UC Davis Climate Scientist: "We're A Bit Behind Where We Need To Be"

Apr 18, 2017

Advisers for Donald Trump are urging the president to maintain the United States' commitment set forth in the Paris climate accord, a departure from one of his key campaign promises. On Thursday, a community discussion in Incline Village looks into the current state of global climate change and the impact those policies have on curbing potential threats.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick chatted with Benjamin Houlton, the environmental scientist behind this event to learn more.

KUNR: Let’s start with the obvious question. Where do we stand with climate change? What’s the current state of the globe?

Houlton: I think what we should be thinking about is that there’s a lot of risk with the way the climate system’s changing and how we’re seeing this greenhouse gases continue to rise globally. We need to start managing this risk the way we would manage any risk in our lives.

The more we understand about global climate change, the greater we can come together. Then we can start to reduce the risk associated with this problem. So it’s really bringing people together from all these different nations, scientists and relying on natural ecosystems to help us out a little bit.

How do policies like the Paris climate agreement play into climate change?

So the Paris climate agreement is looking to de-carbonize the world. Different countries have come together and agreed in principal to reduce their emissions. It’s a non-binding agreement, so it doesn’t have sanctions.

For example, if a given country decides that they’re not going to meet their emission standards, there’s no police network that’s going to cause them any harm, in terms of those emission reductions.

One of the topics of your conversation this week is about carbon sinks. What are carbon sinks and how do they work?

Yeah, carbon sinks are all around us. When you see a tree, there’s a carbon sink. When you see a grassland, there’s a carbon sink. So we’re watching this carbon go from the atmosphere and into the land through the process of photosynthesis, and then it can become stored for long periods of time.

About 25 percent of our carbon emissions have historically been captured by the terrestrial habitats situated on Earth. And now these habitats are starting to appear as sources in some cases, that is, if a fire increases in a certain region now that carbon goes back to the atmosphere when these trees burn.

When pests come into the ecosystem, such as the bark beetles, that causes these trees to die and they no longer take up our carbon emissions. So more and more we’re starting to see the risks of climate change cause these carbon sinks to somewhat fail, and that’s quite concerning given that we’ve been so reliant on their ability to pull our CO2 out of the atmosphere.

So what are some opportunities moving forward? What are some positives that you’ve seen in your research?

One of the positives we’ve seen recently, is that for many, many decades the only time we saw emissions go down was when the economy collapsed. About three years ago, the United States started bucking that trend. We started to see positive economic gains with reductions in carbon pollution going to the atmosphere.

Now the reason for that is largely because the free market is suggesting more and more that renewable energies are the effective way to start doing business, because it cuts cost for industry.

I think there is a reason to be somewhat optimistic that we are starting to change the system, and it’s a race against time right now. And we’re a bit behind where we need to be.

Is there a deadline…10 years, 20 years? Is there a place we need to be in a certain amount of time?

If you look at where we’re at, each decade moving forward, in order to meet the agreement of the Paris climate conference, which would hold the climate system below the level that’s considered dangerous interference with the future, we have to start cutting emissions by half each decade moving forward.

Dr. Benjamin Houlton is the director of the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment. He is presenting research on climate change during a community event, Thursday from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences in Incline Village.

You can register for the event here.