Live-blogging the Dickinson College International Climate Symposium, day 1

Dickinson International Climate Symposium_Logo_FINAL_OL_1This week I’m participating in an exciting conference, the Science-Based Choices for Climate Action, Insights from the IPCC 6th Assessment Report.  I look forward to soaking up presentations, and also to feedback from my presentation about higher education’s future.

I‘m tweeting the event (hashtag #DsonICS22) and hope to live blog it here.  I’ll update this during the day.

The morning crowd is an interesting mix of college students, graduates, faculty, and staff, with visiting scholars, activists, and leaders. Bonus points: getting to see the excellent Ed Webb and other fine Dickinson friends.

A student, then the college president, quickly launched the program.

Hoesung Lee, Chair, IPCC, gave the opening talk. HE started by outline civilizational constraints, arguing that humanity simply has to live within the carbon budget, within a closed system.  Which is “a very tough mandate.”  Yet within those constraints, we can and should do many things: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, changing our behavior, increasing carbon pricing, and taking advantage of increasing urbanization.  If we do things the right way, reaching net zero by 2050 will launch a new stage in human history.

Webb offered this summary:

Key terms from opening address: compounding risks; cascading risks; hard limits to adaptation; path dependence; behavioral & socio-cultural change; urbanization; upgrading infrastructure; conservation of ecosystem services; governance; closed system

Dickinson climate symposium_Lee opening address_photo by SabrinaPrius

Dr. Neil Leary, Director, Center for Sustainability Education, Dickinson College, then introduced the program and its first panel.  Leary emphasized the combination of global and local perspectives.

Sean Shultz, Mayor of Carlisle, Pennsylvania spoke  to growing local awareness of climate issues, while also describing the contours of the local community.  “Residents are coming to realize the impacts of climate change.” Shultz mentions conflicts between state and local authority.  Carlisle did a greenhouse gas inventory, working with Dickinson, then passed a plan to reduce emissions over the next three decades.  Key points: lots of warehousing, so use those buildings’ roofs to host solar; improve energy efficiency for older housing stock; increased electrification of heating and cooling; getting the word out about PA Power Switch.

Christopher Nafe, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, spoke about the programs that DEP offers. Projects and services include benchmarking, feasibility studies, helping transition vehicles away from fossil fuels, helping local governments identify greenhouse gas emissions.  DEP also works with students, giving them the chance to work with local and state governments.  One challenge: convincing political authorities to do very long term planning.  Yet flood plains are flooding more often (redefine what a 100-year flood means).  “Climate change is a costly new reality for townships and boroughs.”

Greg Czarnecki, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, describes changes to local flora and fauna, including the state tree, the eastern hemlock. Season schedules are changing. New mosquito-born diseases (West Nile) are appearing.  A pest on the hemlock is expanding, killing those trees; this reduces shade on water, which then reduces brook trout populations. So the department identifies hemlock which are pest-resistant, as well as tree species which can supplement the hemlock’s functions.  They are also redesigning culverts (pipes under roads) to change their output.

Aisha Rodriguez, a recent Dickinson graduate, and member of the Rose Walters Prize Committee, spoke to environmental justice at the local level.  Legacies of redlining shape how communities experience climate change unequally.  She also describes how Puerto Rico grapples with the crisis as a US territory.

After a short break a second panel then began, on Demystifying the Work of the IPCC.  One panelist, Saleemul Huq, Independent University Bangladesh, couldn’t join remotely, as a tropical cyclone was crippling local internet access.  Karen Seto, Yale School of the Environment and IPCC Working Group 3 author, introduced the IPCC report, its history, and how it was developed.  Seto broke down group functions into science, impact, and mitigation.  Alexander Ruane, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and IPCC Working Group 1 author, described the wide range of authors involved.

Neil Leary asked panelists to describe assessments.  Seto described a key: report policy recommendations are “policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive.”  Next, discussions of IPCC people learning how to better work with news media.  One challenge is bringing together literature and contexts from many national backgrounds, while making the results universally accessible. Another challenge is making sure that the global South/developed countries are fairly represented.  Seto described the logistics of having a global group work through the summary for policymakers report language, live, line by line… then how they shifted the process entirely online during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leary asked about the role of politics in the report creation. Ruane described political details, such as settling on contested geographical names and pushing some content to footnotes.  Seto mentioned authors seeing certain findings as not relevant to their local issues, then hearing arguments about messaging details, rather than the science they express.

An audience question asks if the IPCC should be more frank, and “less politically correct.”  Ruane distinguishes between scientists and the IPCC, emphasizing the latter’s carefully established reputation for objectivity.  Another question asked about language use, and the authors described using the United Nations’ five official languages.  Question: what is the IPCC doing to make the science more accessible?  Seto notes that deciding where to live is crucial, and commends us to focus on young people (a local high school group is there). Ruane describes new infographics and interactive tools, along with fact sheets in more languages.  There’s also a report just for actuaries in the insurance world.

After a pleasant vegan lunch, we reconvened.

The first afternoon session updated us on the latest science.  Linda Mearns, National Center for Atmospheric Research and IPCC Working Group 1 author, pointed out increasing confidence in anthropogenic warming over the report’s lifespan. Alexander Ruane returned to introduce climatic impact-drivers (CID), “a climate condition that directly affects elements of society or ecosystems,” such as mean surface temperature.

Jesse Abrams, University of Exeter, described “tipping point elements,” physical sites and systemic problems which could have an enormous impact on the Earth system.  Examples include the AMOC, Greenland ice sheet reduction, and Arctic area permafrost thawing. Abrams co-authored this recent Science paper, “Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points,” a key finding of which is that these points might be likely to happen more quickly than previously thought.

In discussion, further points arose. Ruane described wargaming social responses to climate developments.  Mearns emphasized that the science and communication about it are coproduced. Questions about representation among IPCC staff led to a discussion of international climate justice – for example, should developed nations pay for storm damages in the developing world?  One audience member expressed concern that IPCC’s fact-based approach is failing to win over many people.

The next panel explored different pathways to net zero.  Roberto Schaeffer, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and IPCC Working Group III author, read the IPCC report to see multiple paths.  Anand Patwardhan, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park, spoke to the creation of different carbon budgets based on different global temperature goals, and observed that current trends mean we’ll overshoot a 1.5 C rise.  Steve Rose, EPRI and IPCC Working Group II author, noted that emissions are still on the rise, but we also still have openings, and the possibility to turn uncertainties into benefits.

Discussions considered uneven climate pathways internationally.   Some solutions arose, like massive a/reforestation and biomass + carbon capture, but we must shift to renewables now.  “Negative emission technologies” should be in play, because it’s too late not to.  Technology transfer is also required to help developing nations.  The panel also considered morale, and saw itself as fairly optimistic, especially given recent history.  Education is especially important. One question asked the panel to dwell on urbanization, which led to discussions about development and leapfrogging.

Dickinson climate symposium_keynote Roberts

The day’s keynote was from Dr. Debra Roberts, Head of Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, eThekwini Municipality, South Africa, and IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair, and titled “Why Climate Resilient Development Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change.”  She immediately struck a note of realism, as opposed to optimism, anchored in her IPCC work. She noted the scientific consensus around climate change and urged us to think in terms of climate justice.  She echoes the day’s theme of the importance of urbanization, forecasting nearly 2/3rds of the human race living in cities.  Extreme events can interact, compounding damage and suffering.  Around half of the world’s population live in the most dangerous climate zones.

Roberts focused on damage to natural ecosystems, connecting them to humanity through our mutual dependency.  Water management, food security are vital.

Realism: there are limits to adaptation. Losses and damages will occur.  Some natural solutions might fail, past a 1.5 C temperature increase.  Financial limitations can be powerful restraints.  So we need a social mobilization around adaptation *and* take mitigation actions, namely deep cuts to emissions.   These require political commitments, institutional frameworks, continuing knowledge about climate impacts, monitoring adaptation measures, and doing all of this equitably.

Dickinson climate symposium_day 1 closing panel

The day concluded with a final panel reflecting on the day.  Hoesung Lee returned to speak to the IPCC’s work, touching on the quality of the report’s science and the importance of integrating the developing world into the process.  Lee praised Dickinson College and higher education in general. Kit Kennedy (Natural Resources Defense Council) was impressed by the day’s focus on local matters, which then built to the global level.  Armond Cohen, Clean Air Task Force, was struck by the sheer complexity of the climate crisis, noting its embeddedness in “everything else.”

Karl Hausker of the World Resources Institute outlined five themes for getting to net zero, described during the day:

  1. Lower personal demand by changing behavior.
  2. Substitute electrical power for other sources.
  3. Produce a lot of power from renewable, clean, zero carbon sources.
  4. Reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases, notably methane.
  5. Develop cheaper ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

Conversation then became general, and I’ll try to note themes and points, if I can’t identify speakers.  Areas once known as non-flood risks are now flood risks.  Question: what happens to property values of threatened areas?  Question: is adaptation a gateway drug for mitigation? Richer societies are better able to cope; does that mean development is part of climate adaptation?  Improved energy efficiency seems to grow energy consumption.  We should emphasize the overlap between adaptation and mitigation.

Continued: great concern about the potential of mass migration. Concern about climate action competing with an energy, food, or health crisis.  Three interconnected crises: climate change, biodiversity crisis, and social justice – to address these requires a big tent, convincing people that all will benefit.

Optimism?  Emissions still grow, but at a slower rate.  The Inflation Reduction Act passed.  Changes in corporate boards, even with greenwashing, actually implementing commitments.   Carbon energy intensity declined.  Ten countries sustained greenhouse gas declines, including CO2.  India has made a lot of progress.

What needs to be done?  Improving siting permitting in the United States, to speed building processes.  Developed countries need to make good on pledges to the global south, both on mitigation and adaptation.  One possible inspiration: the huge telecommunication revolution of the past generation.  Building more stuff drives prices down; industrial policy would help.

Audience questions: the developed world aiding itself is like a plane passenger snapping an oxygen mask to their face before helping anyone else.  What should the government do? Perhaps a stronger federal role.   The United States does energy innovation well.

Question: is carbon capture greenwashing?  Hausker thinks not. We have some things which we need, which we can’t yet replace (ex: concrete manufacture). We should try enhanced weathering, capturing carbon at the source, and direct air capture. Carbon capture doesn’t mean moral hazard; we’re smarter than that.  Cohen: the world is 80% powered by fossil fuels now. Kennedy: we need safeguards.

Closing note from Lee: he feels more optimistic now.

That’s it for today. I’ll start blogging tomorrow morning.

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4 Responses to Live-blogging the Dickinson College International Climate Symposium, day 1

  1. Phil Long says:

    Thanks for live blogging the conference Bryan. You have a wide following and this amplification of the things said in that relatively small gathering really helps broaden the impact and audience for these important topics about climate change.

  2. Leigh marthe says:

    Looks like an amazing conference. I’m glad to get the overview from you.

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