Sunday special: Feeling the burn

Sunday special: Feeling the burn

URBANA — University of Illinois Professor Atul Jain was one of many scientists buoyed by a study this month showing global carbon emissions had flattened out over the past three years — a hopeful sign in the fight against climate change.

"I never thought we would see this in our lifetime," said Jain, an atmospheric scientist who contributes to the long-term Global Carbon Report.

It's unclear whether the slowdown in emissions — mostly from a drop in China's use of coal — is permanent or just a blip, and concentrations of C02 in the atmosphere are still at record highs, according to the report.

Any scientific optimism is also tempered by anxiety over the election of a new U.S. president who has labeled climate change a "hoax."

Then again, Donald Trump also told The New York Times last week that he still has an "open mind" on the issue and even hinted that there might be "some connectivity" between climate change and human activity.

"There's a huge amount of uncertainty about all of President-elect Trump's possible policies," said UI environmental economics Professor Don Fullerton. "He's said some rather extreme things that he seems to be backtracking on right now. Who knows about a lot of these things?"

UI atmospheric scientists, plant biologists, economists and others who study the causes and effects of climate change are concerned about the future of their research — but even more worried about Trump's campaign promise to withdraw from the global climate accords signed in Paris last year. In the Times interview, Trump said he will "take a look at it."

The U.S., China and 193 other countries agreed to curb the use of fossil fuels, blamed for heating up the Earth's atmosphere and causing rising sea levels, droughts, floods and more powerful storms. "Everybody should be worried about this issue. The climate is changing, we know that," said Jain, who studies how interactions in the climate system affect Earth's carbon cycle.

"More than 190 countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions," some with financial help from the United States, Jain said. "If he sticks to his word, it would be very difficult for all the countries who committed already to meet the target."

During the campaign, Trump pledged to roll back Barack Obama's efforts to move away from coal toward natural gas and renewable energy to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

Scientists were also troubled by the man Trump appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's transition team, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who has argued against the need to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

"At least in the early stages, it's becoming fairly clear that the incoming administration is not very sympathetic to making changes to reduce carbon emissions," said Evan DeLucia, director of the UI's Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

"Losing four years in the fight against climate change is not a good thing," DeLucia said. "The environmental community here on campus, and the folks I'm connected with nationally, are very deeply concerned about this issue."

Eliminate the EPA, risk 'public health catastrophe'

DeLucia believes most people accept that the climate is changing, but will argue about the causes, even though there's "widespread scientific consensus" that human activity is the cause.

The UI is invested heavily in environmental research and sustainability issues, identified as a core theme by a campus strategic plan several years ago. It committed to an ambitious climate action plan adopted in 2010 and revised in 2015, with the goal of reaching zero net carbon emissions by the year 2050.

The campus has already reduced emissions by 20 to 30 percent over the last few years, and it's recognized nationally for its environmental activism, DeLucia said.

Trump has also talked about shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency, which is "depressing" for scholars like Fullerton who have spent careers trying to craft environmental policies that also make economic sense.

But he also thinks it would be next to impossible. The government could slash regulations, he said, but it can't just stop regulating sewage treatment plants, for example, unless it wants to risk a cholera epidemic.

"We'd have a public health catastrophe. You absolutely need the EPA to maintain minimal levels of public health," he said.

Funding fear: Research dollars could be at risk

DeLucia said it's too early to tell what may happen with federal funding for climate change research, which comes from many different agencies — the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, even the Department of Defense.

The military is concerned about the impact of extreme weather on civil unrest as well as its coastal military bases, he said.

On one hand, DeLucia expects to see less funding for efforts to mitigate climate change by regulating carbon emissions, for example.

But there could be more support for efforts to build up "resilience," or ways to adapt to the effects of climate change — such as research to help crops adapt to drought, he said.

How quickly could those shifts take effect? Within a year or two, DeLucia said. While there is "a lot of inertia in the system," particularly if you're trying to phase out a program, "appropriations can change very quickly," he said.

Researchers are now finalizing grant applications for the 2016-17 cycle, which were designed under the previous administration, he said. Those awards will be made by early summer and will likely be unaffected.

But next year's priorities could be different, he said. Many agencies also fund one year at a time for multi-year grants, to ensure researchers are meeting their goals, and "you can imagine how that can be politicized," he said.

"There will be plenty of time in this administration to make substantial changes," he said.

Jain, who receives funding from several federal agencies, is an expert on global deforestation and the consequences of cutting down tropical rainforests, especially in southeast Asia. Mature trees act as carbon "sinks," absorbing excess carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. When they're cut down, more CO2 winds up in the atmosphere.

Jain hopes that Trump will moderate his positions. He is preparing for a possible drop in funding but plans to continue his work regardless.

"We have seen this in the past, but we survived," Jain said.

Forget Paris? It won't save coal industry, Long says

Plant physiologist Stephen Long, who studies crop productivity, also gets funding from the Department of Energy to study cleaner-burning bioenergy crops that can be used for fuel. He's concerned about that funding, but is more worried about "the broader issue for our country" if the U.S. backs out of the Paris climate agreement.

"I do feel from a national point of view we could lose an opportunity," he said. "I fear that this is really playing into the hands of China."

China has made "massive strides" in developing alternative energy, leading the world in production of photocells for solar energy, he said.

"I think they sense a big business opportunity in alternative energy of all types, including bioenergy," he said. "If the U.S. begins to gain the appearance of being anti-global change ... that will not help our own manufacturers."

Fullerton said the Paris agreement is being unfairly blamed for the shift away from coal-mining and coal-fired power plants.

"That's going to happen anyway. There's been a huge fall in the price of natural gas because of fracking and other technology," he said. "For whatever reason, natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper. Basically, the older coal plants are going to be retired, and nobody's building new ones.

"Withdrawing from the Paris agreement is not going to save the coal industry. It's not due to globalization," he said.

Business interests that have invested in alternative energies — those building the electric grid for wind and solar power, for example — will push to stay in the climate agreement, he added.

The federal government's role is important for research, Long said, but "for things to get done, industry really has to have the will to do it. We're seeing that, with many big companies taking on quite aggressive strategies to reduce their own emissions," he said.

DeLucia: It's time for UI to 'double down,' lead way

Long said the U.S. has a big advantage over other countries in the amount of land it could put toward cleaner-burning bioenergy crops, such as sorghum, miscanthus and prairie grasses being grown on the UI's Energy Farm on South Race Street.

He is working on a project with the University of Florida to develop varieties of sugar cane that can produce oil for fuel. The plants could be grown without irrigation on "very under-utilized" land in the southeastern United States, addressing climate change as well as national fuel security, he said. On the UI campus, Professor D.K. Lee is studying prairie cord grass, a native plant that can grow even on contaminated land, he said.

Whatever happens at the federal level, DeLucia believes cities, states, private companies and institutions like the UI can continue to make headway on climate change. A group of corporate executives recently petitioned Trump to "take climate change seriously," DeLucia said.

Their concern is for the bottom line — i.e., Budweiser wants to keep making beer and needs to have reliable sources of fresh water, which could be threatened by floods and rising sea levels, he said.

"More and more states are recognizing that this is a challenge to their economic prosperity and the safety of their citizens," he added.

California has led the way on regulating emissions, and Florida is "deeply concerned" with rising sea levels in Miami and other low-lying areas, he said.

"This is sort of cutting across political lines," he said. "It's getting very pragmatic. We have to worry about producing crops, about flooding."

He said the UI should also "double down" on its efforts to make the campus a global leader on climate change.

"Other people will take notice our behavior."

"I don't mean to say we shouldn't stop being engaged in the policy arena and stop working with the federal government. But we should also be realistic, and realize we don't have good friends in Washington right now and we need to keep moving froward," DeLucia said.

We asked State Climatologist JIM ANGEL for his single-best counterargument to any "climate change is a hoax" talk:

"You can now take a cruise ship from Anchorage to New York because the Northwest Passage is ice-free for the first time in recorded history. When you see businesses planning and adapting to climate change because of the bottom line, that's a sign that it's not a hoax."

Leaving Alaska on Aug. 15, 2017, the 32-day journey on the Crystal Serenity will run you $21,885.

Attention, climate change naysayers: Two University of Illinois experts who have researched the issue offer one simple fact in support of the argument that it's real and it's here:

Fact: "Since 2000, 16 of the last 17 years are among the hottest years on record for the globe," says DON WUEBBLES, the UI's Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Sciences. "And since the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment was published in 2014, all three years have been warmest on record: it is now clear that 2016 will be the warmest year on record, followed by 2015 and 2014."

Fact: "2016 has the second-highest October ocean temperatures, only behind 2015. The five highest Octobers in the last 137 years have occurred in the last five years," says KATHY BAYLIS, an associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the UI.

— Jeff D'Alessio

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spharper wrote on November 27, 2016 at 5:11 pm

"Climate Change" scenario's from the "scientific" community will go down in direct proportion with the defunding of their "research".

Reykjavik wrote on November 27, 2016 at 6:11 pm

Re '"Climate Change" scenario's from the "scientific" community will go down in direct proportion with the defunding of their "research".'

You sound like a "smart" person.  In what field is your "PhD"?