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Climate news is 'dire,' but Mason professor hasn't lost hope

December 12, 2018

Andrew Light

The problems of global warming and climate change are a public health crisis, a George Mason University professor said, but one there is still time to address.

That is why Andrew Light, a Mason University Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy and Atmospheric Sciences, called December’s meeting in Poland of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change so critical.

The convention created the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“When we finished the agreement in Paris in 2015, we got the broad outlines,” said Light, who—as a member of the U.S. State Department from 2013 to 16—was a lead negotiator of the landmark agreement. “But still left to be finished were details about important issues such as specific requirements that would make sure a country is accurately reporting on their progress to reduce emissions. This meeting is the deadline to finish details like that.”

“That’s just one part of the Paris Agreement that is supposed to be finished [at the meeting],” Light added. “We also have to finish other details, such as how to ensure that countries will regularly update their pledges to reduce emissions at regular intervals over time.”

There has been a raft of bad climate news recently.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment, which Light worked on as a review editor for the chapter on mitigation, said climate change is already affecting the United States, and the danger of more climate-related extreme events is worsening.

There also was research by the Global Carbon Project that said global emissions of carbon dioxide have reached the highest levels on record. And in October, a United Nations-backed scientific report found that nations have about 10 years to take actions to significantly cut emissions by half, by 2030, to prevent worsening consequences of climate change.

“It is a dire picture in some respects,” Light said. “The good news is that there is still time and we could move forward on this, but we’re going to have to do a lot to get there.”

“The other part of the [National Climate Assessment], which I think is quite hopeful, is that even if the federal government is retreating from some of its climate policies, states, cities, businesses and universities like ours are doing a lot,” he added. “Altogether there are more than 3,500 nonfederal entities committed to achieving the U.S. targets under Paris. If they were their own country, it would be the third largest economy in the world. The best estimate is that while they likely won’t achieve what the original U.S. target was under Paris by 2025, they can get close and hold the line for now.”

Mason, for example, will open a new Sustainability Institute in spring that is dedicated to research and scholarship focused on understanding complex environmental and social problems and offering solutions to communities under stress.

It is regrettable, Light said, that under the Trump administration, the National Climate Assessment, which was established by then-President George H.W. Bush, and climate change in general, has become a political football.

“But when we look at climate impacts happening now, and [how it] might get worse in the future, this looks like a public health crisis,” he said. “Take the crisis over lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, a couple of years back. There was no fight about whether it was actually happening or whether lead in the water is bad for you. We fight about who can provide the quickest solution to the problem in the most cost-effective way. I think, on climate change, we can get back to that.”

Taking the National Climate Assessment and the Poland conference seriously is a start.

“At the end of the day,” Light said, “I hope it will actually lead to a more sobering assessment of what we need to do to prevent the worst outcomes of this critical problem.”

Andrew Light can be reached at 703-993-6530 or alight1@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.