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San Diego Climate Researcher Joins Thousands Of Scientists In Warning Of A 'Climate Emergency'

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More than 11,000 climate scientists signed a declaration this week calling climate change an "emergency" and urging the need for new ways to measure the effects of a warming planet.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 The Trump administration this week announced America's formal intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord that was expected since the president announced the withdrawal months ago, but what was not expected this week was a declaration signed by more than 11,000 climate scientists that we are now in a climate crisis and climate change must now be measured in many ways, not just the higher temperatures at the earth surface as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. Round table host Mark sours spoke via Skype with David Victor, who was a contributing reviewer on that paper. Victor is a climate researcher at the Scripps institution of oceanography and a professor of international relations at UC San Diego. Here's that interview.

Speaker 2: 00:47 We'll start with this report published in the journal bio science, this declaration by more than 11,000 climate scientists warning of a climate emergency. What's the core message here? Why isn't reporting on claiming surface temperature enough? Well, the core message is first of all, that we've been spending a lot of time talking about climate change and not doing very much. And part of the argument of this new paper is that the metrics we've used, but for judging progress have been too abstract. People don't really know what global average surface temperature means when it goes up a little bit. They don't understand the consequences. And so what this group is arguing or is, uh, is a whole selection of measures that are much more closely connected to what governments control, like emissions levels and also better indicators or how much stress we're putting on the planet aside from surface temperatures.

Speaker 2: 01:33 That metric that we've been used using for so long. What other metrics are you and your fellow scientists urging that we take a serious look at regularly? Well, one of the metrics that's, that's the most important indicator of the human stress on the climate system is ocean. He content, most of the heat that's building up that we call climate change is actually building up in the oceans at the Scripps institution of oceanography. We operate a network of autonomous submarines that now go out all around the the world's oceans and measure temperature at depth. So the data, they are very good. So that's one of the indicators going to be very important. Another indicator it's going to extremely important to pay closer attention to are are the measures of of emissions. That's ultimately what we need to change. Last year, global emissions were up about 2.7% per year.

Speaker 2: 02:18 They should be going down three, four, 5% per year. So the direction is wrong, let alone the magnitude and, and those are the indicators we really need to be paying closer attention to. And remind us of the Paris accord, what was called for in the Paris accord. Well, the Paris agreement called for a stopping global warming at well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels. That's a goal. The two degree goal has been around for a long time. It's Celsius of course Celsius. And the original logic was to set a simple global goal that was ambitious. Everybody could kind of point to that goal. And what's happened over the frankly decades is that while a lot of people have been talking about the goal, it's now become clear that we're going to blow through that goal and that the public doesn't really understand what this goal means. So these other metrics you think they should be the Paris accord should be expanded to include those?

Speaker 2: 03:07 Yeah, I think so. And, and several other scientists and I have been arguing this for several years and, and, and probably the reason for that is that the original goal set in the Paris accord stopping warming at two degrees and now it looks like we're not going to meet that. So we need to have a reckoning with the goals that are achievable. And then we also need your need, reframe those goals in terms that are better connected to what governments are going to willing and able to do to ultimately stop climate change. And in this, a research paper this week, uh, there were several steps being called for immediately by you and your fellow climate scientists to give us an idea of a couple of those. This team called for six steps. Overall, I think two of them are really important. One of them is a transformation in the energy system.

Speaker 2: 03:45 We can't stop global warming without completely transforming the way we use energy and I or culture, but it's really about energy and it's converting the energy system from simple fossil fuels to either a alternatives that don't use fossil fuels or capturing the pollution from fossil fuels before it goes in the atmosphere. That's one. And the other one, much more immediate is serious action on what are called short-lived climate pollutants like SUT methane. These are pollutants that are very potent, have very potent impact on climate change that have short atmospheric lifetimes. And the reason they're so important is because you're gonna make a big difference very quickly by controlling these pollutants. This is an area, and interestingly enough, where California has been a leader and part of California's foreign policy strategy on climate change has been to help the rest of the world be a better follower.

Speaker 2: 04:28 And how effective you think it'll be to publicize the various various climate metrics besides surface temperature. How effective in changing people's minds about the urgency to act? Well, we've been hammering on this argument for a while and it's starting to have an impact. I think initially there's going to be actually a lot of resistance. People don't want to recognize that the goals we've set in agreements like the Paris Accords, that those goals are not achievable. And so my expectation is it's going to be resistance initially and then over a period of years folks are gonna come around and you know, meanwhile emissions keep growing and the climate problem gets worse. Yeah. And I don't, we really talking about worldwide, a failure in leadership here, political leadership, the will to try to change people's minds and get them to act. Yeah, I think leadership's really important. I've come to recognize that followership is actually even more important.

Speaker 2: 05:14 One of the big ironies in climate change is that there are some places like California and many European countries that are doing a lot in the way of leadership, but we account for only a small fraction of global emissions. California's less than 1% and the more we do, the smaller fraction is. So everything we do as leaders needs to be evaluated through the lens of whether it, it increases the probability that other parts of the world do something similar and follow. And why do you think most people aren't truly alarmed already as the media generally failed on this issue? Too much time wasted on the false debate, debate over the validity and cause of climate change? No, that debates and important debate, and this is a complex topic, I think fundamentally most people don't see the consequences of climate change yet that it's not palpable what we're experienced in California with these fires, what we've seen with extreme storms and other parts of the country, uh, heatwaves and other parts of the world.

Speaker 2: 06:06 Those are the, the kind of front data points of this transformation in the climate. And so my expectation is that as this becomes more palpable, that public awareness is going to become more reliably behind the need for action. The big problem is that then there are huge delays from the period when, when serious actions begin nationwide, globally eventually. And we actually began to bend down the curves that the emission curves and ultimately stop the growth in, in emissions in the atmosphere. And scientists themselves, they for so many for a long time seemed reluctant to describe this crisis for what it is that's certainly changed. Yeah, it's changed. I think the scientific community's pretty frustrated that the evidence that this was a serious problem has been there for a long, long time. It keeps getting better. We keep learning about frankly, scary things that, uh, that could go wrong as the climate changes even faster. And I think more scientists are fed up with this. I think it's also, it's, it's uncomfortable for scientists to talk about terms like crisis cause nobody really knows what it means. And I think one, one of the things that's interesting about this new paper is you've got a large number of scientists who are willing to say, you know what? This really is a crisis. We need to, to have much more aggressive and serious action. I've been speaking with climate researcher David Victor of the Scripps institution of oceanography at UC San Diego. Thanks very much. It's my pleasure.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.