When Dr. Chris Field came to speak at the Commonwealth Club in mid-December, the world was still basking in the success of COP21, the UN Climate Summit in Paris. After two weeks of negotiations, the nearly 200 countries at the table had, to many people’s amazement, reached agreement on moving forward on steps to reduce global warming.
“The Paris agreement is really a turning point,” says Field, who co-chaired the IPCC’s Working Group II. He went on to credit the late Stanford professor Stephen Schneider, one of the founding fathers of modern climate science, with helping to move hearts and minds toward that turning point.
“I'm sure that if you were to survey the people who’ve contributed to IPCC reports over the last 25 years, you wouldn't find ten percent that didn't have some kind of a connection with Steve and his work,” Field says of his late mentor.
Dr. Field, who was recently on the short list to chair the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was visiting Climate One to accept 2015 Stephen Schneider Award for Climate Science Communication. He disagrees with the assumption that global warming is too abstract and faraway a concept for the average person to understand.
“I think that if there's a single message that's clearer than any other in the recent assessments of climate science, it’s that we’re all vulnerable,” asserts Field. “There's nobody who is not influenced by high temperatures or heat waves. And even if you're in a place that doesn't experience a climate extreme, we live in an environment now that so interconnected by trade and migration and supply chains that there really isn’t anybody who is safe. And I think people understand that.”
For those who need more of a visual, Field uses the metaphor of “a big semi-truck” to explain the risks that climate change poses to the global economy. While the truck may be creating value that can lift billions out of poverty, “it is leaking these nails on the road behind it in the road that the rest of us are driving on.
“At first the occasional flat tire was an issue,” continues Field. But “some of those flat tires led to really serious accidents, and once you get a lot of serious accidents you have the possibility of really catastrophic pileups. And that's the way I see the climate system unfolding.”
But that global traffic disaster isn’t inevitable, he adds – there’s a lot we can do to prevent it. “The smart thing to do, though, is to make sure that we don't get so many nails that the adaptation strategies don't work,” Field warns.
“And that's the mitigation strategy; decreasing the rate at which these nails go on the road.”
Field was joined onstage by Jane Lubchenco, former head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), who received the Schneider award in 2014. Now the U.S.’ first Science Envoy for Oceans, Lubchenco was enthusiastic about the news from Paris.
“You know, it's been decades that people have been working toward a meaningful agreement that would really put the whole planet on the right path,” she points out. “Even though it doesn't get us as far as we need to go, it sets us on that path.”
Lubchenco says she shared the sense of optimism felt by her fellow scientists around the globe.
“I could just sense, not only in Paris but around the world, the relief, the excitement, the sort of recommitment that it energizes everybody…it really is an amazing accomplishment.”
For Ken Alex, director of California’s Office of Planning and Research, the agreement means one thing: “a lot more work.” Alex is charged with making Governor Jerry Brown’s carbon emission reduction goals a reality. To that end, California has signed onto “Under 2 MOU,” a coalition of subnationals (states and local governments) who are committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the Paris target dates.
“So literally the morning that it got signed I get a call from the governor and he says, ‘We got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to get 40% reduction by 2030, that’s 15 years. And we’ve only got three years left in this administration! What are we gonna do?’
“So I asked him for, you know, maybe an hour off,” Alex chuckled.
Photography: Ed Ritger