, put them behind renewables, several
things will happen. The oil companies will follow the subsidies and there will become aggressive
developers of solar panels and wind mills and fuel cells and so forth. I think that subsidy switch
would bring out of the woodwork an army of energy entrepeneurs and engineers with successive
generations of turbines and I think that would be the kind - almost like an explosion of creativity
in the energy field that would rival the dot.com revolution of the 1990s.

TONY JONES: Now to force these changes through you're a strong proponent of carbon taxes. How do
they actually work and how do they work more importantly, without destroying economies that are
based presently on carbon?

ROSS GELBSPAN: I personally prefer a separate mechanism which is a global tax on international
currency transactions and if they were to be taxed at the rate of a quarter of a penny and a dollar
that would be more than enough to create a fund to outfit the entire developing world with clean
energy. But a good start for that is domestic carbon taxes, and the argument that's made is that it
would ruin the economy when, in fact, there are many economists who have said, "Look we can get up
to 30% reductions through efficiencies, just by cutting the waste out of our current systems."
That, in fact, would be profitable. A lot of other economists I've seen have said that as we draw
down emissions beyond that point the incremental losses in revenue are really fairly minimal. I
think what you need to do is balance what those costs are against the costs of inaction. And if we
do not act, for example, the insurance industry has estimated that within this decade the global
economy will lose about $150 billion a year because of climate impacts. In fact, last year the
global economy lost $200 billion in such damages. A large British insurance company has said that
by 2065 unchecked, climate change could bankrupt the global economy. And very specifically I think
what this does, it sort of pits the fossil fuel industry against a lot of other multinational
corporations and those corporations, many of them them have saturated the markets in the US and
Australia and Europe and they look to developing countries for their future growth. Unfortunately,
developing countries are hit hardest by climate impacts because they don't have the infrastructures
to buffer their impacts, so I think as we see more of these droughts and floods and storms hitting
developing countries it will shrink purchasing power. It will reduce the size of markets abroad,
and it will really lead to a kind of economic stagnation on the part of a lot of multinational
corporations. So I think the economic downsides of inaction are much more dangerous than what the
costs of carbon taxes or other types of mitigating action would be.

TONY JONES: A final question, though, and I'd like you to reflect on this even though it's outside
of your country. Prime Minister John Howard, responding to the idea of a carbon tax in Australia,
has said it would destroy the Australian economy. He's made the spectre loom large of very high
increases to electricity prices in Australia, which coupled with very high fuel prices in Australia
would hit family budgets. Now set against that political reality, how can you convince him
otherwise?

ROSS GELBSPAN: I think you can also go to those companies within Australia that are essentially
export based and again, make the argument of what these impacts will do to their markets. And I
also think you will find that if you impose carbon taxes people and companies are very creative and
very ingenious and they will find ways of reducing the amount of CO2 per unit of production so they
will take much less of an economic hit than Mr Howard is suggesting. So I really think these
projections are very overblown and given a lot of economic models and given some past experiments,
what we've normally found is that as penalties, economic penalties are introduced, companies and
individuals find ways of adapting, accommodating and very very much minimising the amount of loss
that they really absorb. So I think this is a case of hyperbole and political overstatement - I
certainly don't know what the Prime Minister's motivations are - but I certainly think it's a kind
of overstatement that really inflames fears when, in fact, what we're really trying to do by this
is to unleash a new wave of creativity that would be forthcoming from citizens, companies and
governments themselves.

TONY JONES: Ross Gelbspan it's interesting to get your perspective on what's happening in this
country. It will be received I'm sure, with mixed reactions. But we thank you very much for joining
us tonight.

ROSS GELBSPAN: Tony thank you so much, I appreciate you guys giving the air time to this subject,
thank you.