Q&A: Cal Future Forum Offers Solutions for a Healthier Planet
California is playing an increasingly proactive role in understanding our global impact and finding solutions to ensure a vibrant future. In fact, we lead the nation—and the world—in developing a clean-energy economy, lessening the effects of climate change, and promoting green businesses. And the solutions being developed at UC Berkeley are already being used globally. At the Cal Future Forum, held on campus last May, more than a dozen researchers from Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shared their findings on the condition of the planet, offering a better understanding of the challenges we face. Here we provide a glimpse with excerpts from a few of the presentations made by CNR faculty.
Inez Fung is on the team working with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.
How do we verify compliance with our hard-won climate treaties?
Professor, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM)
Although U.S. participation is uncertain, through the Paris Agreement, countries around the world have pledged to rein in greenhouse gas emissions enough to maintain global temperatures at just 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. A very ambitious emissions-reductions schedule is needed. Since country emissions are self-reported, we have a challenge: How can we confirm that countries are maintaining their pledges and encourage them to do even better?
As a climate modeler, I’m part of an international scientific team developing the detection skills of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2), a satellite launched in 2014 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. OCO-2 gathers around 100,000 detailed measurements of Earth’s carbon around the globe every day, allowing us to answer important questions about where CO2 in the atmosphere is coming from and where it’s going.
The first picture we got from the satellite after it launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was very exciting to me, because we could clearly see that Pasadena, an urban part of LA, has a much higher CO2 concentration than the nearby nonurban areas. Since the launch of the satellite, my research group has developed powerful mathematical-analysis tools that use the satellite data to help us determine if actual emissions match a country’s pledged target.
In the future, OCO-3, a follow-on to OCO-2, is scheduled to continue spaceborne observations of atmospheric CO2 from the International Space Station. And last year, NASA announced plans for the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, which will provide continuous daytime observations of CO2 over Asia and the eastern Pacific. All of these Earth-observing satellites will contribute to treaty verification and help us monitor the health of the planet.Watch video »
Rosemary Gillespie studies ecosystems of insects and spiders to understand ecosystem function on a global scale.
How do we maintain local and regional biodiversity in the face of increasing global connectivity?
People in general have a fascination with diversity, novelty, and rarity. The development and preservation of the diversity of life around us requires one key ingredient: isolation. Yet when we travel, we unknowingly ferry plants, insects, and sometimes larger critters from one locale to another. In our globalized world, no place is truly isolated anymore. We’re basically putting biodiversity in a blender and seeing what comes out. Sometimes what come out are forests, once humming with bird and insect diversity, now hushed by intruders—non-native tree species smothering all the natives.
What can we do? We can’t stop people from traveling, or get rid of the species that have traveled and are now firmly established in new sites. Instead, we need to embrace novelty and figure out what creates a functional system in this new reality, on both local and global scales. Of course, all this is very complex.
One approach is to look at simple systems—like small, isolated islands—that can serve as microcosms for understanding ecosystem function on a global scale. We’re currently studying entire ecosystems of insects and spiders across the islands of Hawaii—measuring their diversity, their abundance, and interactions between organisms—to see how they change over space and time. We learn what makes a community more stable and resistant to intrusive species, and what part of the community is more vulnerable. We take the pulse of the system.
By measuring more patterns of species diversity in ecosystems that differ in age and human impact, we can start to understand what features of a natural community provide stability in the face of intrusions driven by climate change and other threats from our own species.Watch video »
Claire Kremen is looking at how more diversified farming can preserve biodiversity and produce healthier crop yields.
What is the future of farming?
Our planet is incredibly productive; it produces ample food for all the people of the world. And yet, 800 million people are chronically hungry, another billion people are malnourished, and two billion people are overweight or obese. What’s more, the way we farm takes an increasing toll on the environment. Farming contributes a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70 percent of our total freshwater resources. It’s a major contributor to tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss and has caused large areas of fertile land to become desert wasteland.
We must find better ways to produce enough food now and into the future without killing our planet. Having studied pollination for over 20 years, I know that healthy wild bee populations are a key element. Bees improve the pollination of three-quarters of the world’s crops, but their populations are suffering from a variety of threats, including our current farming practices, which rely heavily on monoculture farming. My research group has demonstrated how a more diversified approach to farming can allow wild bees to thrive while also preserving biodiversity and maintaining healthy crop yields.
Diversified farming systems incorporate non-crop vegetation like hedgerows around the perimeters of our crop fields, multiple crop types within fields instead of a single crop type, and natural habitat patches and grazing lands nearby. Together, these practices support healthy and abundant pollinator communities that in turn provide crop pollination. There is also growing evidence that diversified farming systems offer other benefits, such as more fertile soils and natural pest control, which can reduce overuse of fertilizers and harmful pesticides.Watch video »
Justin Brashares examines how human-wildlife interactions can have far-reaching impacts.
How do biodiversity loss and social conflict affect human health?
Ecologist and Wildlife Biologist
The fishing industry is on the front lines of the human response to environmental change. Fish are the primary source of animal protein for two billion people on Earth, and the fishing industry provides 11 to 13 percent of all jobs in the world. But two-thirds of global fisheries are overexploited and unsustainable, and fishers must work longer and travel farther to achieve the same yields they saw 10 or 20 years ago. The search for cheap labor to address these demands has had enormous social consequences as human trafficking and forced child labor have become embedded in the industry.
Another consequence of our depleted fisheries is an increase in fish prices, which has led to great global demand for alternative sources of wild meat, ranging from crickets to snakes to elephants and more. Since 2005, my research group has tracked the transport and sale of more than 230,000 wildlife products coming out of Africa and into markets around the world.
In our work, we have focused on how the wildlife trade has impacted large carnivores, because these species play critical roles in ecological systems: Reduced populations of carnivores usually result in ballooning populations of the species they once contained—like baboons, coyotes, and raccoons—and that can impact humans tremendously. For example, in rural Mozambique and many other parts of Africa, millions of young children are taken out of school to guard fields of maize from baboon raids.
As we continue to study and learn how a changing environment impacts human society both around the world and in California, we’re able to identify potential levers of change. For example, police enforcement or policy changes have generally been unsuccessful at getting children out of slavery in the fishing industry. Our research shows that such efforts must start by working toward more sustainable local fisheries. Or, school lunch programs, a popular approach supported by development agencies to get kids into school in many areas of Africa, may be more effective if they are paired with efforts to restore healthy ecological communities that naturally regulate crop pests.Watch video »
Watch videos of these and other presentations from the Cal Future Forum.