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UCI Professors Discuss Climate Change Solutions

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By Emilia Williamson

A multidisciplinary panel of professors held a scholarly discussion about the Paris Climate Agreement on Feb. 9. The UCI event was hosted by Global Partners for Sustainability at UCI, a student-led initiative that teaches sustainability methods, and Climatepedia, a climate change education club. Both programs seek to teach students and the public how to be more environmentally friendly. The panel was followed by a reception and art gallery exhibit.

Professor David Feldman, an environmental expert and director of Water UCI presided over the panel which also included Professor Joseph DiMento, an international and environmental law expert, Professor Steven Allison, Associate Professor of UCI School of Biological and Physical Sciences, and James Randerson, the Chancellor’s Professor for Earth System Science.

The Paris Agreement, signed last year by 196 countries, was designed by the United Nations for each country to create their own commitment to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to work collectively to keep the earth’s temperature rise below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. By reviewing each country’s contribution every five years, the goal is to keep the temperature increase below what would be considered a crisis for many coastal cities and developing countries.

DiMento commented on his concerns over enforcing a voluntary agreement. The motivating factor for participation is a type of “peer pressure” from other countries. Both Professors DiMento and Allison agreed that it is important that America chooses to uphold the agreement in order to maintain our unique international leadership role. Professor Allison used the example of China, explaining that “China will say ‘we made this many cuts,’ then will challenge America with their ambitious goals, and this is what will drive things forward. The world will be watching.”

Professor Randerson described his skepticism about the agreement, stating, “The commitments that have been promised so far are not enough to take us where we want to go. To hit the targets it needs to be a more aggressive regime.” He went on to explain that a majority of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic, “being driven by humans changing the composition of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.” If the world goes about burning fossil fuels at a constant rate with a “business as usual” attitude, Randerson said, we will soon be seeing negative effects like rising seas, powerful storm and hurricane damage, loss of sea and land ice, and acidification of the ocean.

Professor Feldman addressed the question of why the warming goal is set below 2 degrees Celsius (or about 4 degrees Fahrenheit), and what the consequences of not curbing emissions will look like.

Professor Randerson replied that an important thing we risk losing is our planet’s diversity: “It is really important that we have a target for maintaining the earth’s sustainability… if there is excessive warming, it will be more difficult for the diversity of animals and plants to keep up and adapt to the changes. If we can meet the target [1.5-2 degrees C], the rate of warming will be slower.”  

Professor Allison chimed in, stating that there is uncertainty in what exact changes will occur as a result of climate change. Although the model projections that climate scientists create are fairly accurate, they cannot predict where and when extreme weather changes will occur.

“Even if we succeed in making the targets we may not avoid the consequences that we are hoping to avoid. No individual city is going to feel the full effects of a 2 degree warming, and it will be experienced unevenly.”

If emissions are not curbed, it will cause consequences for not only the environment, but also ecosystems, economies, and societies.

On a more optimistic note, the panelists then shifted to how California, and more specifically the UC system, have expanded the use of clean, renewable energy, and how new climate change technologies can benefit developing countries.

“Climate is an issue that is tied to other social issues . . . it is an opportunity to provide infrastructure and energy to developing countries to promote health and welfare for the world’s population,” said Professor Allison.

Professor DiMento then explained that since California has been successful in creating excess energy and effectively reducing our water use, the state has proven its ability to adapt to climate change. No matter the United States’ position in the Paris Agreement, California has pledged to lead the fight against climate change and progress toward decarbonizing energy systems, he argued.

The professors agreed that communication about sustainability is activists’ most essential tool. Professor Randerson stressed the importance of communicating the importance of protecting the earth to neighbors, community members, and elected representatives.

Professor Feldman reminded students that they are the change and the future: “Never overlook opportunities to educate and enlightened. Don’t be self righteous, be an educator.”

Professor Allison agreed, and claimed that although the Paris Agreement is not perfect, at least it has provided the grounds to bring countries together for a cause. “When people are ready to take it seriously we are ready. The longer you wait, the harder the problem becomes to solve.”