December 19, 2018

Princeton University Environment Experts Weigh in On Climate Change, Earth’s Future

By Donald Gilpin

At the end of last month, the Trump administration released the federal government’s 1,656-page climate report, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, warning of dire consequences that could occur from climate change.

Princeton University climate experts Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute, and Denise Mauzerall, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public and international affairs, agreed with most of the report’s findings. President Trump did not.

“The Obama administration took climate change seriously and implemented a variety of policies that put the United States on a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025,” said Mauzerall. “President Trump is in the process of rolling back all of these regulations and encouraging the U.S. and the world to use more coal. He has indicated that he does not believe the report and dismisses the existence of human-caused climate change entirely.”

When asked about the report in an interview reported in The Washington Post, Trump stated, “We’re not necessarily such believers. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.”

Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and a faculty associate of the Program in Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, anticipates an ongoing political battle over efforts to address the effects of climate change, predicting that the White House will not be willingly following up on the climate report.

“I seriously doubt the Trump administration will pay any attention whatsoever to this, unless the courts force it to do so,” he said. “I am sure this report will be exhibit A in the coming war over Trump’s plan to destroy greenhouse gas regulation.”

Last week’s climate talks in Katowice, Poland, attended by diplomats from nearly 200 countries, were characterized by clashes over climate science, with the United States, along with three other big oil-producing nations, according to The New York Times, threatening to derail negotiations over a proposal to reduce fossil-fuel emissions by about 50 percent within 12 years.

After an all-night bargaining session on Saturday, the diplomats reached an agreement to keep the Paris climate agreement alive, adopting a detailed set of rules and calling on individual countries to return to talks in 2020 with concrete pledges to increase emissions cuts. The United States agreed to the deal in spite of President Trump’s promise to abandon the Paris agreement.

Both Mauzerall and Oppenheimer emphasized the urgency of the situation as delineated in the November 23 report. ”The report correctly highlights the fact that the impacts of climate change will be large and pervasive,” said Mauzerall, who is a faculty associate of the program in Atmospheric and Oceanic studies, the Geosciences Department, and the Princeton Environmental Institute. “A rapid decarbonization of our energy system is required to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophic damages, and additional work to mitigate emissions from the agricultural sector is also required.”

She continued, “The fact that President Trump ignores the reality of climate change and dismisses the report’s findings is slowing efforts to reduce emissions both within the United States and around the world. Opportunities exist to develop and deploy new technologies and industries that will help address the problem. Dragging our feet now means both missed opportunities to take on a leadership position in new industries and a commitment to dire consequences in the future.”

Going on to emphasize the severity of the threat, Mauzerall noted how widespread and dire the effects of climate change could be. “The report highlights how the adverse impacts of climate change permeate most aspects of human health and well-being, including our economy.  Impacts will have adverse effects on our economy by way of rising damages due to increasing temperatures, sea level rise, and extreme events; on public health through increased transmission of vector-borne diseases (e.g. Lyme disease, Zika, etc.), heat waves, fires, floods, and increased pollen resulting in worsened allergies; on agriculture through extreme heat, droughts, and fires; and on ecosystems, where many are projected to be irreversibly transformed, driving many species to extinction.”

Though no less alarmed than Mauzerall, Oppenheimer suggested possibilities, outlined in the report and based on his own research, for moving forward to combat the climate change menace. “Climate change impacts occur across the spectrum of human life and livelihoods, and preparing to build resilience against these impacts must do the same,” he said. “Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions cut across all human activity, from industry to agriculture to transport, so solutions must be implemented across the board. If this is done poorly the economy will suffer. If it’s done carefully and with an eye toward integrated approaches like emissions fees or comprehensive caps with emission trading, or equivalent levels of regulation, or a coordinated mixture of these, then the needed industrial transformation can occur with minimal disruption.”

Though adaptation to the effects of climate change is necessary, Mauzerall argued, the prospects for adaptation are limited. “The world cannot adapt to unfettered changes to the global climate,” she said. “Rapid dramatic reduction of emissions is absolutely crucial.”

Emphasizing hope for future progress despite the political obstacles, she continued, ”As governments and other entities recognize this need, there will be great opportunities for innovation and green jobs. People will be able to do well by doing good. These changes, of course, would be greatly accelerated and enhanced with far-sighted government policies.”