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There are plenty of environmentally savvy scientists in the world, so what is it that makes Kenneth P. Green stand out from the rest? Could it be a focus on public policy? His constant attempts to raise awareness of environmental issues and the legislation that hopes to act on them? Or his focus on climate change and energy, his work as a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank, and his countless publications on the topic including magazine articles, newspaper columns, and even a textbook for middle school students on global warming.
It’s obvious that The Reef Tank can’t pick just one item that makes Kenneth stand out because it’s all of the above that has molded the environmental policy researcher into the important climate change education contributor he has become today.
Take a look at the great lengths Kenneth has gone to help spread awareness and change the world.
You started as an environmental scientist–how did you end up focusing on climate change and energy?
My doctoral program at UCLA was an interdisciplinary one, and included a strong emphasis on public policy along with the scientific study of the environment. As I went through my courses in environmental science, public health, environmental law, and public planning I came to realize that getting environmental policy right was as important to solving real-world problems (if not more important) than was laboratory research. And I’d spent my time in the lab by then, and wanted to tackle issues at a more macroscopic scale–by the time I finished my doctoral degree, I’d already worked for about 6 years in biology and environmental science labs.
Because I’m a libertarian (socially liberal and fiscally conservative) I knew I would not fit in well at a government agency or most environmental groups, which have left-leaning policies, to say the least. I wasn’t eager to work in the corporate world, driven as it is by short-term results and the bottom line, so I looked into libertarian think tanks such as the Reason Foundation, which was my first post-doctoral employer.
My doctoral research focused on air quality control, so when greenhouse gas control emerged as a dominant policy issue, it was a logical area for me to study. I first wrote about climate change in 1997, when I published a “Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change” at the Reason Foundation, and I’ve studied the issue ever since at think tanks in the US and Canada. Before I wrote about climate change, I did an intensive self-study, reading the science volume of the 1997 United Nations IPCC Second Assessment Report cover-to-cover, and reading climate-related journal articles in the major journals going back several years. I’ve stayed up on the literature, and read subsequent science-volumes of the IPCC reports ever since, even serving as an expert reviewer for the Third Assessment Report in 2001, as well as reviewing a special report on aviation and the global climate. As for my interests in energy, well, energy, and the ways we produce and consume it is at the hub of many environmental challenges. Environmental chemistry is, to a large extent, tied to petro-chemistry.
Why is there a need for public policy relating to climate change and energy?
The US, like all developed countries, is an energy-based civilization. Everything we make, or do, or use, requires energy infusions at many steps. Since humans harnessed fire, in fact, we evolved in ways that make us biologically dependent on access to energy: there can be no going back to a lifestyle that does not involve very high levels of energy use. That being said, there’s no denying that our use of energy has environmental and public health consequences that need to be addressed, from a standpoint of individual rights, and societal costs and benefits. Until recently, energy policy was mostly about curtailing the emission of conventional air pollutants or avoiding oil spills, whereas now it focuses more on curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.
What is needed is sensible policy that balances risks and benefits, considers the inevitable tradeoffs between competing societal goals, and that, ultimately, guarantees the energy supply our civilization needs, while striking the optimal balance with regard to environmental protection, neither over-protecting, nor under-protecting the environment for the betterment of the human species.
What is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and how did you become a resident scholar there?
AEI is a “public policy think tank,” that is, we’re a group of scholars who study public policy in a variety of areas (environment, education, banking, regulatory studies, etc.). We try to develop or identify policy approaches to address issues that legitimately warrant government intervention in ways that protect our shared values with regard to individual liberty, free enterprise, a strong economy, a strong national defense, and so on. AEI does not take official positions on public policy, the individual scholars function something like professors at a university without students. We each represent our own opinions, and we often disagree with each other, and have quite lively debates over lunch and during in-house seminars where we present our work to each other. Some of us publish in peer-reviewed journals, while others focus on writing books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, and so on. Raising awareness of the public policy approaches we favor is a major part of our work.
You’ve written on topics such as climate change, air pollution control, and air quality standards? Have you done any research on how these particular issues affect the marine world? (Water, marine life, etc.) What have you found?
As I mentioned, my primary field of environmental study was in air pollution control, but naturally, in my biological and environmental studies, we made a significant study of the marine environment. What I have found is that energy production certainly can affect the marine environment, but probably in a way that would surprise most people. Where people have historically focused on oil spills as the biggest threat to the marine environment, agriculture, and over-fishing are vastly larger threats. In fact, those two threats are so large that oil production and transport fade into insignificance. I have studied and written about the need for us to manage fisheries better, especially through the use of tradable quotas, or what is now called “catch shares. I believe it’s vital that we extend programs like this to international waters, to avoid depletion of our marine ecosystems. I say this for several reasons: first, healthy oceans are vital to a healthy planet. And second, our society produces vast wealth from the bounty of the oceans, and we should insure that we continue to do so in a sustainable way. Finally, I happen to love shellfish, particularly mollusks (I’m something of an amateur malacologist), and I would hate to see us lose these utterly delicious foods from our diets! I have also written about the damage that corn ethanol is inflicting on our coastal waterways, expanding dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay.
Why is it important to know how climate change, pollution affects marine life and water?
It’s important to understand threats to the marine environment for several reasons. First, our oceans produce most of the oxygen we breathe, and contribute massive amounts of healthful food to human societies. Humans have nourished themselves from the oceans since our pre-history, and generally, the story of humanity is one of following waterways, whether coastal or riparian. Because the ocean is largely a “commons,” that is, an area that nobody owns, and everyone can use as they wish,” they face a constant threat of over-use by people who lack an incentive to conserve marine populations and ecosystems. As for climate change, the proposed threats to marine environments from greenhouse gas emissions and temperature change are still very novel: we don’t know much about them, nor do we have a lot of data to go on.
Corals, for example, which were expected to bleach due to warmer waters are already staging recoveries in many places, where it turns out that bleaching wasn’t due to ocean warming or acidification, but rather, to local water pollution and conservation issues. As for the threat of ocean acidification, it’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions should lower the pH of the oceans, but it’s unclear what impact that would have on marine organisms. Some argue that a lower pH will prevent shell growth in shelled animals, but others point out that in ages past, when atmospheric CO2 levels were far higher (and ocean pH in theory far lower) shelled organisms were large, and numerous.
I know you’ve written about it before–in your point of view, what is going on with the Antarctic Peninsula and what could this mean for the rest of the world?
From what I’ve read in the literature, it seems clear that a small section of Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula is melting at a more rapid rate than previously observed. What’s unclear, however, is the cause. The main mass of Greenland is growing, rather than shrinking. There are several possible causes of melting in the Antarctic, from climate change, to changes in ocean currents and atmospheric circulation patterns that are largely unrelated to atmospheric temperatures or greenhouse gas concentrations. As for what it means for the rest of the world, by all estimates, the main mass of the Antarctic is unlikely to melt for millennia, except in the predictions of a few worst-case-of-worst-case climate models. I think Antarctic ice, which has survived more than a few global warm cycles, will be with us for a very, very long time.
In the future, what are some ways you believe water will become a source of alternative energy, based on the research that is going on now?
Water could become an alternative energy source in several ways. We could find more efficient ways to hydrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, to power fuel cells. We could concentrate radioactive isotopes from the oceans to fuel future nuclear reactors. We might harness the energy of waves as well, and many offshore areas have strong potential for generating wind power, though economic and technological challenges are still serious obstacles to such developments.
At the same time, deep-water deposits of conventional fossil fuels continue to be discovered, and we might use the deep oceans to store carbon emissions from fossil fuel use safely, enabling us to continue using conventional fuels for quite a while longer.
Why do you believe the Waxman-Markey climate change bill is unrealistic?
I could go on about this at great length, and anyone wanting more of my views on the subject can find them in my publications at AEI and elsewhere, but I’ll boil it down to just a few reasons. First, the targets set in Waxman-Markey are so low, and the descent so steep, it is nearly inconceivable that we could reach them even if everything went exactly right. The per-capita amount of emissions that would be allowed under Waxman-Markey by the year 2050 (only 40 years from now!) is less than the amount that the average American emitted in about 1875, at the very dawn of the industrial revolution. Even France, with mostly nuclear power, and Switzerland, with nuclear and hydro power have per-capita emission levels nearly 7 times higher than that allowed to Americans under Waxman-Markey, and they are much smaller countries, with less industrialized economies than we are. They’ve also plumbed the depths of efficiency technology and aggressive greenhouse gas control measures for decades. The US population is growing, and we’re unlikely to see a turn away from computerization and technological developments that will require hydrocarbon energy in the next century.
Another reason that Waxman-Markey is unrealistic is because it allows emitters to purchase “offsets” in lieu of making real emission reductions, and it gives permits away for free to favored constituencies, further reducing their incentive to cut emissions. Historically, offsets have not been shown capable of producing significant, sustained, emission reductions, and often have been shown to be completely fraudulent. Finally, I think that the costs Waxman-Markey will impose on society are unsustainable. Raising the cost of energy will inevitably lead to economic retraction and higher rates of unemployment, even as developed countries move into a demographic situation where they will need far more economic productivity in order to fulfill the obligations of their entitlement programs. Ultimately, I think Waxman-Markey (if enacted) will have to be terminated in order to preserve the economic health of the United States.
What’s your opinion on other marine science related topics such as marine and water conservation and ocean acidification?
I think I covered these mostly above, but to recap, I think it’s important that we find ways to reduce over-fishing of our oceans, reduce marine pollution and the careless destruction of our marine environments. I believe the best way to do that would be to establish market-based systems similar to catch shares for the entire marine environment, and to promote greater use of sustainable aquaculture to reduce the burden on wild fish stocks. As for fresh water, the US as a whole doesn’t have a freshwater shortage, per se, we have a distribution problem. Some regions of the US have abundant fresh water supplies, and others do not. Unfortunately, government policy has given people incentives to do foolish things with regard to fresh-water use, leading them to live and farm in areas where they probably shouldn’t. That applies to cities like Las Vegas, and to agricultural industries in the deserts of California. I am, as yet, agnostic on the threat posed by ocean acidification. Studies on the issue are not conclusive, and are sometimes contradictory.
Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at AEI.
AEI resident scholar Kenneth P. Green’s interview on The Reef Tank about his contributions to climate change education.
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