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Environment / Sustainability

Climate change: A message of hope

Updated February 3, 2009

Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atmospheric Science, is pictured in front of a symbol of the past, a wall of petroglyphs in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. Denning, along with many others at Colorado State, is working as a steward of our future.

Scott Denning is pictured in front of a symbol of the past—a wall of petroglyphs (Newspaper Rock in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah).  Denning, along with many others at Colorado State, is working as a steward of our future.Scott Denning is a fusion of scientist and humanist.

When he’s wearing his scientist hat, he’s modeling global sources and sinks of atmospheric CO2. When he’s wearing his humanist hat, he’s speaking to audiences about solutions to climate and energy problems in the interest of people and the planet’s well-being.

Denning is delivering the keynote in one of many talks during a two-day climate teach-in on Wednesday, Feb. 4 and Thursday, Feb. 5 at Colorado State University. Changing Climates @ CSU is sponsoring the event, What We Can Do About Climate Change

Q & A

Can you summarize your keynote for us?

Thursday night, I’d like to convey a message of hope: 

  • First, that we can deal with climate change; and
  • Second, I know a lot of people are worried about this huge change in the global energy economy and the price tag that’s going to come with it, so I want to reassure them and say that I firmly believe that it’s going to be okay.

Just imagine if you went back 150 years and someone said, “Let’s build a giant, industrial society with roads, railways, electricity, microchips and plasma TVs!” Most people would say, “Forget that! It’s going to cost too much money!” But we’ve forgotten that we got rich from the Industrial Revolution. With the new global energy economy, there is also going to be long-term economic growth.

I am going to talk about how CO2 is necessary to our survival. Carbon dioxide molecules emit infrared (heat) radiation that warms the Earth's surface and keeps us from freezing to death. But it is virtually certain that doubling or tripling the number of these molecules by burning coal, oil, and gas will warm the world quite a lot.

Global energy economy

Over the coming decades, the global energy economy will therefore be reorganized in ways as profound as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century - as new ways to live well without burning fuel are invented, bought, and sold.

Although this will cost vast sums of money, it will also generate wealth comparable to what happened with the development of railroads, cars, electrification, and communications in the past. Policy options being considered to incentivize these changes include direct industrial subsidies, cap-and-trade systems of emissions markets, and shifts in tax structures.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these approaches, and the political system will choose among them. Scientists have a role in the description of the climate problem, but every person has a role in the political problem of solving it.

When talking about solutions to climate/energy problems, what do you feel is likely to be the greatest catalyst toward positive change?

Because we live in a market economy, I bet that when people and companies can make more money by selling low-carbon energy products and services than they can by selling coal, oil, and gas, change will be very rapid and effective.

In countries that are ahead of the U.S. in terms of clean energy and conservation, can you identify what it is that inspires/motivates these countries to do what they do?

European countries have less than half the per-person CO2 emissions of the United States; this is partly because they have very dense populations that commute by train instead of cars, but it also reflects decades of high prices for energy.

Europeans generally have very high standards of living.  They are “rich like us” . . . meaning they eat well, entertain well, and live well even though they burn a small fraction of the fuel we burn!

Americans can still live well and cut CO2 emissions 

The average French person emits less than a third of the CO2 the average American uses, but they live in lovely homes, ride 200 mph trains, have fiber-optic Internet to their homes, watch Blu-ray on plasma screens, drink delicious wine, and eat wonderful cheese.

What I’m saying is you don’t have to shiver in the dark to cut CO2 emissions by 70 percent! You can live really well on one-third of U.S. emissions.

Developing countries like China and India burn far less carbon per person than developed countries, because they are very poor.

The phrase, “tipping point,” is often used to describe the idea that we’re approaching a point-of-no-return in being able to halt and reverse global warming. Do you believe there’s any truth to this? First of all, do you believe that global warming is a natural, cyclical trend or that the planet is undergoing something unprecedented?

I very much doubt that there is a point-of-no-return in this problem, at least in the long run. The climate problem will be with our descendants for centuries, but I bet they will be able to deal with it. Who are we to imagine the technological resources of the 23rd century?

The idea that changing climates are the result of natural trends is based on a common misconception. It’s as simple as this - the reason we expect future warming is because CO2 molecules emit heat radiation, and we expect that adding energy to the surface of the Earth will warm it up. 

Basic physics

This is the same logic that predicts that a pot of water on the stove will warm up when we light the burner. It's very basic physics and it is not controversial.

Even if somebody were to prove that all the warming in the last 50 years was due to some unexplained natural cycle, scientists would still expect that if we continue to burn coal, oil, and gas, we will double or triple the number of heat-emitting CO2 molecules and that would warm the climate.

Why did you decide to work in the field of atmospheric science?

Because it's so cool! Honestly, I do what I do because it's fun. It's like getting paid to work on my hobby.

Can you describe what you personally feel is your greatest accomplishment in this field?

Hard to say. I guess explaining climate science to students so they get excited about it, and then serving as a good mentor to grad students so they get paid to work on their hobbies, too. 


Atmospheric Science Professor Scott Denning is delivering the keynote presentation, "Solutions to the Climate/Energy Problem," at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Lory Student Center North Ballroom

The event is free and open to the public.

Contact: John Calderazzo
Phone: (970) 491-6896