By James Irwin
Americans are already feeling the impact of climate change, according to the National Climate Assessment, a report compiled by a team of more than 300 climate experts.
George Washington Today sat down with Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute and professor of practice at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration to discuss the report, its findings and implications.
Q: What are a few things that stand out in this report?
A: I think one of the key takeaways of this assessment is that we are seeing—and feeling—the impacts of climate change coming on much faster and with more intensity than previously thought. Even just a few years ago extreme weather was a very abstract thing—it was thought of as something that might happen in 20, 30, 50 years. Now this consensus report—a necessarily conservative document because it represents what hundreds of scientists and experts could all agree on—is saying we are feeling the effects of climate change much sooner than anticipated. That’s a scary proposition, because it portends to some of the more extreme climate change scenarios.
Q: In a few places, the report discusses “rapid” climate changes. Have we already experienced some of these changes?
A: While the assessment found that we are already experiencing significant climate change impacts, we probably have not seen rapid or abrupt climate change yet. However, the report raises concerns that we may soon reach “tipping points” after which climate change irreversibly alters the Earth’s natural systems. For example, once we reach certain heat thresholds, some ocean currents may slow, leading to permanent changes in regional rainfall or sea levels. There’s also an increasing concern in this document that certain warming levels may trigger feedback loops, like the melting of permafrost in the Arctic, which releases methane—a very potent greenhouse gas—that causes more global warming and melting. It’s a negative cycle that could accelerate things.
Q: The findings project an increase in the average global temperature through the end of this century. The United States is made up of many different climatic zones and ecosystems. Assuming we maintain the “business as usual” scenario, what does an increase in temperature mean environmentally and economically, and how does that differ regionally?
A: We see climate change will have the most impact in regions that are already approaching a threshold point, say the desert in the Southwest, where things are naturally very arid and have already been enduring a severe drought. Put more global warming on top of that, and you’ve got some serious problems in places where millions of people live. The Hoover Dam has allowed Las Vegas to be the city it is today. Falling reservoir levels are severely curtailing hydropower production, drinking water supplies and agricultural irrigation.
You also have trillions of dollars invested in agriculture in areas tied to certain weather patterns that are going to be dislocated. In the Central Valley in California, farmers have planted millions of almond trees that supply more than 80 percent of world demand. Now they don’t have enough water to irrigate them, and they are forced to plow under thousands of acres of trees. They lost a lot of money. There are also businesses and people directly in the path of severe weather—we saw that last week in the Southeast—or the millions who live in coastal communities who will directly be hurt by sea level rise.
Q: The eastern half of the United States just came off one of its wettest and coldest winters in decades. Is there a link between that and this larger, global shift?
A: You could say “one severe weather event is not climate,” but I think the larger lesson is “if this isn’t climate, it’s what scientists say climate change is going to bring.” When talking to GW students about climate change, I often borrow [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman’s phrase “global weirding” instead of “global warming.” As this assessment finds, climate change is causing a lot of new weather patterns and severe events that are outside historical norms. Climate change in some regions may actually cause much colder winter temperatures. And that is the real problem, because our nation’s infrastructure, our businesses and where people live are all adapted to historic climate patterns. Changes to those norms will be very costly or even deadly.
Q: What is being done to mitigate human-induced climate change?
A: One of the themes of this report is that we have to do more than just trying to prevent climate change anymore—we’ve already added a couple degrees of warming into the atmosphere from our past greenhouse gas emissions. We have to harden our nation’s infrastructure and make smarter use of our remaining natural resources. Figuring out ways to transition off fossil fuels is a key part of the solution. Solar energy, which is what we focus on at the GW Solar Institute, is an example. Using solar can displace the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels as well as provide emergency on-site power if, say, a hurricane comes through and knocks the power out.
I think everyone has an important role to play in tackling this monumental, intergenerational challenge. Take the solar example. While the cost of solar panels has declined 80 percent over the last five years, we still need more government investment in research and development, incentives, and the right regulatory and financial policies to allow solar to really take off and help tackle the climate change problem.
Q: What research is happening at GW?
A: Our GW faculty and researchers are leaders in tackling many different facets of climate change. We have engineers looking at innovative thermoelectric-generating devices, and chemists figuring out groundbreaking new processes to make emissions-free concrete and fertilizer. We have researchers identifying policy barriers and proposing solutions that they share with decision-makers here in D.C. Faculty members have contributed to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
We are also trying to do more as a university to reduce our own carbon footprint through the Sustainability Institute and by teaching our students about the climate change challenge. I know our students are very aware of this problem and are eager to figure out ways they can be part of the solution.