Global Warming Sparks Action
When asked whether he thinks humans can succeed in the fight against global warming, Dr. Paul Bunje does not answer. He is not stubborn, shy or uninformed. For him, the question simply does not warrant asking.
Photo by Catherine Le
“It’s irrelevant to me whether people are optimistic or pessimistic,” said Bunje, executive director of the Center for Climate Change Solutions at UCLA. “We don’t have a choice.”
Bunje’s tone of urgency underscores the reality that the environmental and political issue of global warming is not about to go away in 2009.
On the national level, President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration is expected to herald in a new era of proactive climate-change policy.
Internationally, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared last month that 2009 will be “the year of climate change.” The U.N. chief was alluding in part to a crucial climate summit in Copenhagen scheduled for December 2009. The meeting of world governments will be their last chance to formulate a replacement for the Kyoto Treaty, the current environmental protocol, before it expires in 2012.
The policy makers’ moves are in response to scientists’ predictions of grim scenarios caused by a warming earth. At least half of the five years following 2009 are forecast to be the warmest in recorded history, according to a British study published in 2007.
Scenes of increasingly endangered polar bears, drought in Darfur and sinking islands in the Pacific are all examples of global warming’s immediate consequences, many researchers say.
Global warming’s repercussions are also looming large for Los Angeles residents, said Hilary Godwin, a professor of environmental health sciences.
“What worries me the most are the impacts on water scarcity,” Godwin said. “We are seeing some of those effects already.”
Godwin explains that warmer winters have yielded smaller snow packs in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of water for much of California. Snow packs preserve water until spring and summer, when they melts. Less snow, Godwin said, means less drinking water for areas like Los Angeles in peak summer months. She noted that numerous studies project this trend to increase significantly over the next several decades.
The impact on Los Angeles residents will likely not end there, though.
Contamination of aquifers by salt water from rising sea levels poses an additional concern. Increases in heat-related illnesses, food prices and wildfires, as well as deterioration of air quality, are also all real possibilities, said Suzanne Paulson, a professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA.
As for UCLA’s culpability in environmental matters, Paulson said her opinion has changed somewhat over the past few years.
“A few years ago, I would have given it low marks,” Paulson said of UCLA’s sustainability efforts, including funding for resources such as the Institute of the Environment. “But I think that it’s doing much better, and it’s generally on the right track.”
As 2008 came to a close, UCLA finalized its Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive guide outlining the steps the university will take to reach – and in some cases go beyond – mandated emissions goals. The plans include increasing the number of carpooling resources, equipping rooms with occupancy-sensitive lighting and upping the efficiency of the energy used to power the campus.
“It was a pretty gigantic effort of a number of different faculty and staff over the course of many months,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s new sustainability coordinator, the first full-time position devoted solely to enhancing the university’s environmental policy.
Poor publicity and weak interdepartmental coordination have often hindered UCLA’s sustainability efforts in the past, Katz said.
“The Climate Action Plan really collects a lot of this information about what’s going on and lets people, both on campus and off campus, know what UCLA is doing.”
In the realm of research, Richard Turco, a professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, is one of many at UCLA discovering what can and cannot help combat climate change.
Turco’s recent research with computer modeling suggests reasons to be skeptical of one proposed quick fix for global warming. The plan involves jet planes injecting the stratosphere with massive amounts of a gas that may reflect incoming solar rays and cool the earth. Turco’s research finds the geo-engineering solution almost certainly implausible.
All signs seem to suggest the primary solution to climate change lies in changing human habits and energy use, Turco said, even if that transition is difficult.
“You can take the pain and control the situation, or wait for things to just get out of control where you are in a panicky situation.”
On the student level, there are signs that UCLA members are eager to make changes toward sustainability in 2009.
The Green Initiative Fund, TGIF, which students approved last spring, is scheduled to take effect early this year. TGIF allocates its $200,000 annual fund toward sustainability projects created by UCLA students.
Steps like TGIF are reason for excitement, said Alisa Ahmadian, a fourth-year political science student. She is also a co-chair for the student group E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity.
“Students have really shown that they care about the environment,” Ahmadian said. “With the passage of TGIF by 76 percent, the highest percentage ever seen at any school, it really gave me a renewed hope in the environment.”
Ahmadian also cited positive changes in student dining — with more organic and local food consumption — and a significant surge in campus recycling as encouraging signs.
For students curious to learn more sustainability strategies, Ahmadian suggested opting for the Big Blue Bus as a mode of transportation, eating less meat, investing in efficient compact-fluorescent light bulbs and checking out Web pages like www.sustain.ucla.edu as good places to start.
Although Paul Bunje would rather not debate the odds of successfully countering climate change, he feels hopeful about the drive of the people of UCLA.
“That ethic is important, because we have a campus of something like 60,000 people, staff, faculty, students, all combined. That’s a lot of people who can make a really big difference.”
Published: Saturday, January 10, 2009