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How can we make progress on climate change in the Trump era?
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
The incoming administration has pledged to cut funding for global change research and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the internationally agreed-upon road map for controlling global climate change. And even without formal withdrawal, it would be easy to halt the measures the US is taking to uphold our commitments under the agreement. Any number of advocacy organizations will be lobbying to change this course, but I doubt they will succeed.
How, then, can we prevent lack of US federal leadership—indeed, lack of participation—from irreversibly hurting efforts to control global climate change? In the realm of policy, a big part of the answer lies in working internationally, particularly in the developing world, which is exactly what WHRC does.
Why international efforts? Most of these do not require the cooperation of the US government, and international policy-makers are more motivated than ever to address climate change.
Why the developing world? Because that is where the effort to control global climate change will succeed or fail. In contrast to GHG emissions from developed countries, which have started to fall, emissions from the developing world are increasing rapidly and have the potential to grow even faster in the near future. These increases, which are driven by rapid growth in both populations and per capita economic activity, could easily swamp any efforts to reduce emissions from the US and the rest of the developed world.
Hence the key to controlling climate change is to control future greenhouse gas emissions from the developing world and to work with international policymakers, who are not constrained by US government policies.
How is WHRC doing this?
First, we work in the developing world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, to measure progress in reducing those emissions, and to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More specifically, we:
- help countries to meet their greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments (known as “Nationally-Determined Contributions” or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. We do this by working on the ground to limit deforestation, to reduce unsustainable burning of wood, to build capacity to grow more food on less land, and to promote adoption of renewable energy. We are also engaging governments to help them to develop and implement comprehensive plans that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing economic activity.
- use data from satellites and other sources to measure progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the forest sector, which for many developing countries is the largest source of emissions. These objective, scientifically advanced measurements are essential in understanding progress towards meeting goals of the Paris agreement.
- go beyond reducing emissions of GHG to the atmosphere, and work to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere through land management approaches such as scientifically-informed reforestation.
Second, we are expanding our work with international policymakers to control climate change in the Arctic. As those who follow our work know, the potentially disastrous consequences of Arctic melting are a big reason for the urgency in addressing climate change generally. We work with international policymakers and NGOs to promote policies that limit climate change globally and in the Arctic specifically.
As for research, the US government spends more on global change research than any other nation, and as a result our contributions to international scientific syntheses—in particular those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—far exceed any other nation’s. Critical scientific questions remain unanswered. For example, we desperately need to know what policies will be sufficient to avoid crossing critical arctic thresholds and tipping points. If the US government reduces its investments in global change research, as Trump has threatened to do, private philanthropy and independent centers like WHRC will play even more crucial roles than they do now.
If, as expected, the US government retreats from its efforts to control climate change, WHRC’s international work takes on much greater importance and urgency. If our government steps back, we must step forward. WHRC is able to do that effectively because we are already engaged in key elements of the challenge.
COP22 in Marrakech: Stepping forward on climate change
On the morning of November 9, while news of the US presidential election ricocheted around the UN climate meetings in Marrakech, Morocco, WHRC President Phil Duffy took the stage to discuss the implications of the electoral earthquake. Speaking before a forest-monitoring panel, Dr. Duffy said that “political events do not and cannot alter the reality of climate change.”
The 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) – the much anticipated follow-up to last year’s historic Paris Agreement – unfolded against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s election. Trump has famously declared climate change to be a “hoax” and promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. “If the US government is going to step back on climate change, then we all have to step forward,” said Dr. Duffy.
The forest monitoring panel followed a theme of the overall conference – discussing how countries can meet the national greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals that they set last year. WHRC’s Dr. Wayne Walker discussed the potential for next generation remote sensing technology to capture nuance beyond large-scale deforestation. An effective monitoring system, he said, needs to identify both forest degradation (smaller scale tree removal) and reforestation.
The next day, WHRC’s Dr. Glenn Bush and Projet Équateur Manager Melaine Kermarc joined government officials and a businessman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to examine efforts to avoid deforestation in that country. According to Dr. Bush, the DRC produces 9 percent of the world’s deforestation-based carbon emissions. Through capacity building and scientific understanding, WHRC’s DRC Projet Équateur trains development professionals and foresters about sustainable practices and policies in agriculture and forestry.
On November 11, Dr. Duffy led two panel discussions on the arctic impacts of climate change. He moderated a panel discussion at the US Center on “The Melting Arctic: A glimpse into the future of global climate change,” which demonstrated US research capabilities and results, including spectacular satellite images of the changing Arctic. Dr. Duffy also served on a panel on “Avoiding Irreversible Ocean and Polar Thresholds,” which called attention to the fact that delay in addressing climate change could lead to severe global consequences originating in the Arctic and/or oceans. In that session, Dr. Duffy described future climate scenarios published by the IPCC as “bordering on science fiction” because of their unrealistic dependence on removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.
US presidential elections notwithstanding, WHRC has played a vital role at each annual UNFCCC climate meeting. Since the talks began in 1992, WHRC has been informing policy makers of its scientific findings and technological advances made by digging ever deeper to understand the causes and impacts of climate change.
Top: WHRC’s Wayne Walker and Melaine Kermarc (2nd and 4th from left, respectively) at the side event on “Beyond Deforestation: Measuring carbon changes from degradation and growth at local to global scales.” Center: WHRC’s Melaine Kermarc addresses delegates at the African Pavilion. Bottom: Phil Duffy moderating a panel discussion at the US Pavilion on “The melting Arctic: A glimpse into the future of global climate change.”
WHRC welcomes Senior Scientist Linda Deegan
It is a pleasure to announce that Linda Deegan, a long-time collaborator, joined WHRC in September as a senior scientist. Previously a senior scientist at the Ecosystems Center of MBL, Dr. Deegan has spent her career researching the effects of global change on aquatic ecosystems in the Amazon and the Arctic, two regions central to the work of WHRC. Dr. Deegan said she is delighted to join the WHRC because of its “strong focus on climate change, a critical issue facing the world.” And she said, “WHRC puts science in the hands of the people making the decisions that determine the future.”
Through her research on animals in ecosystems, Dr. Deegan brings an added dimension to WHRC’s work on arctic rivers and permafrost. From caribou to butterflies, many animals of the north rely on migration to contend with arctic seasonal extremes. Survival for the Arctic grayling, a fish valued for sport and subsistence fishing, depends on the ability to move to deep lakes from its productive summer stream habitat before these streams freeze solid for the winter. With climate change, however, come changes in environmental cues that are potentially disrupting the migration of this iconic fish. Dr. Deegan’s research on how climate driven changes in the patterns of water flow in rivers and landscape connectivity affect migratory fish species is critical to the sustainability of arctic environments and people.
WHRC’s long-running Amazon program has collaborated with Dr. Deegan over the years, and she will continue to work on issues of climate change and land use change in that region. There, too, she studies streams and rivers, how they process nutrients, and how, in a changing climate, aquatic species are affected.
With her work on New England coastal environments, Dr. Deegan brings both a new dimension and a local focus to WHRC. A study in Westport, Massachusetts, for example, shows accelerating loss of salt marshes, potentially due to synergies between coastal storms, which will be exacerbated by climate change, nutrient stress and species changes. Along with Dr. Deegan, the salt marsh study is a collaboration of WHRC’s Chris Neill and colleagues at the Buzzards Bay Coalition and Westport Fishermen’s Association. To determine the cause and document the accelerating loss of the salt marsh, which in turn degrades the habitat for fish and shellfish, the scientists are analyzing samples and mapping the area for comparison over decades.
WHRC joins implementation of New York Declaration on Forests
At the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, more than 150 governments, companies and business associations, indigenous peoples’ and civil society organizations endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), a voluntary world-wide strategy that has set 10 goals to dramatically reduce deforestation.
In August, WHRC joined other organizations tasked with implementing the NYDF vision. WHRC and NYDF signed a memorandum of understanding, formalizing their association. “This is an important agreement and a significant global effort to build support and accelerate implementation of key elements of the Paris Agreement, including those related to land use, tropical agriculture and forests,” said WHRC President Philip Duffy upon signing the memorandum. “Our scientists have the expertise to make these goals a reality, and we are excited to join such an impressive coalition.”
To date, more than 190 groups, such as governments, multi-national companies, indigenous communities, and NGOs, have endorsed the declaration. The NYDF Assessment Coalition collaborators are ClimateFocus, Environmental Defense Fund, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, Global Canopy Programme, Forest Trends, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Rainforest Alliance, Stockholm Environment Institute, The Sustainability Consortium, and WHRC.
For its part, WHRC adds technical expertise in measuring and monitoring deforestation and restoration through remote sensing and data analysis. This component, led by scientists Alessandro Baccini, Wayne Walker, and R.A. Houghton, will verify progress of the actions taken to achieve the NYDF goals.
The goals also include alleviating poverty and promoting alternatives to deforestation in forest communities and strengthening forest governance while recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, both of which are primary endeavors of WHRC’s Projet Équateur in the Congo, led by WHRC scientist Glenn Bush.
The latest NYDF report, released in conjunction with the current UNFCCC climate meetings in Marrakech (COP22), focuses on the goal of eliminating by 2020 deforestation from the production of such commodities as palm oil, soy, paper, and beef products, which together represent 40 percent of deforestation. Each ensuing NYDF report will concentrate on one of the ten goals.
WHRC holds Science Policy Exchange meeting
This month, Dr. Christopher Neill was the host of the Science Policy Exchange (SPE) governing council meeting at WHRC. SPE was created in 2012 as a collaborative of four northeastern research institutions that are members of the US Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network funded by the Science National Foundation. The exchange grew out of efforts to communicate to a broader audience the science about projects concerning northeast ecosystems and their response to environmental change and human activity.
The LTER sites of Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, Plum Island Ecosystems LTER, Harvard Forest and the Baltimore Ecosystem Study form the core of the policy-based collaborative, whose projects on pollution and land-use change translate science into policy-relevant information. One recent project evaluated the co-benefits of the Clean Power Plan and analyzed US power plant carbon standard scenarios and their effect on public health. Other efforts have included, for example, a project on the impact of pests and pathogens on northeast forests and one on scenarios for protecting wildlands and woodlands in Massachusetts.
The two-day meeting was the collaborative’s first to be held at WHRC.
WHRC meets with Congo Basin Forest Partnership
WHRC scientists will join public and private groups from across central Africa next week for the 16th meeting of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership in Kigali, Rwanda.
The partnership, which was launched in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, was created with the goal of enhancing natural resource management and improving the standard of living in the Congo Basin.
Dr. Glenn Bush and Melaine Kermarc, leaders of WHRC’s Project Équateur in the DRC, will be in attendance.
WHRC event on 2016 election and COP22: What’s next for climate change?
WCAI science editor Heather Goldstone will host a public panel discussion at WHRC’s Harbourton Auditorium that will include WHRC President Phil Duffy, and William Moomaw, professor emeritus at Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.
The December 7 event will explore the 2016 election’s potential impact on climate science and policy.
The optimism of the COP process has been undercut by the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming Trump presidency. WHRC President Phil Duffy says, however, that there is potential for climate progress internationally and at the state government level. The panel will look at the the future of climate change science and policy from an international, federal, state, and business perspective.
The event will begin at 5:30 pm. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHRC in the news
Paris Agreement in Effect, but Much Work Remains to Stabilize Climate: WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell and President Phil Duffy interviewed on WCAI’s Living Lab on The Point with Heather Goldstone (photo right), 7 November.
Trump’s victory shocks international climate negotiations: Washington Post quoted Phil Duffy at COP22 on the election of Trump, 9 November.
US Election: Climate Scientists React to Donald Trump’s Victory: Carbon Brief video of Phil Duffy, 9 November.
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.