California experts say a new UN report released this week puts a sharper focus on the global climate crisis that Californians are already experiencing: devastating wildfires, extreme drought, and heat waves.
To understand more about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, CapRadio’s Ed Fletcher spoke with Lauren Sanchez, a senior advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom and a former member of the Biden climate team and climate scientist Ben Houlton, who teaches at Cornell and UC Davis. Here is an edited excerpt of the interviews.
On the report's main findings
Ben Houlton: The climate report is telling us a lot of what we're already experiencing. Devastating wildfires, extreme heat waves, drought, historic changes on the planet, they're bringing about an incredible amount of suffering for people, for business, for natural ecosystems are all driven by one factor: the rising level of fossil fuel emissions that are going into the atmosphere.
We've known about this carbon pollution and its impact on the planet for quite some time. This report raises it to a fever pitch, saying that we have already gone past what we would hope would be an avoidable target of 1.5 degrees (Celsius) of global climate warming, which is incredibly difficult to deal with, and also makes the point that the next 30 years of climate impacts are largely unavoidable, even if we start cutting emissions today. So we have a lot of work to do in terms of adaptation, resilience and mitigation to solve this grand challenge.
Lauren Sanchez: It's almost as if we had collectively had a really important 9 a.m. meeting to get to at work. We set our alarms for 8:30 and we've been pressing snooze five or six times. And now the alarm is finally going off. And the question is, can we show up at 11 to this meeting or are we fired?
It’s no longer extremely likely or within some amount of consensus or certainty, but it is unequivocal that climate change is happening. We've already baked in irreversible impacts, which so many Californians are living with today.
On how scientists are able to speak with such great certainty
Houlton: Well, science is a very long process and, you know, the science of the climate system dates back to the 1800s. It took a long time before the scientific community was willing to say that unequivocally, ‘We are experiencing global climate change’ in the last report and now bringing it to sort of a ‘code red’ level that our very futures are in our hands and that our ability to control the future is diminishing if we don't take radical action.
So thousands and thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies from many different angles, from many different perspectives to the point view, now that we have extreme confidence, we know what's causing it, and we also know how to solve it by cutting emissions and capturing carbon dioxide from the air.
On whether Californians can feel like we've done enough to combat climate change
Lauren Sanchez: California is held as a model around the world for the work the state is doing on climate change, but the report tells us we’re all not doing enough. The governor has been very clear on this issue, I think, in recent months. He said, you know, we have all these ambitious targets. We're working quickly on implementation, but we need to look under the hood and see what else we could possibly be doing.
Ben Houlton: On one hand, California is an amazing model for what it means to build an economy, grow the industry and cut emissions. A lot of that happened through Governor Schwarzenegger's initial leadership, (signing carbon-cutting legislation) AB 32. We now have new laws in place for radical emissions reduction. The state agencies have worked hand-in-hand with science to think about the kind of innovations that can cut emissions. But importantly, California is about 1.5to 2% of global emissions. And that means that even if California were to become carbon neutral, we would not move the dial on the carbon curve. We would not bend the global carbon curve. And so what California needs to continue to do is impress upon other states, other nations, the importance of radically cutting emissions, using free-market approaches, carbon pricing and smart policies. And I believe that's what California has to offer the world moving forward on this incredible challenge.
On the next big thing California could do around climate
Sanchez: We’re very proud of the work we’ve done laying the groundwork to transform our transportation sector. The governor has spent a lot of time on this issue, which is everything from the types of cars that Californians are driving to how communities move around the state and our transit infrastructure investments. We’re also ramping up efforts statewide to remove food waste from landfills.
Houlton: Another area where California is starting to take leadership on ... would be turning our forests and our farmlands into carbon sinks. And I think that is an area that the world recognizes will be vitally important to the future of the climate challenge.
On how climate change's role in California wildfires
Ben Houlton: Climate change is a threat multiplier. And what that means is we've always had a risk in California of wildfires. The vegetation, the relatively arid climate, especially in the interior. All those things present an opportunity for a wildfire to happen. But what's happening is, climate change is putting its foot on the accelerator. And if you look at the evidence right now, at least half, if not more, of the spread of wildfire and the growing incidence of wildfire destruction is being driven by climate change.
So climate change is in the driver's seat. We can take some actions. There are cases where smart forest management, using controlled burns and even indigenous knowledge from tribes can avoid the devastating impacts of climate change. But the global climate system is moving in a way right now that we are going to continue to see droughts, wildfires and even some flooding events. These sort of atmospheric whiplash events that can happen from time to time are setting up a system that is going to be incredibly unstable and challenging to deal with when it comes to wildfires.
Sanchez: Californians are well aware of this crisis and how it is impacting them. What's very sobering about today is that the scientists have put some really stark numbers in front of us, including that the world has already warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit and we're on track for 3.5 or 4 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you think about how much we've already seen change just in the last few years with those two degrees of warming, I mean, double the amount of warming and what it will mean for ocean acidification and our snowpack and extreme heat waves that we've seen in the valley is, you know, really terrifying.
One of the numbers that really jumped out to me is the scientists are not ruling out two meters of sea-level rise, which when converted over to our system, is six and a half feet. And, you know, for any listeners that have visited a coastal community or have flown out of Oakland's airport, you know, six and a half feet and the relocation that would have to happen around that is staggering.
On any upshots from the report
Houlton There is two things I want everyone to understand. One, it's amazing that we have an understanding of this incredibly complex planet of ours, this blue planet, to the point that we can say with one hundred percent assurance that global climate change is happening from greenhouse gas emissions, that is an achievement of science. One thing I want to point everyone to is that we can solve this challenge. Now is not the time to retreat. Now is the time to unify and come together in the kind of solutions that are leading the charge, creating a low carbon economy, ending the carbon curve, bending the warming curve. Our very future hinges on our ability to export these kinds of innovations. And I'm confident that if the world decides to unite around this challenge, we can avoid the most dangerous futures in front of us.
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