ASU scientists 'not surprised' by dire UN climate change report

This past Monday, the United Nations released its latest report on climate change: Global warming, unequivocally human-caused, cannot be stopped. The worst effects — drought, destructive storms, fires, and floods — will continue unabated. But the worst effects can be stopped at a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius if humanity takes unprecedented efforts to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and remove what has been emitted there.

Leading scientists at Arizona State University were not startled by what they read.

“In a way I was not surprised,” said Peter Schlosser, one of the world’s leading Earth scientists, with expertise in the hydrosphere and how humans affect the planet’s natural state. “We know from a scientific perspective that global warming is progressing. ... We also see actually the effects of climate change more frequently on many places of the planet and two signature impacts of climate change, wildfires and flooding.”

Schlosser pointed to disasters of the last two years: catastrophic wildfires in Australia – so big they had an impact on how the atmosphere works. Massive flooding in Germany. The biggest wildfire in California history. Heat in the Pacific Northwest easily rivaling the temperatures of an Arizona summer.

“More people are starting to experience directly the effects of climate change,” said Schlosser, who leads the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU, a laboratory launched to harness the innovative capacity of academia and develop options for sound management of the planet.

Theoretical physicist Klaus Lackner leads the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU, where he has designed and built a machine that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it, removing carbon from the atmosphere permanently.

“I think this is the decade where (climate change) is going to go off scale,” Lackner said. “So sticking with the analogy, you had the seeds in the '90s. You had the little weeds looking out from under the corn in the zeros. In the teens the weeds were just about as tall as the corn. And this year, this decade, they both stick out. ...

“Now you will get things you have never seen,” he said.

Lackner said there’s nothing in the report that hasn’t been covered before, but “it puts it all in one place.”

And, he added, it won't pull itself back, not on a timescale that is personally relevant.

In preindustrial times, there were 180 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. Now it’s at 420 parts per million.

“We are still accelerating,” he said. “We are not slowing down.”

Drastic changes will have to be made, Schlosser said — and soon.

“Let's say around 2050, we have to be at net zero emissions,” he said. “Now that does not just mean that we have to transform the energy system, completely getting off fossils, but we also have to take some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere, which is actually one of the strengths of ASU to work in that area to send off negative carbon emissions. We're leading in thinking about these issues and coming up with the idea that you can do it. So we have options to act in a way that will limit climate change.”

However, that will take a global commitment of historic proportions, dwarfing Allied cooperation during World War II. So far that hasn’t begun to happen. Life everywhere has continued apace since the Paris Accords of 2015.

But Lackner thinks it’s possible.

“We now have finally come to the point that we think we can put on the brakes hard enough,” he said. “I think before the century is out, we will pull back on it. I think it is possible. ... I think here you can make the same case that by becoming a daily experience for everybody, we all look for a way of fixing it. And that's very different than having a small group saying, 'We need to change your lifestyle — wear a hair shirt and tighten your belt.' Until now this was mainly a problem for people who came from a strong environmental perspective and challenged the consumer lifestyle. And as a consequence, nobody listened.”

What can the average citizen do? Schlosser had some advice.

Pay attention to what the report says and realize it is not theoretical or abstract. Your children and grandchildren will be affected by it.

Get an electric car earlier if you can. Switch lightbulbs to LEDs. Buy high-efficiency appliances. Consider how you travel and how often. Switch to solar panels. Energy savings might account for a third to 40% of the problem, according to Schlosser. Vote for who sets the environmental agenda and look at what that agenda looks like.

Look at it like going on a diet. If you run 6 miles, you take off 750 calories, but if you eat a slice of pizza you put it back on.

“So there is a variety of options for us,” Schlosser said. “Some very direct — we make the decision and by the way we purchase, we contribute to more or less emissions.”

It’s important to be reminded of the whole picture, he said.

“It reminds us what we have to do is to keep climate change at a certain level at this point,” he said. “No matter what we do, we cannot stop temperature rise at the level of where we are right now.”

Top image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Scott Seckel
scott.seckel@asu.edu