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Local experts react to latest UN report on climate change

California’s blistering heat wave and power plant equipment failures are straining the state power grid. Energy officials are calling on consumers to conserve.
Justin Sullivan
Undated photo — California’s blistering heat wave and power plant equipment failures are straining the state power grid. Energy officials are calling on consumers to conserve.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released on Monday, urged immediate and bold action to limit global emissions to prevent climate change. The report’s hard facts and figures show a world on track to push past the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and looking at 2 or 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century. That amount of warming could alter much of the world’s environment, changing how and where we can live on a transformed planet.

The report says there is still time to act, though, if we have the courage to use the resources we have to scale up renewable energy sources, overhaul transportation systems, restructure cities, improve agriculture and pull carbon from the air.

Midday Edition talked to local climate change scientists, leaders, and activists Wednesday to get their main takeaways from the report.

David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego

I think this report does a good job of showing what could happen if everything were to line up. And I think the report, because everything is not lining up perfectly, is a big dose of realism about how much we'd really still have to do.

Well, my main takeaway is that the IPCC team is doing its very best to figure out how you would make big reductions in emissions needed to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, or two degrees. Those are the widely discussed policy goals, and they show it's technically feasible, but it's extremely difficult. Everything has to line up. You have to turn the global economy on a dime right now. Emissions are rising. They need to start falling and then falling rapidly. So it's going to be extremely difficult, and I expect we're going to blow through those goals of 1.5 to two degrees.

This report has a little bit of good news. Emissions are still rising globally. They're about 60 billion tons globally right now, but they're rising in about half the rate they were rising in the previous decade. We're more or less on track right now for about three degrees, a little more than three degrees of global warming. So that's still a lot of global warming, but it's a lot less than the five or six that we were on track for a decade or so ago. So all of that's a bit of good news. This report shows very clearly that if you want to make big reductions in emissions, the industrial sector is crucial, and electric power has to be at the very center of that.

I think this report largely confirms what we knew, which is that you have to work across the entire economy. Crucially, you have to redirect investment, and there's been quite a lot of progress on that front. So capital — massive amounts of capital — and you'll start flowing into low-carbon technologies, especially in the electric-power sector.

One thing I found very interesting in this study is that the findings that they have about the impact of diet on emissions are more prominent. That's usually a very controversial subject, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that come a little bit forward because a lot of people are asking what can they do individually to help reduce emissions?

One thing you can do, in addition to reducing travel or moving to more efficient travel modes, is to alter your diet and eat less meat.

Ram Ramanathan, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

This particular IPCC report finally acknowledges the seriousness of the climate change we are facing and we are going to face soon. And the second thing is that it spells out the sort of drastic actions we need to prevent the warming to go into a rapidly runaway stage.

About four years ago, I teamed up with two other colleagues and we said this 1.5 degree warming is likely to happen by 2030. That's 8 years from now.

The IPCC until then had always assumed we're not going to see this 1.5 degree warming until 2040. That gives us at least 20 years time. It's going to happen a lot sooner, and this IPCC accepts that.

If I can comment on what's the big deal about a degree and a half, you see the planet warmed by across the one degree warming threshold by 2014, and that's when the whole experience with climate change and extreme weather started manifesting worldwide. In California, of course, our droughts and fires, but when we cross the degree and a half warming, that's when I have been suggesting that the covert moment for climate change would come, that everyone would experience weather extremes.

Once this message gets across, I am extremely optimistic that society, particularly Californians and Americans, will take the sort of actions we need to take. I think the responsibility for actions lie at the governments and major industries. Individual actions are very critical, but the warming is accelerating and they by themselves are not enough. We need actions from the top and we need actions bottom up from the individuals.

What I want to conclude with is that we know what needs to be done and there are technologies of how to do it, and it's already happening. So don't get me wrong, a lot of the renewables, the prices have come down drastically. Solar costs only about 10% to 15% of what it cost ten years ago. So what is lacking here is political actions from the top and aggressive participation by the industry.

Nicole Capretz, founder and executive director of Climate Action Campaign

This is yet another clarion call to action, that it's now or never, that we are going to collectively commit to slash our carbon emissions and get off fossil fuels. Also, that the problem is not technological. It's not that we don't have the solutions, it's that we don't have the political will. And the authors of the report were pretty clear that one of the main reasons we don't have political will is because of the entrenched power of the oil and gas industry across the world and that this is stifling progress.

And then third — and this is kind of fits into our local work in San Diego and makes me optimistic — is that they said cities and local action is instrumental. Like that's where we can really model what zero carbon future looks like and that's where you can really innovate and experiment and really prove what's possible.

Without a doubt, transportation remains the largest single driver of emissions in San Diego. So, what that really means is we need walkable, dense communities. We need to sort of totally reform how we grow and develop to make sure we are building up our urban communities and we're making them so that people don't have to get in their car to get around!

That means making walking and biking safe and it means finally building out a world-class public transit system. We deserve that and it's a climate solution.

Megan Phelps, program co-ordiantor with San Diego 350 Youth 4 Climate,
staff research associate, UC San Diego Climate Psychology and Action Lab

Really I don't tend to spend much time feeling hopeful or discouraged because that to me feels like energy I could be using to be taking action.

This report isn't anything that we haven't heard before. The technology, the science, it's all been here for years and it's just a matter of rising up and demanding that our leaders and decision makers make a change. This report is really showing us how quickly we have to transition that we're in the final window for opportunity to really save my future.