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‘Little time left’ to tackle climate change

6 July 2023


Former White House climate scientist, Professor Donald J. Wuebbles, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, recently opened the Translational Research Hub at Cardiff University. Addressing the building’s dedication to Net Zero solutions, the former advisor to President Obama told the audience humanity has little time left to adapt and mitigate to save the world from carbon and greenhouse gases. Here is an extract from his speech…    

“I’m delighted to be here at the opening of this wonderful centre. I especially like the TRH focus on Net Zero – a term which came from a friend of mine at Oxford University, Miles Allen, developing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment.

Professor Wuebbles unveils the TRH plaque

I really want to congratulate you on the formation of this Hub. The Discovery Partners Institute, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, is likewise creating a new, similar building in Chicago around climate resiliency.

The last IPCC report said climate change already affects every region on earth in multiple ways, and the changes we experience increase with further warming through the amount of carbon and greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere.

Our climate is changing about ten times more rapidly than the climate tends to change naturally, at least since the end of the last Ice Age, and that’s why humans and nature have such a hard time trying to deal with it. We are not used to such rapid change.

It’s not just about temperature change. What’s happening is that extreme weather is becoming more intense and more extreme: heatwaves, bigger floods, bigger droughts, more severe storms. And the other major impact is sea level rise. Why is this largely happening? It’s happening because of human activities, particularly burning of fossil fuels and land use change. The science is clear: nature would not have explained these changes by itself.

The climate will continue to change over the coming decades. How much impact it has really depends on us, and the choices we make, over the next few years – we need to make rapid changes.

In dealing with this problem, we have three main options: mitigation, or taking action to reduce emissions, driving changes to get to Net Zero; adaptation and becoming more resilient; or we can suffer. Right now, we have been doing all three. In future, to minimize suffering, we will have to maximise what we are doing in terms of adaptation and mitigation.

There is a fourth option, called geo-engineering. There are two forms: one is to remove carbon from the atmosphere – there are various techniques, but it’s economically unfeasible; the other way is to reflect sunlight, or change the albido of the earth system. That is something that’s worth doing research on, but also very dangerous because of potential impacts on our planet as we don’t really understand what would happen if we tried that route.

When I was at the White House as President Obama’s expert on climate science, heading into COP21 [the UN Climate Change Conference, Paris, December 2015], our concepts led to the Paris Agreement – the first major attempt to really start dealing with climate change. All the countries offered up their ideas or NDCs – contributions to deal with climate change. Most countries did that, but those ideas were insufficient to take us to where we need to be.

The long-term goal was established, based on previous UN meetings, that we would try to keep the temperature change below 2 degrees, but the Paris Agreement went one step further, acknowledging that 2 degrees was still dangerous – could we keep it at 1.5 degrees? That turned into the goal of Net Zero for many people. Hopefully we can hold to 2 degrees if we can get to Net Zero by 2060.

If we looked at the route we were all on before Paris, we were talking about 4 or 5 degree centigrade increase by the end of this century through IPCC modelling. We’re at 1.1 degrees right now, and you might say why does that matter? Well, if you looked at the last Ice Age, and where I live in Illinois we had thousands of feet of ice over us in the last Ice Age, that was about 5 degrees colder than now. So we’re talking about a very substantial change in the Earth’s climate with even 1.1 degrees, let alone 5 degrees.

Right now we are following this high pathway. We need to take very rapid action in the next decade or so to really reach our target. Hopefully, we are making a major transition with energy and transportation around the world that will get us closer to that.  But it’s going to take major action to achieve it.

So, I’ve always looked at the Paris Agreement as establishing a bridge between today’s policies, the Earth’s climate and climate neutrality towards the end of the century – establishing a bridge to where we want to be, but we’re going to have to strengthen the Paris Agreement to do so.

If we look at the amount of energy the world needs, and where it needs to transition to, moving away from fossil fuels means we need an extra 20 terrawatts of energy that right now is difficult to accomplish, so even if you look at normal projections of what could be standardly achieved without taking solar into account, you have great difficulty in getting there.

There are a number of different mitigation realities. One is that carbon dioxide emissions are the biggest part of the issue. Traditionally, energy transitions very slowly, and so it takes a long time to transition energy and transportation. We’re asking the world to move much more rapidly, and that’s where technology and innovation become very important. On top of that, we have issues like deforestation, meaning the 1.5-degree target will not be achievable.

Climate change and nature capital work together: nature capital being biodiversity, land-use change, water resources, pollution, air, and they are drivers for each other. The recent report from the World Economic Forum shows that, looking ahead ten years, climate change and nature capital will dominate longer-term human concerns.

We need to bring these to the forefront. Corporations have new requirements: two international task forces were developed by the international community. The first one looks at climate-related financial disclosures and the second one looks at nature-related financial disclosure. It’s important for companies to be able to assess the risk factors and stresses that are driving change within their own company.

Another way of looking at this, through my adaptation of UN analysis on climate change, is making assessments of potential impacts at a much more local scale and then looking at innovation and technology to mitigate the problem. Thinking about adaptation across society is extremely important – other sectors, agriculture, land, water, resources, matter too.

Finally, I want to leave you with one more quote from the IPCC: that the climate we experience in the future does depend on our decisions now. We have little time left. I always argue that climate change is already dangerous, but it is going to become more dangerous in the next decade or two.

I’d like to leave you with a film. It has been produced with University of Illinois faculty who are also grandparents, and carries a strong message. Thank you.”

Professor Donald J. Wuebbles, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign