roundtable panelists on stage

The 2014 Roundtable at Stanford, 'The Climate Conversation You Haven't Heard,' took place at Maples Pavilion on Friday. Journalist Lesley Stahl moderated the event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford Roundtable panelists discuss how to improve public understanding of climate change

The Stanford 2014 Roundtable, "The Climate Conversation You Haven't Heard," convened a panel of climate scientists, innovators and political figures to discuss how to encourage citizens to help force the issues that are needed to help combat climate change.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Highlights of the 2014 Roundtable on 'The Climate Change Conversation You Haven't Heard.'

Recent polls have found that two-thirds of Americans believe that climate change is real and that human activity is the root cause of the current transformation of the planet. The problem is, climate change as a concept is difficult to grasp, and so many of these same Americans don't recognize it as an important or urgent situation to deal with.

To help change that perspective, the Stanford 2014 Roundtable, "The Climate Conversation You Haven't Heard," convened a panel of climate scientists, innovators and political figures Friday to discuss how to encourage citizens to help force the issues that are needed to help combat climate change.

"We have with us the rock stars of the environmental and energy sector in the U.S.," said Roundtable moderator Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes.

Stahl got the conversation rolling by asking how it is, with the wealth of scientific evidence for human-driven climate change, that there are some people still uncertain of its existence and effects? And how can scientists help get everyone on the same page?

"The issue of uncertainty is a bit of a cop-out of us as a society," said Bina Venkataraman, director of global policy initiatives of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the former senior advisor for climate change innovation in the Executive Office of President Obama. "We make decisions on uncertainty all the time."

L.A. CiceroBina Venkataraman

Panelist Bina Venkataraman said it's a copout to avoid making decisions on climate change because of uncertainty.

People routinely make financial and medical decisions based on the best information available, she said. "And frankly, we make those decisions to avoid risk, to avoid harm. And that's what we need to do in this case," she said.

Society needs also to come to grips with the amount of risk we're willing to tolerate, said Tom Steyer, president of NextGen Climate and a member of Stanford's Board of Trustees. If many scientists agree that there is a 95 percent certainty that climate change is driven by human action, and that it will radically transform the planet in the coming decades, isn't that reason enough to change our behavior?

"You don't want to risk the whole enterprise. What sensible person, looking at this risk that no CEO would ever take, wouldn't want to take action?" said Steyer, who with his wife founded the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, both at Stanford.

Make it personal, and provide incentives

Translating the climate science and politics that are taking place on a global scale requires relating the information on a local scale and expressing it in terms that people who don't often think about science and politics will be able to understand.

"When we look at making people care about this, put yourself in the position of people it affects; how it affects their economic livelihood, health and the impact on society," Steyer said.

Localizing the effects is key, he said. People in Miami don't necessarily worry about the effects of California's drought, just as Californians probably don't fret over the salt water that floods Miami's streets as the result of rising sea levels and particularly high tides. But the same underlying climate change processes contribute both anomalies, he said, and once people begin to understand that, citizens can rally their politicians to help push for change.

L.A. CiceroGeorge Shultz, Tom Steyer

George Shultz and Tom Steyer

Some of that change could come in the form of carbon emission taxes.

"We have to start counting the cost of CO2," said Alvaro Umaña, senior research fellow at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center. As Costa Rica's first minister of energy and environment, Umaña helped establish a tax on fossil fuels, the funds from which were used in part to help halt deforestation. Those trees, he said, "have taken up 100 million tons of carbon, sequestered at a very reasonable cost."

The concept of establishing a carbon tax in the United States was endorsed by panelist George P. Shultz, former secretary of state and currently a Distinguished Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"Let's put a price on carbon and make it revenue neutral," he said. "That levels the playing field, because the people whose energy is producing carbon are imposing a cost on society," he said. "It's not really a tax, it's revenue neutral. It's just leveling the playing field, and I think that's beginning to get some traction. I think we'll get there if we keep after it."

The tax, he said, would place of some the financial burden of greenhouse gas emissions on the companies and countries that are the biggest polluters. Several of the panelists also said that this type of action could help kickstart alternative energy solutions.

"Policy can establish the groundwork and trigger innovators to use their ingenuity to step up to the response," Venkataraman said.

Reason for hope

Stahl closed the conversation by asking each panelist if they were optimistic about the possibility of combating climate change.

L.A. CiceroAlvaro Umana, JB Straubel, Chris Field

Alvaro Umana, JB Straubel and Chris Field

"The impacts we've already seen are really intimidating, and the most challenging aspect is the urgency of action and the consequence of delaying for even a few years or decades," said Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

Field said that there's tremendous inertia in the way that climate change works. Some of that is the actual physics of the process, and some of that is the infrastructure that continues to contribute to the problem. The only way to fight the problem is to start transitioning now, he said. "There are smart, effective low-cost things we could be doing today," he said. "I'm optimistic that the pieces [to take that action] are there. I think we've begun turning the corner."

The transition, though bumpy, could even be prosperous, Field said, with new technologies paving the way toward more robust, resilient economies and societies. This was echoed by JB Straubel, co-founder of Tesla Motors.

"I'd be pessimistic if we didn't have enough solar or renewable energy sources in abundance and if we couldn't do it today without much cost increase," said Straubel, a Stanford alumnus. "The pessimism should come if there isn't a solution, and there is. I think it will be better than today on almost every level."

"I just find it impossible to sit on stage of Maples Pavilion and say we can't innovate technically, that we can't come up with new solutions to problems that are better, cheaper, cleaner," Steyer said. "I strongly believe that our ability to solve climate change from a technical standpoint absolutely exists."