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Climate change conversation, actions to shift in following decade

U.Va. faculty, students anticipate how the conversation will change and what humanity’s next steps should be

<p>With constant headlines of natural disasters and melting ice sheets, a large challenge over the next decade will be to avoid naturalizing the changes unfolding around us.&nbsp;</p>

With constant headlines of natural disasters and melting ice sheets, a large challenge over the next decade will be to avoid naturalizing the changes unfolding around us. 

In the final year of the decade, Oxford Dictionary has announced the word of the year — climate emergency. According to NASA, the world has seen a global rise in temperature, sinking ice sheets, sea level rise and extreme weather events. As people become more aware of the effects of climate change, Willis Jenkins, the convener of Environmental Humanities at the University and co-director of Coastal Futures Conservatory, anticipates an increased urgency in the climate crisis conversation over the next decade.

“No longer focused on future scenarios, climate conversations are connecting the rapid impacts unfolding now across multiple systems with a sense that we are watching a disaster unfold around us,” Jenkins said. “It is clearer now that the delayed response of the past 30 years have been costly.”

Local reactions to the climate change topic were seen at the beginning of the 2019 fall semester, as hundreds of U.Va. students and community members marched from the Rotunda to the Downtown Mall in order to bring awareness to the issue. In addition, the University has recently announced a goal, alongside William & Mary, to be carbon neutral by 2030 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.

Looking towards the next 10 years, Deborah Lawrence, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and leader of the environmental practice program at the University, stresses the importance of a positive and attainable path forward. This path includes three parts — electrifying everything, greening the grid and securing a safety net. The first and second parts of this plan, electrifying everything and greening the grid, go hand-in-hand. A future of electric means replacing wired single-power plants with solar and wind farms. 

“Greening the grid requires a lot of work to improve what the power sources are that feed our electric grid,” Lawrence said. “There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done on understanding and thinking about how the new grid will work, how a system of distributed power sources works.”

The final piece of this vision, securing a safety net, requires the use of negative emissions technologies, or NET. Lawrence says that if we want to stay below two degrees Celsius of warming, carbon dioxide output cannot just be stopped, but it needs to be taken out of the atmosphere.

According to Lawrence, humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions need to peak by 2030 then rapidly decline. After zero emissions is achieved, we must then go below zero. As of now, forests are taking up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis, though new technologies are being created to eat up additional carbon. One of those technologies is Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, where plants are grown and burned to create a concentrated stream of CO2, which is then collected and stored underground for thousands of years. The second, which Lawrence claims is much farther out from being used, is Direct Air Capture. In DAC, air is sucked into a machine, which sorts CO2 from all other air molecules. Collected CO2 is then made into cement, or another liquified, pressurized stream and buried.

“It doesn't exist yet,” Lawrence said. “The challenge with Direct Air Capture is that CO2 is 410 parts per million, so 410 things you're trying to get out of a million molecules. It's a bad math problem.”

Though parts of the country have been dramatically affected by climate change, whether that be via hurricanes, fires or drought, areas such as Charlottesville have seen much less of an effect. In the past year, the area has seen record hot August and October months, as well as an unusual tornado warning on Halloween. Third-year College student Jasmyn Noel is a part of the University’s Sustainability department’s Energy and Water Committee and anticipates that more people will become involved in the climate change topic as greater effects are experienced.

“I believe that when climate change causes a bigger disturbance to people's daily lives, the topic will finally be discussed and taken seriously among the metaphorical ‘bigger tables,’ where our politicians sit,” Noel said.

In order to combat the current environmental changes, Jenkins believes that the most important thing for people to do is pay attention.

“Climate change is already a challenge to human minds because of the scales of time and space involved, and the indirect lines of causation and impact,” Jenkins said. “Add to that investments by climate denialists in confusion and conflict, and the resulting sense of political paralysis, and we all have a strong incentive to look away.” 

When it comes to action among her generation, Noel encourages young adults to not only reduce their carbon footprint but also stresses the importance of political action.

“Talk with others about climate change and its effects, let your political leaders hear you and vote for those who listen,” Noel said. “Even better, become the leaders in your field of interest, where you have the power to make change for our communities."

With constant headlines of natural disasters and melting ice sheets, Jenkins claims that the greatest challenge over the next decade will be to avoid naturalizing the changes unfolding around us.

“If we accommodate ourselves to such weirdness  — as if big fire seasons, disappearing species, melting glaciers, bleaching coral, submerging coasts were unchangeable processes of the planet — then we won’t see the impacts as political, as matters of responsibility,” Jenkins said.

As we look toward the next decade, Lawrence says it is important to look back at the passing decade to see all of the change that has been made to improve the climate and make people aware.

“Countries are taking this seriously, and the renewable energy revolution is happening,” Lawrence said. “This is the decade … I urge all of you to think about what you're going to do for this decade, and how you're going to make a better climate future for all of us.”