On June 1, 2017 President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord—an agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance starting in the year 2020. We spoke with Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Irina Marinov—whose research analyzes large climate models to predict future changes in climate, with a particular focus on the role of the oceans in the global heat and carbon cycle—about the impact of the U.S. withdrawal.
A transcript of the extended interview can be found below.
What is your area of research and how does it relate to the study of climate change?
I'm an oceanographer and a climate modeler, and I work primarily on the role of the oceans in climate change on both short scales and long decadal, multi-decadal, centennial, thousand-year time scales. I think about the global carbon cycle, and I think about physical, chemical, and biological processes in the ocean and in the atmosphere, and how these processes together result in the storage of carbon in the different reservoirs such as the ocean.
In the past couple of years, I’ve worked on a couple of projects that try to understand the projections of climate change, and the impacts of climate change over the 21st century on ocean oxygen in the Pacific Ocean, so I have looked at the expansion of the anoxic waters [areas of sea water, fresh water, or groundwater that are depleted of dissolved oxygen]. The expansion of anoxic waters will have negative implications for zooplankton and marine life such as fish in the Pacific Ocean, and we're interested in how these anoxic areas are expanding with climate change.
Another area I’ve worked on is carbon storage in the ocean, so trying to project the next century how much of the carbon coming from the atmosphere enters the ocean, and how long this carbon will stay there before it is recycled and it goes back up into the atmosphere. Carbon storage is a very big part of my research, and it's an interdisciplinary project that involves changes in ocean physics, chemistry and ecology.
So, the point of this research is that the entire climate is interconnected. You might have heard of the butterfly effect. Well, this is the butterfly effect in action. A small change in climate in the Southern Ocean [the ocean that surrounds Antarctica] that is due to our actions today, to our putting CO₂ into the atmosphere for example, and changing the circulation of the ocean in one particular area of the ocean, can have immediate, on a few months, a few years, a few decades, kind of time scales, can have immediate implications globally on the precipitation patterns, and on whether we have the right amount of rain and the right amount of food on the planet. The whole system is completely interconnected.
What is the Paris Climate Accord? What is the benefit of U.S. participation?
The Paris Climate Accord is an agreement in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that's aimed at cutting greenhouse gases to a level such that the global warming is less than two degrees Celsius. The accord is non-binding and consists of individual pledges of about 190 or 196 countries, and these countries have pledged to tackle their greenhouse gases and regularly report on their mitigation and adaptation efforts.
One very important reason for the U.S. to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, and why the U.S. was one of the main parties in this Paris Climate Accord, is the practical aspect of it. A reduced carbon economy will help with cleaner water and air, it will help with having more sustainable and better food. It will reduce health problems from air and water pollutions. It will provide more biodiversity and therefore more balanced ecology on our planet. And in terms of precise climate issues that humanity is confronting, emitting less means that we're going to have less increase in sea levels, we're going to have less risk of destabilizing the ice sheets, we're going to have less heat waves and droughts, less climate extremes, and less natural catastrophes. In general, the goal is to have a more balanced and sustainable life on the planet.
From an economical point of view, there are many studies now that have argued that a failure to mitigate, at this point, the effects of climate change could cost the economy trillions of dollars in the long term. The more we wait to cut our emissions, the more expensive cutting emissions will become, the more expensive keeping climate warming below two or three degrees will become.
From a pragmatic point of view, I think it's extremely important for the U.S. to keep their political, economic, and scientific leadership in the climate and energy fields. Also, pragmatically, we do not want the U.S. to exit this accord because this could prompt other countries to withdraw from the pact, or rethink their emission pledges, which would have disastrous consequences long-term for the planet.
What is the Green Climate Fund? What financial contribution has the U.S. committed already to this fund and why was this necessary?
In total, with about 4 percent of the world population, the U.S. accounts for about a third of the total anthropogenic CO₂ that has been produced. On average, a typical American burns two times more than a European, a Japanese, or a Chinese person would, and about ten times more than a person in India, per person. The CO₂ that we here in the U.S. have put up into the atmosphere, and that the developed world has put up into the atmosphere for the past two centuries, has warmed the planet and has produced changes in climate that are felt most acutely by the poorest countries, for example in Africa, in Southeast Asia and so forth, and by small island states.
Under a changing climate, the poorest countries and the small island countries who have done least to cause the CO₂ accumulation in the atmosphere, those countries will be suffering most. So, the Paris Agreement promised these countries extensive financial and technical help via a United Nations program called the Green Climate Fund. The goal of this fund is to raise about $100 billion to help these countries, and the US has pledged $3 billion for this fund. The Obama administration has already contributed about $1 billion to this fund, and it is worrisome that the current administration wants to step away from the balance of this commitment.
While the U.S. pledge is the largest of all the countries, it is not the highest on a per capita basis, but rather it is somewhere in the middle. For example, if we are to divide the total pledge by the population of the countries, Sweden has pledged approximately $60 per capita to this fund, and Luxembourg, Norway, Britain, France, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Japan have all promised larger amounts per capita than the U.S. has. If the U.S. fulfills its original $3 billion commitment to this fund, this would amount to less than $10 dollars per person. So, at present, each of us in the U.S. has contributed about $3 dollars per person towards this particular fund.
Many energy companies (Exxon, Shell, BP) have expressed support for the Paris Climate Accord. What is motivating this support?
I think it's interesting that many of the energy companies in the U.S. and elsewhere, British Petroleum, etc., have been reinventing themselves for quite a while now, for at least a decade, to prepare themselves for a transition to a low-carbon economy. So, this discussion about the transition to a carbon-free economy and so forth, it's not new. This is something that all of the energy companies, that the Exxons of the world, have been preparing for a long time. We know that coal plays a smaller and a declining role in the U.S. energy mix, and that is because cheaper alternatives such as natural gas and renewable energies, along with stricter pollution standards, have naturally resulted in this decline in coal. And big companies know this, and they will by themselves continue to change the U.S. energy mix naturally towards natural gas, renewables, etc., for years to come now.
What impact, if any, have you seen as a scientist from the U.S. decision to withdrawal from the accord?
So broadly speaking, even beyond the Paris Climate Agreement, the science community and my particular science community, climate sciences and geosciences, we are concerned that the President does not seek nor receive proper scientific advisement to guide his decisions. We are concerned, as scientists, about the president's proposed cuts for climate and environmental research and education via proposed cuts at the EPA, the NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]. By decreasing funding for science, the president will be virtually cutting down careers in certain fields. In climate science, and specifically in ocean atmospheric sciences, for example, a large percent of research is funded by the U.S. and their entire livelihoods depend on these competitive government grants.
Specifically regarding the implications of non-compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement, there is the very important issue of international students coming to the U.S. Traditionally, the U.S. has been the biggest, best place to do climate sciences in the world, the place where top students and top researchers has come to the U.S. for their PhDs, to do postdoc research, to do research stints, even as senior academics. We have already seen over the past year a decreasing trend in international students broadly coming to the U.S. across fields and across disciplines, at all educational levels. In the next year, the trend will surely continue as international students, for example coming for their Ph.Ds., will increasingly want to go to France, to Germany, to places that have shown themselves to be receptive and opened to increases in this kind of science.
Needless to say, this is worrisome. We do want to keep the U.S. at the top of the science game, and the reality is that we cannot do this if we don't continue to attract the best international students and the best science researchers to come and work with us.