Global Warming: How policy can catch up to the science and solve the problem


Professor Michael Oppenheimer
23 Feb, 2010

Watch the lecture as filmed by ABC TV Big Ideas

Why you should watch

Michael Oppenheimer was the Lead Author on the Third and Fourth Assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His scientific understanding of global warming provides a framework for developing response policies at the local, national and international levels.

Among the general features of the global warming problem are: recent observations indicating climatic trends attributable to the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs); the long lag between emission of the GHGs and manifestation of their full effects; and demonstrable limits on societal ability to cope with the type of changes projected to occur during this century, absent of any implementation of emissions abatement measures.

Based on such evidence, governments meeting as the Major Emitters Forum and again at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen during 2009, recognised that the “increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.”

Oppenheimer reviews this evidence in order to present a framework for policies to mitigate emissions and adapt to some level of inevitable warming. He believes responses should include: adequate preparation for adaption including assistance to least developed countries; an equitable apportionment of responsibilities for emissions reductions among nations; a global cap on emissions implemented through diverse multilateral agreements involving both few and many countries; and national and local regulation and incentives including emissions trading, research and development support for emerging technologies, and flexible approaches to learning and updating policies as understanding of the science and economics of climate change continue to evolve.

He also discuss changes in the relations among nations in the climate arena which were evident at Copenhagen and recent developments related to the public communication of the science of climate change.

Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University. He is the Director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Woodrow Wilson School and Faculty Associate of the Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences Program, Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Oppenheimer joined the Princeton faculty after more than two decades with The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-governmental, environmental organisation, where he served as chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program. He continues to serve as a science advisor to EDF.

Oppenheimer is a long-time participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and is now a coordinating lead author of a special report on climate extremes and disasters.

His interests include science and policy of the atmosphere, particularly climate change and its impacts. Much of his research aims to understand the potential for “dangerous” outcomes of increasing levels of greenhouse gases by exploring the effects of global warming on ecosystems such as coral reefs, on the ice sheets and sea level, and on patterns of human migration. He also studies the role played by nongovernmental organisations in the policy arena, and the role of scientific learning and scientific assessment in decisions on problems of global change.

In the late 1980s, Oppenheimer and a handful of other scientists organized two workshops under the auspices of the United Nations that helped precipitate the negotiations that resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (signed at the 1992 Earth Summit) and the Kyoto Protocol. During that period, he co-founded the Climate Action Network. His research and advocacy work on acid rain also contributed to the passage of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Prior to his position at the Environmental Defense Fund, Oppenheimer served as Atomic and Molecular Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Lecturer on Astronomy at Harvard University. He received an S.B. in chemistry from M.I.T., a Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Chicago, and pursued post-doctoral research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Oppenheimer is the author of more than 100 articles published in professional journals and is co-author (with Robert H. Boyle) of a 1990 book, Dead Heat: The Race Against The Greenhouse Effect.

Professor Michael Oppenheimer was in Australia as a guest of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Sydney.