The debate is over: climate change is happening. The question now: what are we prepared to do about it? Researchers from across UC San Diego weigh in.
When it comes to climate change, researchers at UC San Diego have their work cut out for them. Whether cutting-edge climatologists or influential social scientists, they are tasked with finding sustainable solutions to a daunting problem that will affect our planet and future generations profoundly. Yet despite the fact that skepticism about global warming has been melting as steadily as Antarctic ice sheets, the subject remains so multifaceted that it often provokes confusion and complacency instead of a desire for meaningful action.
Two-thirds of Americans now say they believe in climate change. The signs are everywhere, from striking episodes of extreme weather to more heart-rending examples, like the recent viral image of 35,000 displaced walruses gathered on an Alaskan beach. Evidence like this may signal an end to the debate, yet the drive to take action remains elusive. Even among believers, global warming ranks low on the list of national policy priorities, behind economic concerns and the threat of terrorism. On the whole, our collective reaction to climate change still tends to be a shrug, not a rallying cry to dig out of the rut into which we’re only moving deeper. Such an attitude is a dangerous one. This was the prevailing theme among thought leaders following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) latest environmental assessment. The three massive scientific reports warn that inaction will lead to severe and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Conclusions that climate change is happening mean we’ll have to strategize and adapt—the sooner, the better. Because given what we know, and how long we have known it, there is precious little time left to waste.
From Then to Now
Scientists first began to grasp the greenhouse effect of natural atmospheric gases in the early 1800s. Around the turn of the 20th century, select researchers speculated that industrial emissions contributing to higher CO2 concentrations could cause warming of the planet, but their findings were regarded as a curiosity, not yet a crisis. By the 1950s the theory was accepted, yet many researchers assumed that oceans would take the brunt of the emissions associated with burning fossil fuels.
At Scripps Institution of Oceanography, renowned oceanographer Roger Revelle wasn’t so optimistic. His research on the complex chemistry of oceans suggested that the buffering mechanism that stabilizes the acidity of sea water would also prevent it from absorbing much excess gas—at best, it could take in a scant 10 percent of what was predicted. In a landmark paper published in 1957, Revelle concluded that global warming could become a serious issue if industrial fuel combustion continued to grow. “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future,” he wrote.
One year later, Revelle’s pioneering Scripps colleague, Charles David Keeling, took his first measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at the South Pole and in Hawaii. Prior to his groundbreaking research, changes in CO2 concentrations were considered natural fluctuations. But as he perfected his measurement techniques year after year, Keeling revealed something more ominous about the annual uptick. “At the South Pole the observed rate of increase is nearly that to be expected from the combustion of fossil fuel,” he wrote in a now-iconic 1960 paper in the journal Tellus.
It’s been nearly six decades since Revelle published his eyebrow-raising paper, and the Keeling Curve is still headed upward. Climate change has come to affect nearly every facet of human life—from economics to public health and safety—and as such, its study has become an interdisciplinary focus among UC San Diego researchers.
David Victor, professor of international relations at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), is an expert on energy research and climate change policy, as well as a lead author in the IPCC reports. “The short answer is we’re doing pretty much nothing globally,” says Victor, in response to how various changes are likely to impact the future world, from rising sea levels to increased precipitation.
In a controversial Nature editorial co-authored with Scripps Director Emeritus Charles Kennel, Victor suggests that widely accepted success metrics for mitigation are a large part of the complacency problem. For a decade, the general consensus has been to limit the global surface air temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The fact that temperature growth has flatlined since 1998 has encouraged a dismissive attitude among the public and policymakers, never mind the many possible explanations. Scripps researchers have linked the flatline to the last major El Niño warming event, for example.
“Scientifically, there are better ways to measure the stress that humans are placing on the climate system than [this] growth,” argue Victor and Kennel. “It’s allowed governments to ignore the need for massive adaptation to climate change.”
The researchers suggest using other indicators, or “vital signs,” such as studying the ocean, which absorbs 93 percent of Earth’s excess heat, and a greater scrutiny of areas that are more sensitive to climate change, such as the Arctic, which has rapidly warmed since 1998.
Boots on the Ground, Eyes in the Air
Atmospheric rivers are corridors of concentrated moisture that deliver as much as half of the precipitation received by California and the West during short, intense bursts that last only a matter of days. They drop rain and snow that is crucial to water supplies, especially in parched areas like the Southwest. But their promise does come at a price, as the largest, strongest atmospheric rivers can cause extreme rainfall and devastating floods.
Climate scientist Marty Ralph is director of the new Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps. His research is focused on atmospheric rivers and their role in the global water cycle, including water vapor transportation, precipitation and runoff. He was also an integral part of the multiagency CalWater 2015 campaign in February, which included one of the largest projects ever devoted to an individual atmospheric river event.
Ralph says adequate forecast accuracy for atmospheric rivers could perhaps give water reserve managers more flexible control over resources, while at the same time offering more protection from flooding.
Ralph’s colleague at Scripps, Mike Dettinger, described what such a flood might look like in a prominent Scientific American feature, “The Coming Megafloods.” The piece opens with an ominous reference to 1861, when rain started pounding the state on Christmas Eve and didn’t abate for 43 days, turning California’s Central Valley into a 300-mile-long inland lake. Thousands of people died in the deluge, along with a quarter of the state’s 800,000 cattle. Raging floodwaters washed away everything in their path, including entire communities. The state went bankrupt.
“If such a storm hit today, we’d experience something like $500-700 billion in damages and economic destruction,” says Ralph. “Those are huge numbers compared to [Hurricanes] Katrina ($100 billion) and Sandy ($200 billion). It’s a major challenge. These types of storms are out there, and they will happen eventually.”
UC San Diego’s researchers are also thinking about the impact abroad. Also at GPS, professor Jennifer Burney specializes in the relationship between climate change and food security around the world. In the Sertão region of northeast Brazil, for example, changes to the ecosystem have forced dairy farmers to make environmentally harmful decisions, such as clear-cutting forests when there isn’t enough forage for their cattle. Burney is now working with a local organization, Adapta Sertão, to measure the impact of new irrigation systems, water catchments and cattle feeds on both the ecosystem as well as the economic well-being of the farmers.
“The area has gone from semi-humid to almost arid,” says Burney. “It’s a great place to study adaptation for some bad reasons—there are a lot of really poor communities without adaptive capacity or the ability to absorb shock.”
Victor echoes this concern. “The biggest impact will be on societies who are unable to prepare and adapt,” he says. “They tend to be poor and vulnerable.”
This is just one of the ways an increasingly global economy has made the situation more complicated, particularly when it comes to emissions. While developed countries have managed to cut their emissions in recent years, they’re often shifting that burden to other countries by importing energy-intensive products such as concrete or steel. Says Victor, “The achievement disappears because they’re importing emissions in the form of goods and not even getting charged.”
Suggesting border tariffs to cover emissions can shut down a diplomatic conversation quickly. “This is an area where our findings were cut from the report distributed to policymakers,” Victor says. “The moment you start talking about trade effects, you have to start talking about individual countries.” Which is precisely where talks begin to break down.
Dismantling the traditional approach to international discussions could lead to progress. According to Victor, large-scale treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol are simply no longer effective. “For many years, negotiations have been designed so that everybody gets a word in but nothing gets done,” explains Victor, who explores this concept in his popular 2011 book, Global Warming Gridlock.
A recent series of UN-sponsored conferences on climate bring this gridlock into sharp relief. During a recent meeting in Bonn, Germany, developed countries wanted to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions while poorer countries called for commitments on climate finance, technology transfer and adaptation to global warming.
“The more people involved, the more complex it’s going to be,” says Victor.
The Moral Imperative
To move beyond this impasse, casting climate change as a moral issue as much as an economic one has gained traction in scientific circles. In June 2015, Pope Francis embraced this viewpoint, issuing the now historic and controversial encyclical—an official papal letter typically offering direction on Catholic faith—titled “Laudato Si.” The document used the observations of science to lament society’s irresponsible use of the environment, a condition intertwined with social injustices suffered throughout the world, especially by the poor.
A relationship with a UC San Diego researcher proved to be a key inspiration for the Pope’s encyclical. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Scripps, has been a proponent of the powerful role religion can play in mobilizing public support for environmental stewardship. Pope John Paul II elected Ramanathan to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2004. Ramanathan’s convening of an academy workshop at the Vatican in May 2014 was a key precursor to the encyclical.
After the workshop, Ramanathan was given a chance to briefly speak to the Pope. The elevator pitch he delivered was that the world’s 3 billion poorest people have no access to fossil fuels and therefore have contributed little to global warming. Yet, Ramanathan added, they will suffer the worst consequences of climate change. Ramanathan said he left the Pope to consider exhorting his followers to become better environmental stewards.
Ramanathan has also addressed the United Nations on the subject, and has publicly discussed the intersection of science and moral authority with other religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama.
Ramanathan followed up on his Vatican experience by co-authoring a Science essay, “The Pursuit of the Common Good.” The piece begins: “Humanity is at a crossroads. Do we continue trends of preceding decades that lift people out of poverty and extend life spans, but in the process run down the planet’s natural capital? Solutions to this profound problem will require greater cooperation among people.”
A simple truth, no matter how inconvenient.
Weather at Arms
Even the Pentagon agrees—climate change is a national threat. From increased demand for humanitarian efforts to environmental threats to military installations, the peril is out there.
Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet (Scripps, Ph.D. ’01) visited Scripps in May 2014 for a workshop on rising sea levels. Then the deputy director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, he outlined some of the military’s vulnerabilities, as well as its approach to assessment and coping. Gallaudet was subsequently named admiral and commander of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
Research being carried out at UC San Diego could prove fundamental to future national security. Stronger understanding of weather patterns—as well as improved weather prediction and monitoring systems—will play a significant role in how we can better adapt to a changing world.