Q&A with UA climate scientists on new global climate report

2014-04-06T21:15:00Z 2014-04-06T22:10:48Z Q&A with UA climate scientists on new global climate reportTony Davis Arizona Daily Star
April 06, 2014 9:15 pm  • 

Here’s a Q&A from last Monday’s panel discussion at the University of Arizona about the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Notice that those who asked questions from the audience seemed particularly interested in finding solutions to the problems attributed to climate change as well as learning more about the problems themselves. Nearly 170 people showed up for the session.

Panelists included Prof. Diana Liverman, co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment; Kathy Jacobs, director of UA’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions; Christopher Scott, associate professor at UA’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and the School of Geography and Development; and David Breshears, a professor at UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. They spoke and were questioned at the Kiva Room at UA’s Student Union building.

Jacobs, who recently returned to Tucson after four years of working for the White House Office of Science and Technology in Washington, D.C., also is director of the soon-to-be-released National Climate Assessment, a detailed analysis of climate change impacts across the U.S.

Q. In the report, there is a section on impacts on urbanization in a large portion of the world’s population that will be living in cities by the end of the next century. . . I was hoping you could briefly comment on what the report says and what your critical reading of that is.

Liverman: Basically, they point out how vulnerable urban areas are, because they’re low lying and they are often in areas that are exposed to extreme events. I think that the other thing that’s happened in last five years is urbanization and climate change is another area where, there’s been a lot of research but there’s also been very powerful events,  Hurricane Sandy . . .  that illustrated this great vulnerability of the urban areas. From my point of view, the urban chapter is about the only one that talks about the economy because much of the industrial sector is in urban areas. The other thing is that the  vulnerability is because the world is rapidly urbanizing. Since the last report, there are even more people living in urban areas. . . The other thing in the last five years there has been quite a lot of research on adaptation that’s already starting in urban areas and ways in which urban areas might adapt.

Q. Something that didn’t come up that seems kind of inherent in all that you talked about and that was the role of migration as the climate belts shift, and productivity changes from one area to another. Also related to it is food supply, and with rising population and how you differentiate why migration is happening if we're talking in the next 50 to 100 years.

Liverman: In terms of what the IPCC report says about migration, they rely on the peer reviewed literature. And in fact, there’s very little in the literature that gives us a strong link between climate change and migration. Most of the research is rather speculative and based on news reports. There are a few good studies that have been done, and show that a lot of the migration is only temporary, that people will migrate after a natural disaster, and then return back. And in my own work, there’s been some very controversial papers that would suggest that climate change will promote migration from Mexico to the U.S. I’ve heard people say that Mexico is in a great drought now. Actually, we are at net zero migration. People mostly migrate for other reasons.

That’s not to say that there won’t be migration from climate change. My argument is that there is very little good research. A lot of the research is statistical and has never actually gone and talked to a migrant about why they’re making the decision to move.

Q. There’s a lot of information in this report, and the average person out on the street can’t even relate. What are the social sciences doing to address messaging for the masses? Any idea?

Jacobs: I can’t actually say what IPCC is doing regarding reaching out to the masses. But we are moving into a brave new world in the National Climate Assessment. And I’m guessing that at least some of these same tools are being used for IPCC as well.  So the main thing that is different about the way we’re delivering the national assessment is that it is being delivered as an interactive website.

In other words, what we are actually delivering to the government is not a paper document, but rather a tool that is linked to very powerful search engines that can connect all of the information behind all of the conclusions to the original data through a whole series of layers. I don’t believe they are doing that specific thing with IPCC. In fact, I’m sure they are not.

But the whole social media revolution that has occurred, I think Diana is actually evidence that it’s working in this case because she’s been tweeting since last night. But I don’t actually know what the specific rollout plan for IPCC is.

Liverman: Just one point is that most of the messaging at the moment seems to be through the media . . . There's definitely enormous variation in how the media spins the result and how they are choosing to say what are the most significant results. I watched the (IPCC) news conference last night. The person who led the assessment. Chris Field (a professor at Carnegie Institute in the U.S.), is one of the wisest and calmest people on the planet and . . . he did an amazing job I thought of communicating. And I actually thought that some of what he said was undermined by Pachauri (Rajenda Pachauri, the IPCC chairman), who tends to make much more dramatic statements.

IPCC has not had a very good, or very large, it’s not very well funded, to be honest, it’s mostly volunteers. It hasn’t had a very good media outreach. It tries to do the best it can.

Q. International efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions have essentially flopped, failed, stalled over the past few years since Copenhagen. How optimistic are you that this latest report may galvanize policymakers and actually result in some sort of international policy change?

JACOBS: So, based on my recent experience in Washington, I will say that there is some cause for optimism, including the fact that the President’s  climate action plan, which came out last June, really commits the US to international leadership on managing emissions. And that a lot of activity has been going on, particularly with India and China.

That being said, that’s far from a worldwide commitment to reducing emissions, of the nature that is really needed. But I do think that the commitment of this administration is very strong.

SCOTT: I’d just like to say that I’m concerned that some of the adaptation mechanisms that are being put on the table … are themselves high carbon solutions. The energy role in our adaptation planning needs to be very carefully thought through. (Liverman: do you mean like desalination?) Scott: Well that could be one example, but increasingly long-distance shipments of goods and services, all of which involves high carbon, or the current portfolio of energy, produces that energy through high carbon mechanisms. And so, the way in which energy portfolio planning goes together with adaptation mechanisms needs to be studied.

Liverman: I think the one other issue is that this IPCC Working Group II report, as Peck (UA Environment Institute Director Jonathan Overpeck) pointed out, goes beyond the normal of what would happen at 2 degrees to point out some very dire consequences at 4 degrees of warming which is where we are heading if we don’t do more. So my hope is that people will pay more attention to that and get more serious about reducing emissions. The next big benchmark for policy internationally will be in Paris next year, and it will be interesting to see if we can sustain the conversation.

In another month, we might be having another panel, if anybody’s not tired, because in another month, the third report of IPCC comes out, which is the one on energy and mitigation, and the options for reducing emissions. So hopefully, that report will have more optimism about our ability to reduce emissions.

Q. You indicated that low and income companies will probably incur the largest mitigation costs. What are the implications for migration, conflict and public health?

Liverman: I don’t know that we said mitigation costs. It’s adaptation costs. I understand from the social media that there was going to be a statement about the cost of adaptation, in the summary for policymakers, that it would be at least $100 billion. But some of the governments chose to remove that from the summary for policymakers, claiming that it was too uncertain. I’m sure it’s that its they don't want to have to pay those amounts.

I’ll just say one thing. On Friday we had a very interesting talk from Aaron Wolf (an Oregon State University geography professor). Aaron has done a lot of work on competition over water. For a long time people kept saying that in areas where water is scarce and there has been competition, it causes war and conflict. Aaron’s very careful research, he was talking on Friday about the Jordan River, has shown that in the majority of cases, competition over water prompts cooperation.

And so, IPCC, the report doesn’t really look at this, about whether in fact as things get tougher you might get more cooperation than conflict, and I think we could do better research on that.

Q. So after the new report of IPCC, do you think we’ll able to achieve the main millennial development goals?

Scott: The millennium development goals were put forward, a number of years ago, by 2015, to reach certain targets across a whole spectrum of service provision, quality of life, things related to the human development index.  Very soon, we’ll be transitioning over to the sustainable development goals.

That’s partly to buy more time to reach the goals. I don’t mean that to put that in a negative perspective only, but the recognition is that simply by having a numerical target met, are we actually able to provide quality of life; and services and so forth?

So there’s much more of a sense of the sustainability long term, the acceptability of setting goals and international targets.  The goals themselves have always been an elusive target, and I think they’ve been used as a way, effectively in most cases, to prompt the international community, investors, decisionmakers and the private sector, to move towards investments towards providing services. . .  I think the the fact that sustainable development goals, putting the time frame and the target out more years, will actually allow for more time to provide those kinds of services.

Liverman: I did look quite carefully at the report, to see if they addressed the question of how the relative success of the millennium development goals, particularly that we’ve halved the percentage of people in poverty, might have affected global vulnerability to climate change. One of my hypotheses might be is that we ‘re actually less vulnerable to climate change now, not because there is less climate change but because there’s less poverty

It’s mentioned very briefly. But I do think all of the gains could very easily be undermined by climate change. Things like the access to drinking water, the fact that we’ve reduced the number of people in hunger quite dramatically, I think that climate change could very easily undermine the success of the development goals. But I was very interested to see if they addressed how successes . . . might have reduced vulnerability and they didn’t really look at that very carefully.

Q. There are some countries working to build zero carbon cities. Why aren’t we doing it here in the United States? Do we need to have an extremely different vision of how we live?

Jacobs: There’s no doubt that there are really impressive leaders across the country, including the mayors of some major cities, that are trying to move towards reduction in total carbon emissions associated with their whole operations. . . University campuses that are doing the same thing. So there are people who really do understand this problem and are working on it hard.

But clearly we do have some political issues in this country as well, in terms of acknowledging the problem in the first place.  And that actually makes doing it at a national scale much more challenging.

Liverman: I think the move toward lower carbon cities also needs to include well adapted cities, and I think one of the forefronts of research is to look at how we can get, sort of have a double win, which reduces emissions, lowers carbon, but also makes sure cities are well adapted. We’re trying to do that on campus. We’ve been focusing on reducing some emissions. You can see the solar panels there but we also need to think about how the University of Arizona can be a campus that is adapted as well.

Q. For David: You mentioned how much more material is in the ecosystem chapter. It’s true in this report generally, there’s a lot more literature out there now but I’m wondering . . . I wonder about the impact that you think that this assessment can have; for example, I know here in the Southwest, you are trying to help as well as do science. There are a lot of publications out there. This is a good assessment. Does this help managers?

Breshears: One of the things that is important to help sort of transform change is that people have to get an idea of what we are talking about. In the area I’m talking about, it’s very helpful to have photos of these examples of large-scale tree mortality and talk about what that change means.

The report takes an important step, that the report is talking about in terms of risk and and thinking of risk management. As somebody sort of in the area of natural resources management, we really have to kind of shift the paradigm about how we’ve been thinking about things, and get to trying to manage systems in a risk related context, where systems could be transformed very quickly and somewhat unpredictably. We don’t know where sort of different impacts might hit. I think that’s a really important motivation for trying to change the field.

Q. I listen to Fox News and there doesn’t seem to be any problem. (Laughter) On a serious note, though, what  do you think is necessary, to drive, what do we need to do to most effectively drive policy change, I guess in the United States, nationally?

Scott: I’ll jump in. I think, not principally a bunch of talking heads like us. There’s a certain degree to which science will inform policy outcomes. But it’s really trying to build a broad based public consensus around these questions, if not in what the solutions necessarily may be but in the dire nature of the problems.

And also, long-term solutions being chalked out with the sense that that are short term steps to get there. So let’s not say by the end of the century we need to have totally transformed our  energy portfolio, and reworked agriculture entirely, people need to be settled in cities of this, that and the other kind. But what do we start doing tomorrow or the day after tomorrow to get to these medium term outcomes?

Liverman: One thing we do need to do as talking heads is to do more research on the economic sectors where most people work and where many of our decisionmakers work. you know that. All the public surveys show that people’s highest priority is the economy. Eighty percent or so rank that the highest, and yet many of these reports are not talking about the economic sectors, where they are making their livelihoods. . .  that is an area where e need to partner with business.

We often are constructing the private sector as the enemy, and yet as Kathy has pointed out, the private sector is often moving faster than the government in terms of adaptation. So I think the other thing is to partner with major corporations that are taking climate change very seriously, both in terms of reducing their emissions and in terms of adaptation.

Q. As an ecologist I feel like we learn and study a lot about the problem. And IPCC has a lot to say about how ecosystems are responding and what are the problems that become apparent with ecological response.  Do you have thoughts on how the emphasis of research can shift towards finding solutions? How can an ecologist orient their research toward finding solutions to adaptation, to climate change?

Breshearsl: I think that that’s a great question and a great challenge. And I’m guilty as charged. I think a lot about the problems but a lot less than I could have and should have about solutions. I think this new report is a really nice step in how much it does talk about adaptation . . .  it’s talking specifically about particular solutions.

In areas I’m working, I’m somewhat skeptical about how effective some of those solutions can be. Nonetheless, I think we need to push both sides of how can we reduce total emissions but also on small scale land management and working in these complex issues.

I think we’re going to be rewriting how we think about natural resources management; and inherently we’ve always had to work with some level of risk but I don’t think it’s quite the same as what we’re moving into now. So I think we’re going to have to rethink what we do a lot of our natural resources management, in a way that risk is a much bigger factor and we strive to figuring out solutions in that context.

Q. Question to David Breshears: You mention ecosystems and relationships. Well, ecosystems are relationships. Do any of you see any movement as we start getting a little bit being clear on the science, as the consensus keeps growing, is there any movement to really start addressing any other drivers, other than decreasing fossil fuel use, looking at overpopulation and overconsumption, and just economic growth in general which is really why we are in these rapidly converging crises?

Because Diana had mentioned briefly anyway that some people are looking at I call them genetically mutated organisms, not genetically modified organisms. But, I mean, we already know that biointensive agricultural techniques, while even though they may be more labor intensive, they are actually better for the environment, they increase crop yields, they are more nutritious. And so, at what point now, in our national assessment the IPCC, any of these groups that are looking at these things, when do we start kind of moving towards looking at how we stop these things?

Breshears: In the report, there’s been a lot of talk about these tipping points, that are sort of ecosystem tipping points, and just on a personal level. I’m not a policy expert, I’m hopeful that enough information will  start creating small tipping points and sort of change.

Jacobs: I can only give you the perspective from the National Climate Assessment, not from IPCC. But it’s very obvious that a lot of the underlying stresses are actually much more important than climate change as individual contributors to the outcomes that we’re really concerned about, and that climate change in some cases is sort of the straw that breaks the camel’s back and in some cases it actually is the dominant factor. But if we don’t think about these things as an integrated system, we definitely will not be able to manage risk.

 That being said, I mean, many of the things you are suggesting are sort of political solutions to the way our economics are constructed.  And frankly,the NCA is a purely scientific document to the extent such a thing is possible. In other words, we stay completely away from policy prescription and that was  absolutely required. We need to stay objective and paint a picture of what is being observed, and why we think it’s happening, and what we expect in the future and that is the starting point from where policy change can occur.

But these assessments themselves, at least not the national climate assessment, are not drivers, specifically, of specific outcomes. But pulling this all together as an interdisciplinary risk assessment really brings, shines the light on things in a new way.

Liverman: In terms of slowing population growth as a solution to the impacts of climate change, well certainly, if you have more people there’s more people to be affected by it. Population growth is slowing about as fast as it could ever have been imagined.

So it’s not really something we need to worry about except that we need to maintain the status of women. Because women all over the world have chosen to have many less children now . . almost down to about 2.5 compared to 6 a few years ago. And so that momentum to reduce population growth and thus vulnerability and emissions is underway. We need to focus on other things. That one is pretty much under control so long as women keep having rights and jobs and things like that.

 

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About this blog

Star reporter Tony Davis covers topics in this blog that you have read under his byline for more than 30 years in the Southwest: water, growth, sprawl, pollution, climate change, endangered species, mining, grazing and traffic.

To reach Tony call 806-7746 (office) or 349-0350 (cell) or write him at tdavis@tucson.com.

Tony Davis tweeting from Morelos Dam

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