With the clock ticking on climate disaster, USC experts see ways to respond
Sparking demonstrations like the one shown above, an August report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called global warming a dire threat requiring an immediate pivot from fossil fuels. (Image source: Pixabay.)

With the clock ticking on climate disaster, USC experts see ways to respond

Scientists and researchers discuss how humanity will respond to climate change in light of the 26th United Nations Climate Conference and weeks of negotiations. [3¾ min read]
ByJenesse Miller

Global leaders gathered last week in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss climate change and the shattering assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August that flagged global warming as a dire threat requiring an immediate pivot from fossil fuels.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, dubbed COP26, took place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 and was widely viewed as the most important opportunity to reach consensus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the Paris Climate Conference in 2015.

Experts at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences discuss how humanity will respond to climate change as the 26th United Nations Climate Conference and two weeks of negotiations kick off this week.

“Will we listen this time?”

“The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report is its most definite yet, combining all available lines of evidence to reiterate, more unequivocally than ever, that humanity must stop burning carbon as soon as possible,” said Julien Emile-Geay, associate professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife and an expert in climate modeling.

Emile-Geay said that for decades, climate experts have raised the alarm that the consumption of fossil fuels is “fundamentally at odds with the prosperous, peaceful future to which so many of us aspire.” But, he said, the fossil fuel industry has played a role in muddling the message and governments haven’t taken adequate action.

“Warnings once issued in the future tense are now decidedly present,” Emile-Geay said. “Will we listen this time? We no longer have the luxury of waiting.”

Confirmed: We are “locked into a hotter future”

“This most recent report from the IPCC reminded us once again that climate change poses an existential risk,” said Joe Árvai, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at USC Dornsife, Dana and David Dornsife Chair and professor of psychology. “We’ve reached the point that we are now locked into a hotter future, one that will be punctuated by deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfire, floods, severe storms, disease, extinctions and the like.”

Árvai traveled to the climate conference as part of a Washington, D.C.-based delegation for the Global Council for Science and the Environment. He said the IPCC report didn’t include guidance about how to upgrade the capabilities of governments and businesses so that they can make better climate risk management decisions.

“We know we have a problem and there are options for solving it, like the kelp-to-biofuel project at the Wrigley Institute,” he said. “Recognizing that we have a problem and having solutions at our fingertips to solve it doesn’t automatically lead to smart choices.”

Can capitalism help mitigate climate change?

“We will be better able to mitigate climate change if more of the emerging middle class around the world achieves its material desires but also embraces the environmental agenda,” said Matthew Kahn, Provost Professor of Economics and Spatial Sciences at USC Dornsife. “This requires a delicate balancing act.”

Kahn, the author of Adapting to Climate Change: Markets and the Management of an Uncertain Future (Yale University Press, 2021), pointed out that people in developing nations like Mexico, Egypt and India desire material goods that Americans take for granted, including cellphones, computers, cars and refrigerators.

A key question is whether the world can somehow incentivize developing countries to use less carbon while attaining those material goods. In other words: “How do we design the rules of the game so people living a fossil fuel-intensive life have a stake in the green economy and don’t view the low-carbon agenda as elitist and making them poor?” said Kahn.

“This may not be a popular position, but capitalism will help us adapt.”

Climate action will also address wildfire risk

Climate scientists point out that we’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as increases in extreme heat, poorer air quality and the growing threat from wildfires.

“The wildfire history of the past few decades, up and down the Pacific Slope and deep into the interior of the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains, tells a story of catastrophe and rapid change,” said Bill Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies at USC Dornsife. Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and leads its The West on Fire project.

“We can’t know the future, but we can and must use the past as a guide,” he said. “The past tells us that this is a new moment, likely a new normal, and we must continue all efforts to work on innovative ways by which to address change.”

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Read about faculty and students who attended the COP 26 conference >>