The Climate in 2012

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: There's a saying among journalists who've covered the environment that unlike most beats, environmental news doesn't break, it oozes. Well, that oozing scenario has been broken in each of the last two years when massive environmental disasters riveted the world's attention for months. 2010's Gulf of Mexico oil spill and 2011's Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis are just a few examples. No one can say of course whether that trend will continue in 2012, but The World's environment editor, Peter Thomson, is willing to make some predictions about the world ahead and he joins us now. Peter, what do you see on the horizon for this year?

Peter Thomson: Well, Marco, the most significant thing I see is that oozing phenomenon starting to change and environment stories emerging more and more as breaking news. In particular I think that's gonna happen with climate change. For years climate change has been thought of as kind of that classic environment story in that it was unfolding only over the course of decades and even centuries as we slowly altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. But really in just the last couple of years climate change has suddenly started to become a breaking news story.

Werman: Well, how so, give us a couple of examples.

Thomson: The most obvious example of the change is extreme weather. The world saw a rash of extreme weather events in 2010. Then there were even more in 2011. Just last month there was that terrible tropical storm that killed maybe a thousand people in the Philippines. A month before that there was the flooding that inundated cities and factories in Thailand for weeks. On the other end of the spectrum there were killer droughts in the horn of Africa, in northern China, even here at home in Texas. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in the US said recently that in many ways 2011 rewrote the record books for extreme weather events, and these kinds of things of course affect the lives of millions of people around the world.

Werman: Right, but haven't scientists been telling us for years that we have to be very careful to distinguish between weather and climate, that you can't blame any particular weather event on climate change.

Thomson: Well, you're right. Not long ago most climate scientists were saying that and many of them still are, that we could expect to see more severe weather events in a warming world, but you couldn't link any particular extreme weather event to climate change. But more and more scientists in the field are now starting to say that they're seeing the imprint of climate change on weather, that greater amounts of heat and moisture that are building up in the atmosphere are changing the whole context in which weather happens and making extreme events more likely. Another big change is that this is happening much sooner and much more quickly than most experts predicted even just a few years ago. So back to what you expect for 2012, nobody can say for sure of course, I mean there's still a huge amount of short term variability in the climate system, but I think it's likely that we're gonna see more extreme weather and that it will come at a higher and higher cost in lives and to the global economy.

Werman: What else might we see on the environment front?

Thomson: Well, still on climate for a minute, there are a couple of big events coming up this year that could have a big impact in the policy area. One will take place this summer in Australia when the country's new carbon tax goes into effect. Essentially, the tax is a penalty on greenhouse gas pollution that's supposed to encourage efficiency and new cleaner technology. There was a long and incredibly bitter fight over that and opponents in Australia argued that it will cripple the country's economy by making energy more expensive. So we'll have to see starting this summer whether they're right. It's also gonna be especially interesting from our perspective here in the US because in many ways Australia's economy is quite similar to ours. Then of course here in the US we have the fall election and that's going to have a big impact on our own climate policies. President Obama has disappointed many climate activists, but he's also taken some pretty significant steps to cut emissions. And if he loses in November or even if Republicans just increase their numbers in Congress, we're almost certain to see everything the Obama administration has done on the climate front chipped away at or even rolled back altogether.

Werman: And Peter, what do you see in 2012 in terms of countering the climate change with advances in energy technology?

Thomson: Well, it's interesting. There's two extremely interesting and contradictory trends on that. One the one hand, on the fossil fuel side there's been this big rush to develop more and more so called unconventional sources of petroleum; those are the things like the tar sands or the oil sands in Alberta, deep water offshore oil in places like Brazil and our own Gulf of Mexico, and the shale gas that we've been hearing a bout under big parts of the US, in Europe and other places. There's kind of a big global rush for these resources right now, but they can come with a much bigger environmental impact than even conventional sources of petroleum and there are big debates on how and even whether to go after them. And we're no doubt gonna see a lot more of those in the coming year and beyond. On the other hand, renewable energy is really starting to take off. Prices are dropping for solar and wind. Countries around the world are trying to ween themselves off dependency on conventional sources. So in 2012 we should look at Germany and Japan in particular I think for interesting developments since both of those countries are moving toward a future with a lot less fossil fuel and nuclear power.

Werman: The World's environment editor, Peter Thomson, thanks very much.

Thomson: Thank you.