Robert M. Walker Distinguished Lecture Series Public Lecture
Dr. Charles Kennel
Chair of National Academies Space Studies Board
Director and Distinguished Professor, Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
Free lecture open to the public.
Will we be able to avoid major climate change in our children's lifetimes?
The present indications are not encouraging. The climate is further from stabilization than we thought just a few years ago; carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and sea level are rising faster than the "business as usual" projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. The world is far from agreeing on how to stabilize the climate, as the continuing slow progress of the UN climate negotiations indicates, and media controversies highlight. And the global energy system is only beginning to be able to reduce CO2 emissions sufficiently to prevent serious long-term warming. Significant climate change appears inevitable, but we do not know how much. We do know we will have to adapt to the impacts of climate change as we mitigate the causes.
Can we ease our growing climate risk while we wait for carbon dioxide mitigation to become effective? To get at this question, we begin by recalling why it is so critical to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and why it has proven so difficult. We have to be realistic about CO2 mitigation. It may conceivably be feasible in an engineering sense to make the needed reductions in CO2 emissions by mid-century if there is an all out deployment of low carbon energy technologies. This would also require that the associated economic, political, and social difficulties are overcome. Even so, it will take several decades more for the climate to respond fully.
Thus we are in for some precarious decades, which are made more so by the fact that air pollution has been protecting us from 2/3rds of the warming expected from our present concentrations of greenhouse gases. As more nations reduce their air pollution, they can expose the world to more warming. Experience shows it takes about 25 years to reduce regional air pollution.
Is there a safe passage through the precarious decades? Our best chance is to work on all climate risk factors simultaneously. We must reduce CO2 emissions as fast as possible without expecting an immediate impact on warming. We can and should slow the rate of warming and leave more time for adaptation by reducing concentrations of non-CO2 greenhouse gases like methane and warming black carbon aerosols, while ensuring that reductions in air pollution are as climate neutral as possible. And we can prepare to adapt to those impacts that are becoming apparent.
Engineering and climate science can draw a path that could possibly avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system"-the goal set by the UN Framework Convention on Climate change in 1992. But can we stay on the path? What should we do if all else fails? We conclude with a discussion of geo-engineering. Any prudent risk management strategy should have a back-up plan."
Charles F. Kennel was educated in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard and Princeton. He joined the UCLA Department of Physics, pursued research and teaching in space plasma physics and astrophysics, chaired the department, and eventually became the UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor, its chief academic officer.
From 1994 to 1996, Kennel was Associate Administrator at NASA and Director of Mission to Planet Earth, the world's largest Earth science program. Kennel’s experiences at NASA convinced him of the growing importance of Earth and environmental science, and he decided to devote the rest of his career to these and related fields. He became the ninth Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Vice Chancellor of Marine Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, serving from 1998 to 2006. Dr. Kennel was the founding director of the UCSD Environment and Sustainability Initiative. He presently is a distinguished professor, emeritus, of atmospheric sciences at Scripps, senior strategist for the UCSD Sustainability Solutions Institute, and leads the University of Cambridge/UCSD Global Water Initiative.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the International Academy of Astronautics, Kennel has served on many national and international boards and committees, including the Pew Oceans Commission. He was a member of the NASA Advisory Council from 1998 to 2006, and its Chair from 2001 to 2005. He presently chairs the California Council on Science and Technology and the Space Studies Board of the US National Academy of Sciences.