_fa16-climate-impact ("Q&A: Climate Change at the International Level")

Q&A: Climate Change at the International Level

The impacts of climate change aren’t being studied only in the laboratory or the field. Four CNR social scientists talk about the economic and political repercussions of our warming planet.

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Maximilian Auffhammer

Economist

George M. Pardee Jr. Professor of International Sustainable Development; Associate Dean, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences


Your work related to climate change?

I do a lot of climate-change and energy-sector research using big data and statistical techniques, quantifying the impacts of global warming on energy consumption. We want to project how humans will react to changes in temperature—for example, at what temperature will they turn on the air conditioner, and how long will they use it? Almost no one in San Francisco currently has air-conditioning, because it’s rarely hot enough to require it. But if summers in the city become as hot in the future as Fresno’s are now, they’ll eventually start installing AC units. We’re using climate models—physics-based representations of the earth’s climate system and actual, not assumed, human behaviors—to simulate what summer climate and human responses to it will be like by the end of the century. Big data is allowing us to answer questions we couldn’t answer before. My job is to tell you what the world looks like if we continue on a business-as-usual path.

Image of Max Auffhamer

Maximilian Auffhammer uses actual, not assumed, human behaviors to calculate projections.

Photo by Darren Jacklin Photography

Reasons for optimism?

Looking at the state’s future electricity consumption, my model suggests that increases in consumption will be relatively modest, about 10 percent. But other work forecasts increases in the frequency and intensity of peak events, which are the hottest days of the year. Results suggest that we must invest more in peak plant capacity, turbines that run during really high-load days. Also, in the field of climate economics, there’s no other U.S. institution that has the depth and diversity of knowledge that we have here at Berkeley. It really puts us at the forefront of this issue.


Reasons for concern?

Our coastal power infrastructure, like nuclear power plants and substations, will be affected by a sea-level rise and more intense 100-year floods. We’ve mapped out all the nuclear power plants in the world and identified those that could be affected. This simply means that we have to plan for the new normal.


Impact of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) on your work?

In the past, international climate negotiations have been like a family reunion where 200 of your closest relatives have to unanimously agree on one place to eat. Some are vegan or gluten-free; some want meat and potatoes. It never really worked; the resulting prior agreement didn’t do much mitigating. Paris was much more like a weight-loss program: Each member committed to losing a certain number of pounds and hence decided how much to contribute to the total weight-loss effort. Paris alone was not enough to get us to the goal of limiting global average temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, but it’s a good first step. As for my own work, Paris has presented some opportunities for further research, and I’ve got my eyes on a few new projects for the long term.


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Image of David Anthoff

David Anthoff creates numerical models of climate policies.

Photo by Constanze Huther

David Anthoff

Economist

Assistant Professor, Energy and Resources Group

Your work related to climate change?

My research focuses on cost-benefit analyses for climate change policy. Within that, there are two major strands I work on. I create numerical models that are used to estimate the cost-benefits of climate policies. The other is a more conceptual strand, looking at how to incorporate equity considerations into a cost-benefit analysis of climate issues. The federal government—from the White House to entities like the Environmental Protection Agency—is using my model to do cost-benefit analyses for federal regulations on climate change.


Reasons for optimism?

Here at Berkeley, we have a unique opportunity to advance the state of the art in this research area, with a diverse mix of modelers and empirical economists. Our team will be playing an enormous role in shaping this field over the next decade. And because federal policy-makers and the U.S. government are using my integrated-assessment model, our group has a very direct link to the policy-making process. It’s rare for so many scientists and economists to collaborate the way we do here. Traditionally these fields have been siloed, and by linking our work—the same topic, but different methodological approaches—we’re advancing the frontiers in this kind of research.


Reasons for concern?

The current administration in Washington wants to make tangible progress against climate change in a very short period of time. How can we scale this research area up quickly enough to satisfy the needs of the policy process? This is not ivory tower research; it’s being put into practice immediately. We synthesize the work of thousands of scientists into the cost-benefit process. Yet the funding we receive pales in comparison with that in other areas of climate research.

Impact of COP21 on your work?

The impact is probably stronger the other way around: The kind of work I do informs the negotiation position of the parties that try to come to agreements like the Paris accord. For example, the U.S. position in Paris was shaped by the Clean Power Plan rule, and the regulatory analysis of that rule was based on economic analysis that included my model.

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Image of Kate O'neill

Kate O’Neill warns that we should be looking at large-scale restructuring of our global economy.

Photo by Julie Van Scoy

Kate O’Neill

Global Enviromental Political Scientist

Associate Professor, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Your work related to climate change?

I study international environmental politics, the global political economy, governance issues, and activism. I work on changing practices of global governance, connections between science and politics, and how proposed solutions can have impacts—both positive and negative—at local levels. Climate change negotiations and governance are linked to almost every environmental issue, from the ozone layer to waste management to biodiversity. While some of these other issues have been amenable to traditional governance mechanisms, including negotiated treaties, climate change has been more complex and conflict-ridden.

Reasons for optimism?

There’s been a big normative shift in the last few years. Those countries that were “nonbelievers” in the threat of climate change—like India, China, and even the United States—now agree that it’s real. Most now understand that all countries need to do something at the global level to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help the poorest countries to adapt. The science has become more solid, and scientists are doing a better job of pushing that message of urgency. And political organizations are starting to look at how we can build institutions and rules around the science.

Reasons for concern?

If we were at this point of action 30 years ago, we’d be in good shape. But there’s been so much foot-dragging, we must now make enormous progress in a very short period of time. Climate change politics are still unstable in a lot of nations—including the United States, with the reversals in our Supreme Court and instability around the 2016 election. The European situation is also shaky; Britain’s exit from the European Union (unless it’s somehow halted) will have highly negative impacts on EU—and global—climate politics. I also worry that we’ll engage in some large-scale technological solutions that could have some negative side effects. Shooting sulfur dioxide into the sky to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, could really affect monsoon activity. And climate engineering could spark conflicts, if not implemented in democratic ways. Silver bullets never work as intended.


Impact of COP21 on your work?

The Paris agreement signifies real change in how governments are thinking about their roles in combating climate change. In turn, the “bottom up” approach to negotiating agreements that was adopted at Paris is an exciting new form of global governance. Some of the challenges at the global level are how to inventory national emissions, figuring out ways to transition away from fossil fuels, and how to fund adaptation policies and deal with climate refugees. We’re doing quite well with the low-hanging fruit, but we need to be looking at large-scale restructuring of the global economy.

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Image of Jonas Meckling

Jonas Meckling is studying the political drivers of developing clean-energy systems.

Photo by Julie Van Scoy

Jonas Meckling

Political Economist

Assistant Professor, Energy and Environmental Policy

Your work related to climate change?

My research explores the political drivers of developing clean-energy markets. I’m interested in why governments lead or lag in supporting the development and deployment of clean-energy technologies such as solar power and electric vehicles. I’m also looking to understand the global clean-energy race and how it impacts effective global cooperation on climate change.

Reasons for optimism?

Increasingly, the political debate is taking the development and deployment of clean-energy technologies seriously. We’re now discussing more explicit policies for stimulating the development and deployment of clean energy, while also looking at mitigation policies such as carbon pricing. At the Paris climate summit, governments created initiatives to advance this progress. The rapidly falling costs of wind and solar photovoltaics have created a major tailwind for this debate. Also, in a surprising twist of history, the economic crisis has proved a boon for climate policy. Governments poured billions in stimulus money into clean-energy sectors—including wind, solar, electric vehicles, and batteries—and this has helped to speed up the trend toward decreased costs.


Reasons for concern?

I have two main concerns around the politics of clean energy. The first one is that countries are starting to engage in trade wars over these technologies and erecting trade barriers. This has led to conflict in global clean-energy politics. The U.S.-China dispute over solar photovoltaics is an example. Prolonged disputes and tariffs just create uncertainty and increase cost. What we need is more certainty and lower costs. My second concern relates to the lack of political support for carbon-removal technologies. Those are technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the United Nations body that collects knowledge on climate science—assumes that we’ll eventually need to start pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic climate change. But politically, we don’t really see strong support emerging for such technologies.

Impact of COP21 on your work?

Paris is a very positive sign that reinforces what has already been happening at the domestic level. For instance, the United States launched the Clean Power Plan before heading to Paris to agree on a global deal. Going forward, I’m interested in how countries can create political pathways that allow for progressively deeper emission cuts. We’re now seeing greater interest in expanding gas power, as opposed to coal, to meet the Paris emission targets. But gas infrastructure stays around for a long time. It would thus be harder to make deeper emission cuts in the medium-term future. So how can countries develop climate policies now, but think about the long-term implications? Also, how can we move beyond the power sector to achieve emission cuts in the transport sector?