Brandon Greenblatt, Julianne Troiano // 23 December 2015 // #Experts #GoingGreen
Last week, world leaders attending the COP21 climate summit in Paris announced that they had reached a historical agreement in the global effort to combat climate change. The Paris Agreement, drafted by representatives of nearly 200 countries, includes pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperatures from rising 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Many have lauded the agreement as a monumental step towards worldwide cooperation, while critics have claimed that it does not do enough to protect the environment. Julianne and I spoke with Mark Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University, and Dr. Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University, to hear their thoughts on the agreement.
Mark Giordano is the Director of the Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University. He serves as the Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environment and International Affairs and is an Associate Professor of Environment and Energy in the School of Foreign Service. Professor Giordano’s research focuses on cooperation and conflict over natural resources, particularly water.
Dr. Daniel Horton is a climate scientist and assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University. His research group investigates how to detect and elucidate the cause of extreme weather events and studies how the Earth’s climate has changed over time.
The Paris Agreement, finalized last week at COP21, has been met with both praise and criticism. What is your initial reaction to the new plan to fight global climate change?
Horton: I’m excited! It’s not a perfect agreement, and it doesn’t necessarily ensure a low-carbon future, but if we take a step back and realize that we’ve unsuccessfully been trying to forge a global agreement to combat climate change for a couple decades, the fact that we’ve gotten everyone on board this time round is rather monumental. It’s a hopeful moment.
»It's a hopeful moment.«
Dr. Daniel Horton
Giordano: The general direction of what came out of the agreement is a reflection of the mood outside of Paris. Change is happening in public attitudes and private companies. The agreement might not be as strong as some would like, but it reflects that the tide has turned. Whether it turned early enough is another question, but the signal that it has turned is powerful.
One of the aims of the Paris Agreement is to keep the increase in the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. What consequences of a rise in global temperatures have we experienced already, and what could happen if we approach this 2°C limit?
Horton: To date, our climate has changed quite a bit due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Perhaps the most acute change is the increase in heat extremes. Increases in the global average temperature have shifted the distribution of temperatures that we experience. Our coldest days are warmer than they used to be and our hottest days are hotter. There’s also evidence that precipitation characteristics have changed. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. The increase in global average temperatures means that when it does rain there’s more moisture in the air that can fall out as rain or snow. Due to this increase in moisture we’ve seen an increase in the frequency of high impact rainfall and flooding events.
»Our coldest days are warmer than they used to be and our hottest days are hotter.«
Dr. Daniel Horton
Further warming beyond what we’ve already experienced, will continue to exacerbate the temperature and precipitation changes, but it also has the potential to substantially raise sea levels, melt glaciers and ice sheets, and alter our food supply. These are the sorts of changes we either need to prevent from happening or plan to overcome through adaptation and human ingenuity.
How do scientists investigate the consequences of climate change and predict future issues?
Horton: To predict how future climate might change scientists use multiple approaches. One approach is to examine conditions during periods in the geologic past when greenhouse gas concentrations were similar to those of today. Those periods all occurred before humans, so much of that research relies of geologic analysis. A second approach is the use of climate models. Climate models simulate the physics of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land surface. We can use these models to test what happens when heat trapping greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, and then make projections about how our climate might change.
Limiting greenhouse gas emissions to halt the rise in the average global temperature will involve moving away from nonrenewable resources. Is the science and technology necessary to accomplish this goal available?
Horton: There are definitely some options available for moving away from fossil fuels. As nations go, Germany is at the forefront of the renewable revolution. Wind and solar power are rapidly growing options, and their use and efficiency continue to expand. Outside of changing energy sources, one of the most beneficial options moving forward is to increase conservation. Creating energy efficient (or retrofitting preexisting) homes, factories, and automobiles can reduce the energy burden, and reduces our consumption of fossil fuels without relying on new energy creation innovation.
»As nations go, Germany is at the forefront of the renewable revolution.«
Dr. Daniel Horton
Giordano: I work mostly on water myself and people talk constantly about a water crisis. But actually there are many options to solving our water problems ranging from technology to finance and from better management to new incentive structures for users. We just have to make the political decisions to act. There is no question in my mind that we are foolish not to invest more in science and technology for an energy transition because of climate change, but even leaving that aside, because it is economically and ethically the right thing to do. Revolutions are about to happen in bio-technology and materials science that will help with the climate goals because of that kind of investment. But we could do a lot with what we already have if we decide to.
What do you see as the greatest hurdle in implementing changes in the US to live up to the Paris Agreement and cut greenhouse gas emissions?
Horton: Our largest hurdle in the U.S. is ideological. There are those that believe action should be government mandated, those that believe action should spring from the free market economy, and those that believe no action should be taken. Each of these factions in the U.S. is maneuvering to win the day and it’s largely playing out in the arena of politics.
»The politics are changing.«
Dr. Mark Giordano
Giordano: Politics. But the politics are changing. You can sense it globally from this agreement but also from rhetoric in the US and the changing actions of the private sector. Finance is already moving in different directions than it used to. People whose primary concern is profit are moving away from the status quo because of the investment risks associated with the old ways of doing business and the opportunity from the new.
What can students in the US, Germany, and around the world do to help in mitigating climate change and protecting our environment?
Horton: As individuals, we can turn the lights out, take public transport, reuse a plastic bag, think about where the food we eat comes from, support sustainably minded companies, teach our parents the science of climate change, consider the future when making decisions, and most important of all, register to vote and then vote for who and what you believe in.
Giordano: Live what you believe, especially before you ask others to change.
The Paris Agreement offers a ray of hope in recent efforts to combat global climate change, but this is still much work to be done. As Professors Giordano and Horton emphasized, a global agreement still requires the active participation of citizens and governments. With the Paris Agreement in the back of our minds, it’s now more important than ever to remain committed to Going Green!
Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.Julianne Troiano is a graduate student at the Center for Chemical Innovation on Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Julianne is interested in environmental science and has experience as a blogger (www.sustainable-nano.com). She recently travelled to Iceland to study glaciers and alternative energy and will share her experiences with us.