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Chris Field, arguably the world’s foremost climate scientist, didn’t mince words when he spoke Friday afternoon in a packed auditorium at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
If people continue to burn oil, coal and other fossil fuels at the rate they were at the turn of the 21st Century, the result will be an uninhabitable future, Field said.
With “ambitious mitigation,” coastlines will still erode, storms will threaten more lives, wildfires will destroy more land and droughts will linger longer, but people could adapt to that environment, he said.
“We are all vulnerable,” Field said.
Not the most uplifting message from a man who knows more about the subject than perhaps anyone. Field, a professor and director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, has written 300 papers on climate change and been cited more than 80,000 times by other scientists.
But his talk, part of the UH Department of Geography’s public lecture series, was also one of empowerment.
“I think in Hawaii everyone appreciates that climate change is not a hypothetical,” Field said, noting the state’s commitment to renewable energy.
Individuals, collectively, can make a massive difference. It comes down to personal lifestyle choices, from what food you eat to what car you drive, as well as investment choices and voting decisions, he said.
“The narrative has fundamentally changed now,” Field said, adding he now sees a broad range of overlap where an investment in economic development can be an investment in climate mitigation.
“We are in an era now that until U.S. leadership on this probably is re-established, there is no way we accelerate progress.” — Chris Field
His work laid the foundation for the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement that set a goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and laid out plans for countries to work together to adapt to the effects of climate change while setting their own national priorities.
The accord called for the United States, which is the second-biggest polluter on the planet, to provide up to $3 billion in aid to developing countries by 2020 and lower its greenhouse gas emissions roughly 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The chief executive officers of major airlines, banks, car manufacturers and others backed the accord for business reasons, while conservationists supported it for the ways it could save species from extinction.
Every country in the world has approved the accord. But in June, President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the agreement. The earliest that could officially happen is Nov. 4, 2020, a day after the next U.S. presidential election.
Field, who worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the withdrawal would greatly impact climate change mitigation efforts.
“I think we are in an era now that until U.S. leadership on this probably is re-established, there is no way we accelerate progress,” he said.
And progress, especially the quickening of it, was the focus of Field’s lecture: “Climate Change Impacts & Solutions: Finding the Accelerator Pedal.”
Scott Glenn, director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said the the U.S. may have stepped back from its leadership role, but its citizens did not.
Hawaii, California, Washington, New York and more than a dozen other states have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance. Representatives went to Germany last year to assure the international community that even though Trump intends to withdraw the nation from the climate agreement, it is still actively working on climate change.
“The U.S. hasn’t abrogated its leadership on climate change, the Trump administration abrogated leadership,” Glenn said.
Camilo Mora, associate professor of geography at UH, took the lead in bringing Field to Hawaii.
“If climate change is to be fixed, it has to be Hawaii.” — Camilo Mora
He announced at the beginning of the lecture that the UH Department of Geography is changing its name to the Department of Geography and Environment to broaden its appeal to students.
The department covers climate, sociology, geophysics, ecology and other fields that Mora said give students a holistic approach to tackling climate change.
“If climate change is to be fixed, it has to be Hawaii,” Mora said. “If we don’t fix climate change here, it’s not going to get fixed anywhere. We have everything that we need. We have the money; we are not a developing country. We have the land that can be used to sequester CO2. We have people that are environmentally friendly.”
But he said a “culture of environmental consciousness” is sorely lacking.
“It’s amazing that we just don’t appreciate the consequences of little things that we do,” Mora said. “Instead of riding a bike, you choose to drive a car and when you go to a buffet, you order more food than you can eat. All of these things that people think are small, when you combine them they end up having a huge impact because you multiple that tiny thing by 7 billion people.”
He said politicians, but more importantly members of the public, need to “put their feet on the pedal” and drive efforts to address climate change.
“We can make it into the history books,” Mora said. “The first place that actually fixed climate change.”
There’s no silver bullet to solving climate change. But as Field said, there is “silver buckshot.”
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