Now or never, says Harris lecturer on addressing climate change
A decade. That’s all the time left to cut carbon emissions, reduce greenhouse gases, start driving electric vehicles and switch to solar and wind power.
Frances Beinecke delivered the shocking estimate at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ well-attended 2016 Jane and Whitney Harris Lecture at the Missouri Botanical Garden last week. She is a McCluskey fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a senior fellow at the National Resources Defense Council. The semi-annual Harris Lecture is sponsored by the garden, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at UMSL.
“Botanists are studying plant species that are blooming earlier each year. Entomologists are studying the rise in pests that used to be killed off during the winter months, and soil scientists are measuring the loss of moisture as a result of our warmer temperatures,” Beinecke began. “Taken together, this research reveals a startling picture. Climate change is disrupting seasonal patterns faster than many plants and animals can adapt.”
That includes humans.
Much of Beinecke’s lecture addressed the immediate global goals to start slowing climate change as quickly as possible. The recent Paris climate talks have her hopeful for the future.
“More than 180 nations agreed to cut pollution and transition to clean energy,” Beinecke said. “Scientists say that we must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent the most devastating impacts like sea-level rise high enough to endanger 280 million people.”
Still, there are Americans who regard climate change as a myth.
“Climate change does remain a divisive political issue,” she said. “And that’s not true in other parts of the world. Whether you’re in Myanmar, Europe, China, India…people do not debate whether climate change is a real threat. They do debate how they will afford to address it and who will help the poorest countries that are the most affected.”
That, of course, brings into question the role of the U.S., which Beinecke said remains central to effective climate action and agreed to cut its greenhouse gases 26 percent by 2025.
Clean energy is a growing, economically prudent industry according to her as well. She reported that the cost of renewable energy options like wind and solar are comparable, if not cheaper, than traditional fossil fuels like coal and oil. Clean energy could also mean jobs for Americans.
“According to a report just released by the NRDC, more than 2.5 million Americans now have jobs in the clean energy sector building wind turbines, designing fuel-efficient cars, installing solar panels and making homes, schools and business energy efficient.”
But even bigger, necessary goals are looming.
“Experts tell us that in order to stabilize the climate and protect our planet, we must reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050,” Beinecke said. “80 percent in less than 35 years – that sounds really daunting, but it’s also achievable.”
How? Beinecke said to start with cars, a big source of carbon pollution.
“The Obama administration issued clean car polices that will raise fuel efficiency to 54 miles per gallon by 2025, roughly twice the mileage cars get today,” she said. “That cuts carbon pollution from new cars in half and saves drivers 80 billion dollars at the pump per year.”
Turning to wind and solar energy to produce 75 percent of the nation’s electricity is another achievable item on her list, but a more direct address of power plants is the most drastic start to climate action for Beinecke.
“They are the single biggest source of climate change,” she said. “Obama finalized the Clean Power Plan to set national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. It will reduce carbon pollution from our power plants 32 percent by 2030. That’s like taking 70 percent of our cars off the road for good.”
Recently, lawsuits stemming from the coal industry at the state level are holding up the implementation of the plan.
“Leaders need to know you support strong carbon limits,” said Beinecke, which gets to her biggest piece of advice to those that want to help curb climate change – make your voice heard on the matter.
“We need a groundswell of support locally, nationally and internationally to put policies in place,” she said. “Policies help drive America’s greatest and most complex innovations.”
Beinecke was president of the NRDC from 2006 to 2015. Prior to becoming the president, she served as the organization’s executive director for eight years. In 2010, Beinecke was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. She has been a member on the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board (SEAB) under both Secretary Chu and Moniz; the Advisory Board of the MIT Energy Initiative; and sits on the boards of the NRDC Action Fund, World Resources Institute (WRI), Climate Central and ClientEarth.
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