Interview with Dr. John Abraham on Renewable Energy & Climate Change

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Posted on by Conor MacGuire

An interview with Dr. John Abraham who is a professor at the university of St Thomas in Minnesota. His research area is the thermal sciences and he studies ocean warming, climate sensitivity, and he developed renewable energy solutions for the developing world. In 2010 he cofounded the Climate Science Rapid Response Team which is now a group of more than 150 climate scientists from around the world that answer media questions about climate change.

Here is our Conversation with Him

Q1: Governments and multinational energy companies have access to enviable resources and capabilities to make the change to a greener economy and champion renewable technology. Why is there such resistance from so many?

Dr. John Abraham: The resistance can be traced to how people view the balance between personal freedom and collective action for the common good.  Some people will never support actions to halt climate change or even accept the science because they are afraid that if they accept the science, they will be forced to give up personal freedom.  The irony is that had we taken action years ago, the problem would be much smaller than it is now.  The longer we wait, the harder it will be to solve the problem.

Q2: Technological progress and ever cheaper access to renewable sources of energy will be critical to transitioning to cleaner sources of energy:

a) Where do you see the biggest challenge that faces the transition to renewable energy sources?

Dr. John Abraham: Probably integrating intermittent sources like wind and solar into large grids that need a constant base power load.

b) Which new technology/ies, if any, do you feel has the potential to change the way we produce and consume energy?

Dr John Abraham: Certainly wind and solar together.  Their costs have dropped dramatically over the past decades and they now can compete with fossil fuels.  Not only that, they complement each other and help balance the intermittency issue

Q3: Opposition to climate change is quite dogmatic. What, if anything, will convince climate change deniers to change their position?

Dr. John Abraham: As I stated earlier, the real root of denialism is that people are so fearful of infringement upon their own personal liberty that they will never accept the science.  Not only that, sine liberal-minded people have been much more in favor of taking action on climate change, it has become a political issue.  Right now, denial of climate science is a litmus test for many conservative politicians.

So what will change this?  The only thing that will change is this the economics.  When the economic argument is so strongly in favor of renewable energy, even the most strident denialists will accept at least that we should increase our production of clean energy.  Of course, that doesn’t mean they will accept a price on carbon or that they will take more efforts to conserve energy.

Q4: Climate Science Rapid Response Team – the website has a ‘who’s who’ of climate change deniers. A notable inclusion is James Inhofe, famous for carrying a snowball into the senate to prove that climate change is a hoax. From 2015 he chaired the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, in your opinion why would someone with such a well know predisposition be elected as chairman?

Dr. John Abraham: Well the answer to that is simple. If you don’t want to take action on climate change, then you elect people who deny the reality of human caused climate change to positions of power.

Q5: ‘The 97%’ represents the overwhelming majority of scientists who support the consensus of human contribution, through our actions, towards climate change. In the context of this overwhelming agreement, is climate change denial a reflex to protect one’s own interests or a matter of genuine scientific disagreement?

Dr. John Abraham: Well there are really no remaining reputable scientists that deny human caused climate change.  There are also very very few who are not concerned about it.  While there are some outspoken scientists who try to downplay the risks of climate change (like Roy Spencer, John Christy, Richard Lindzen, Richard Tol), they are not taken very seriously by real scientists because they have such a poor history of making errors that they have had to correct or others have had to correct. So, I would not say there is a genuine disagreement about the fact that humans are causing climate change and it will be a problem as we move forward.

Q6: The economic case for a change to renewable sources of energy are important to winning the debate on a governmental level:

a) Is convincing governments, and those in power, of the scientific facts one of your objectives? Will this eventually result in action?

Dr. John Abraham: Certainly.  I mean, if people in power either don’t understand the science or don’t believe the science, they are not going to propose actions that will solve the problem.  So, the first step is education.  But that step is really complete.  People know that humans are causing climate change.  The remaining stumbling block is the economics.  Some people just believe that using our energy more wisely and by increasing our supply of clean/renewable energy will be too expensive.  Of course this is non-sense.  The other issue is that there are enormous funds being directed to influence public opinion on this topic.  In particular, we see the millions of dollars the fossil fuel industry spends to minimize the impact of climate change and in some cases, attack the scientists who work on the topic.  My sense is these industries are starting to realize they are on the wrong side of history and will be left off the bargaining table if they continue to deny and delay.

b) Do you feel that government can be bypassed? Will private individuals turn to renewable energy eventually despite political opposition and/or inertia?

Dr. John Abraham: I wouldn’t say bypassed but I would say complemented.  In order to solve this problem, we need both government and personal actions.  Sure, governments have moved slowly in the past (although the last four years have seen remarkable international movement).  But, if many in the general population or local organizations take actions that can help solve this problem, it makes government action easier.  For instance, when a community or region passes rules or laws that increase energy efficiency, increase renewable energy, or even prepare our cities for climate change… then the larger legislative bodies see those actions and they know that their constituents support action.

In addition, when individuals, communities, and cities take action, they find that they save money and improve their quality of life.  That becomes an example for others to take action.  Consider for instance the carbon tax that British Columbia has enacted.  Many said that would cost their economy but it hasn’t, their economy is growing fine.

Q7: Public opinion generally supports a change to technology and less exploitation of natural resources, why do you feel this is not reflected in government policy?

Dr. John Abraham: There is a dwindling minority that has loud voices. These are often funded by fossil fuel companies, they hold positions of power in legislatures, and they have access to many media outlets that deny or minimize climate change issues (like Fox News, Wall Street Journal, etc.)  Until the consensus amongst voters is sufficiently strong, there isn’t motivation for these strident deniers to do anything to address this problem.

Q8: Considering the word ‘consensus’ in the context of the science behind climate change, exactly over what is the debate taking place? Where are the genuine areas of disagreement?

Dr. John Abraham: There is genuine scientific disagreement on issues such as how powerful is the impact of aerosol cooling, what will happen with clouds, what is the climate sensitivity, how fast are oceans heating, when will the large ice sheets collapse, and how will extreme weather change in a warming world.  But it should be noted that the bounds on many of these are tight.  For instance, we know the climate sensitivity is probably about 3C for a doubling of carbon dioxide.   But, it might be 2.8, it might be 3.3, it might be 3.5.  We don’t know for sure but we have a pretty small range of uncertainty.

Q9: Have techniques like fracking, which make fossil fuel exploitation in previously unobtainable or unviable places, caused a setback to the development and integration of renewable technology to the energy mix? Where does renewable technology have to improve in order to offer competition to fossil fuels?

Dr. John Abraham: Renewables have to get better at large-scale integration with fluctuating wind/solar power. But that is already happening now.  Has fracking hurt renewables?  It has.  We have greatly increased our extraction of natural gas and this has brought gas prices down.  Insofar as renewables compete with gas as a power source, the cheaper gas is, the less competitive renewables are.  That being said, in the end renewables will win out on cost.  As we search harder and harder for sources of fossil fuels, they become more and more expensive to extract.  Conversely, renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper each year.

Q10: In your opinion what will be the turning point in the fight against climate change? What will make governments, companies and individuals turn once and for all to cleaner sources of energy?

Dr. John Abraham: When they unequivocally are cheaper.

Q11: Do you think climate change, renewable technology and energy policy will feature during the US presidential election campaign?

Dr. John Abraham: No. If it were to be important, it would occur in the democratic primary.  It will be less important in the general election.  Since it has been largely ignored in the democratic primary, it won’t be important later.


This was a short interview with Dr. John Abraham. Hope you all liked this informative conversation. Do share your thoughts with us in our comment section.


Green Energy Scotland Ltd.

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