This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Carnesale: Economic woes push climate change to back burner

Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale.
Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale.
Despite a political logjam in Congress and an economic slowdown that has made even some environmentalists hesitant to spend money on green policies, UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale remains hopeful that a National Academy of Sciences report calling for adaptations to climate change will inspire action.
Carnesale, a climate-change expert and UCLA professor who chaired the congressionally commissioned committee that produced the report, said he was not surprised by the cold reception the current, more conservative Congress has given the document, which was requested by a relatively liberal 2008 Congress.
“We knew of the obstacles, but we thought it was important to have an authoritative, credible source that addressed climate-change science and provided a strategy addressing it,” Carnesale said. Though many state and local entities have begun to address climate change, Carnesale expects that federal progress could begin once the economy starts to recover.
Carnesale will summarize and explain the report, America’s Climate Choices, on Wednesday, Oct. 12 when he delivers the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Oppenheim Lecture. The committee of the National Academies of Sciences, a branch of the National Research Council, issued the report in May after more than two years of reviewing original research about climate change and drawing its own conclusions.
UCLA uncut: Albert Carnesale on the climate change report.
The report emphasized that climate change has already begun and poses significant risks. Responding to it is “one of the most important challenges facing the United States and the world,” according to the document. The document included recommendations geared to limiting further changes, as well as adapting to changes that are already inevitable.
“This isn’t just a group of climate-science wonks coming up with policy recommendations,” Carnesale said. “There were climate experts, but also hard-nosed economists, former elected officials — including a Republican governor from a coal state — community organizers, engineers and people from business, like the former head of DuPont Chemical.”
The science is more solid than critics want to admit, he added.
“Clearly, Congress is deeply divided on this and nothing of significance has happened,” he said, although he noted that meaningful action has been taken at the state and local level. “But the risk of not taking action is greater than the risk of taking action. The scientific community confirms that climate change is occurring, it’s mostly caused by human activity, and it’s a big risk.”
The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Oppenheim Lecture: America’s Climate Choices, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 6-9 p.m. Event full; join same-night waiting line for first-come, first-served to unclaimed seats. Video airs on UCTV at 8 p.m. on Dec. 7. Co-hosted by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; the Luskin Center for Innovation; the Environmental Law Center; the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment; and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.
The Earth has warmed slightly over the past several decades — more than can be attributed to natural causes such as normal climate fluctuations, the report noted. That has led ocean levels to rise and caused more frequent, severe weather, from hurricanes to floods, Carnesale said.
“The debate about uncertainties is framed as if we either know nothing, or as if we understand it perfectly, and neither of those is true,” he said. “We don’t know just how much greenhouse gas will be released over the next 50 years. We don’t know how much the population will grow, or how much energy they’ll use, or how efficiently new technology will allow them to use that energy,” he continued.
“But we know that climate change has begun. We know that more greenhouse gases mean more global warming, and that means more climate change. So the fact that we can’t predict precisely how much it will change isn’t the same as saying we don’t know that it will change.”
The findings show a pressing need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, especially of carbon dioxide, the report said.
“If there isn’t a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we’re not going to arrest climate change,” Carnesale said. Putting a progressive tax on carbon would be the fastest way to cut CO2, the report said, although Carnesale noted that a carbon tax would likely be too politically unpalatable.
A second recommendation advised the federal government to develop agencies or institutions to develop and fulfill a national adaptation strategy, which would cope with changes already underway.
“Prudent risk management demands advance planning to deal with possible adverse outcomes — known and unknown — by increasing the nation’s resilience to both gradual changes and the possibility of abrupt disaster events,” the report said.
With climate change causing an increase in major storms, floods and droughts, that possibility is rising, Carnesale said. Yet even as the science gets more and more defined, the percentage of people accepting the science has decreased, he added.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon: As the recession came and got worse, public perception of the evidence for climate change declined,” he said. “It’s just easier for people to say, ‘We’re not sure,’ than ‘It’s terrible, but we don’t want to spend money on it.’”
It’s a question of risk management, he said: If people are much more worried about the next few years than the next 50 years, then it might be reasonable to save money by ignoring climate change, he said.
“Others would say that’s immoral, to knowingly create a bigger problem in the future,” he continued. “Now that’s something you can have a real debate about.”
But the debate, he continued, “is not about whether climate change is really happening, or whether it’s caused by humans, or whether we should wait until the proof is in. If you’re sitting at home and you smell smoke, you don’t wait until you see flames. If we wait until more proof is in, the house will burn down.” 
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