Episode 5: The Social Science of the Climate Crisis with Dr. Tracey Osborne
7:41PM Oct 13, 2021
Dr. Ian Anson
Dr. Tracey Osborne
green new deal
Hello and welcome to Retrieving the Social Sciences, a production of the Center for Social Science Scholarship. I'm your host, Ian Anson, associate professor of political science here at UMBC. On today's show, as always, we'll be hearing from UMBC faculty, students, visiting speakers and community partners about the social science research that they've been performing in recent times. Quantitative, qualitative, applied empirical, normative. On Retrieving the Social Sciences we bring the best of UMBC social science community to you.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who's been keeping track of the recent headlines about climate change. Every day, it seems like scientists are bringing us new and worrying data from the physical world. Data that indicates sea level rise storms, changing ocean currents, new temperature normals, and a myriad of consequences for the flora and fauna of planet Earth. These scientists scan the globe in search of relevant geological, atmospheric, and oceanic samples, traveling to places like the South Pole to collect tiny frozen bubbles of gas trapped in deep Arctic ice. Now I've had a lot of respect for these natural scientists who are devoting their careers to better understanding ways in which our fragile planet is changing. But climate change has human roots and human consequences too. And it's up to social scientists to help us learn about the ways in which climate change is likely to influence our societies and our nations in the near future. Hopefully not too near, but it's really not looking good.
On today's episode, we'll be hearing a condensed version of Dr. Tracey Osborne's recent Social Sciences Forum Distinguished Lecture delivered in April of 2021 at UMBC. Dr. Osborne is Associate Professor of Management of Complex Systems at the University of California, Merced, as well as the UC Presidential Chair in the Management of Complex Systems Department. Not only that, Dr. Osborne chairs the Management of Innovation, Sustainability. and Technology Program, also at UC Merced. Oh and not only that, she heads the Climate Alliance and Mapping Project which works to develop a socially just response to climate change through research, maps, and digital storytelling. I don't need to tell you that that's an impressive resume. But Dr. Osborne's work speaks to the notion that social scientists, be there geographers like her or economists or political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, what have you, we're best able to answer the challenges of climate change when we foster interdisciplinary links that help us answer big questions about climate change, and our society. Let's hear about some of those questions from Dr. Osborne and, you know, hopefully we'll also get some answers as well.
Yeah, so we know that climate change is an urgent environmental crisis, the impacts of which are already being experienced across the globe. While climate change will affect everyone, to some extent, directly or indirectly, the countries of the global south and low income communities and communities of color around the world, as we know will be hit hardest by its impacts. And these are the people and places least responsible for the problem in the first place. Therefore, climate change is fundamentally a social justice issue. So in this talk, I discuss the urgency of the climate crisis, the inadequacy of current strategies, and why I believe climate justice approach is our best hope for solving the climate crisis. The playbook for climate justice advocates for a new paradigm for climate action that addresses the underlying drivers of climate change and aims to restore a healthy, more sustainable relationship between humans and nature for an ecologically resilient and socially just world. The playbook also attempts to lay out a set of concrete strategies aligned with climate justice. According to top scientists, in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, it's important to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre industrial levels with an aim of 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. And this is also the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2018, the IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is an international scientific body, published a report on the impacts of climate change at 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, and beyond. And in the report, they also lay out strategies for meeting the goal under the Paris Agreement. Key findings from the report are the following. Keeping global temperatures below the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit will require major and immediate action at an unprecedented scale. We have never before witnessed such widespread rapid changes to our climate and massive transformations will need to be made across energy, land, industrial and urban, as well as other systems, and across technologies and geographies. Another one of the findings is that there's a significant difference between warming at 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius as ecosystems are very sensitive to even slight warming. So for example at 2 degrees according to the report, we would essentially lose all coral reefs but 1.5 degrees, we could save about 70% of them. Also several hundred million human lives are at stake and whole species are at risk of extinction given the high levels of deforestation and habitat loss associated with climate change. Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming low income communities and vulnerable populations will experience impacts. These communities, particularly in the global south, are more vulnerable to climate change due to loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, population displacement, health effects, and other climate impacts. Importantly, the report provided key timelines for action. It concluded that if we continue business as usual, we will reach 1.5 degrees by the year 2030. Also, emissions must reach net zero by the year 2050. And the sooner emissions peak, the better the chance of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. The good news, if there is any, is that keeping global temperatures below 1.5 is economically and technically feasible. It requires a massive investment in renewable energy, and shifting our economies from its reliance on fossil fuels toward one based on renewable energy. It also requires protecting and restoring forests as well as other forms of carbon revolt, both natural and technological. The bad news is that the IPCC report found that keeping global temperatures below 1.5 is politically unlikely, given the level of climate denial and inaction in one of the world's largest economies and carbon emitters, the US, as well as the weak international targets that, even if successful, would lead to warming as high as 3.5 degrees Celsius. And this is significantly higher than the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement. Despite the urgency of climate change. Conventional strategies and actions, particularly at the international level have been weak and mostly voluntary. The Paris Agreement, for example, is not legally binding, which means there's no penalty or sanction for failing to meet these climate targets. Conventional climate strategies are largely based on market mechanisms and technological fixes. Over more equitable solutions that address root causes of climate change. Carbon markets can let polluters off the hook by giving them options to buy their way out of retrofits to their facilities through emissions trading and carbon offsets. We need a different approach. We need a climate justice approach. Climate justice recognizes the disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries of the global south, low income communities, and communities of color around the world. Therefore, climate justice is a discourse and field that addresses the climate crisis as a social justice issue, as well as a social movement made up of activists, youth, bipoc communities, and a growing number of people around the world who seek more systemic solutions to climate change. Therefore, climate action must be based on a justice perspective. It's not just the ethical thing to do. It's our best hope for solving the climate crisis.
Playbook for Climate Justice lays out a set of concrete strategies for addressing climate change from an equity perspective in six key arenas. These arenas are (1) just transition, (2) social, racial and environmental justice, (3) indigenous climate action, (4) natural climate solutions, (5) community resilience and adaptation, and (6) climate education and engagement. These arenas of the playbook are deeply interconnected.
Just transitions is about transitioning fossil fuel based economies to equitable, regenerative, renewable energy-based systems. And it's not just about technological change, but employment and renewable energy and other green sectors, as well as broader political economic transformations. Proposals for just transitions are being considered in diverse spaces such as cities, suburban and peri- urban environments and rural areas around the world. The Green New Deal is an innovative proposal that tackles both climate change and inequality and is therefore very much aligned with climate justice. It involves massive decarbonisation based on investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable land management. It aims to create millions of dignified well-paying jobs and provides benefits to working class families and communities of color who have been impacted by systemic racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice. The Green New Deal is a policy framework and a social movement that operates across multiple scales in communities, cities, states, countries, and internationally with the ultimate goal of broader systemic change.
The arena of social, racial, and environmental justice connects the dots between climate change and a range of intersecting issues that we don't often equate with climate change: unaffordable housing, a lack of job opportunities, poverty, and inadequate health care that place bipoc communities at greater risk. These intersecting forms of social, racial, and environmental and justices are not accidental, but are strongly influenced by policy. Therefore, the deep structural changes required to address systemic racism and other social and environmental injustices are also critical for the long term decarbonisation of our economies.
Indigenous climate action is another theme of the Playbook that recognizes the significant role played by indigenous peoples in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of resistance to fossil fuel development as we've seen in the cases of Standing Rock and the Keystone XL pipeline. Scholars have argued that in order to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre industrial levels over 80% of economically accessible fossil fuels must remain unburned and underground. While emphasizing water protection and the protection of all life, indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure has been a key strategy for keeping fossil fuels underground. When indigenous peoples have recognized land tenure, they're more effective at protecting their land and deforestation rates are three to four times lower than similar land under state or private control. This means that land under indigenous and local community management store more carbon. These communities account for approximately 300 billion metric tons of carbon in trees and soil. Indigenous climate action therefore must be supported and is a key element of climate justice.
The impacts of climate change are already being experienced, particularly by the most marginalized communities. Therefore, community resilience and adaptation are important climate actions. Resilience measures a community's capability of bouncing back from a shock or climate impact like a hurricane, drought, or flood. Adaptation means reducing the negative impacts of climate change that are already occurring and expected to increase. Community resilience and climate adaptation would include models such as food sovereignty, common property, forest management, and energy democracy.
Natural climate solutions recognize the importance of centering forests, and agricultural lands as critical ecosystems for equitable climate action. The protection and restoration of tropical forests represents a particularly important arena for climate action. Forests are a significant source of carbon emissions when destroyed or degraded. And they're also important sinks that contain approximately 650 billion tons of carbon. Regenerative farming that's based on sustainable agricultural practices store more carbon in the soil. These practices, particularly in the hands of small and medium sized farmers and local communities, represent examples of climate justice. Importantly, a climate justice approach considers not just how the land is managed, but who has access. It ensures marginalized communities have access to land, as well as the benefits of that land to better support community resilience.
Given the high levels of climate denial and misunderstanding about climate change, and some of the countryies most responsible for the problems, such as the US, education and engagement is desperately needed around this issue. The type of education I'm referring to is not only climate science, but instead, the ways that climate change is deeply interconnected to a range of other social, racial, and environmental justice issues that affect our lives in more direct ways. Therefore, education and engagement are critical areas for climate action. In particular, it's important to leverage higher education. Colleges and universities have provided important leadership on climate action, particularly in the areas of fossil fuel divestment and carbon neutrality goals. As youth are at the forefront of the climate justice movement, colleges and universities are key sites for justice-oriented climate action, and with a populace better educated on climate justice, we can build civic engagement to support candidates who recognize climate change as an urgent, existential crisis. Through innovative research, transformative education, and public engagement, we are committed to empowering the next generation of climate justice leaders.
Three key projects: one in the area of research, another in engagement, and the final project working on over the next year to two years is one on education. So our first one on research is the Climate Justice Research and Action Agenda. So this research is oriented around a convergence research agenda that includes multiple ways of knowing from our partners in academia, climate justice organizations, bipoc and rural communities, indigenous nations, philanthropists, state entities, and private sector actors committed to a regenerative economy. Convergence research, which is driven by a compelling problem and deep integration across disciplines, was identified as one of the 10 Big Ideas for National Science Foundation support. We're committed to building on this work, and this work in particular is inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." At the center, we plan to develop curriculum for students and the public, specifically oriented around climate justice. We propose the bold goal to educate and equip millions of climate justice changemakers to bend the curve on climate change toward equity and social justice. I think the Green New Deal is very much aligned with justice transition arena. Much of the sort of climate action has been framed in terms of individual actions. What climate justice really sort of emphasizes are these sort of broader political, economic, and sort of policy changes, these larger systemic changes. And those have to operate kind of at the policy level, of sort of the institutional level. So what can we do as individuals? Well, first of all, educate ourselves on these sort of deep interconnections between climate and other social and environmental issues. I think, also, you know, as citizens who care about some of these issues, making sure to sort of support what candidates who also sort of recognize the urgency and are taking bold action around climate. And, you know, support the types of policies that are going to create broader systems change that, like a Green New Deal. Like, what do we do? Like, let's listen to our students, because the students were the ones who first said, we want to be carbon neutral, because that was the information that we had at the time in 2015. And that was a really good move, because it allowed us to sort of start investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. So we listened to our students again, when they demanded that we become fossil free. And so I say now they're demanding that we pay attention to climate justice. So I would say, you know, let's just continue listening to them and following their lead. And I would say, also, that it's really critical that we work in an interdisciplinary way, as scholars. I would say, what I most like to see from the federal government...I would like to see, you know, the direction and moving in the direction even,even faster. I would like to see sort of, you know, support for, for young people even coming out of college. Part of a type of like Climate Justice Corps, you know, to have opportunities to participate in this transformation that is laid out in some of proposals and policies. So I mean, honestly, I mean, compared to what we've seen in the last few decades, this is actually quite impressive set of policies that are being promoted. All of the frontline communities that have been working on these ideas and issues for decades now means that we're in a place where the federal government is sort of adopting policies that are a lot more aligned with climate justice than we've seen in the past. Is it perfect? No, it is not perfect. I mean, there certainly are flaws. But nonetheless, I think we are moving in the right direction. And I'd like to see a lot more of that.
Campus Connection (x6)
campus connections, campus connections,
it's time for a regular segment. This is Campus Connections, the part of the podcast where we connect the work of our featured guests to the work of other scholars who are working on UMBC's campus. Today's Campus Connection is taking us back in time, way back, actually. That's the focus of UMBC Geography and Environmental Systems Professor Erle Ellis, whose recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that humans have had powerful effects on Earth's ecosystem for 12,000 years. Wow. And students thought my lectures lasted for a long time. That's a really long time. The research conducted with a team of scholars from more than a dozen high profile institutions compared historical global land use with current patterns of biodiversity. Their work shows that almost three quarters of the world's land has been in continuous use by humans over that time span, which seems unbelievable, but it's true. The crux of the question today, then, in light of Dr. Osborne's talk that we just heard is exactly how we can use that land sustainably, especially as our global climate continues to change.
That's all for today, everyone. Until next time, I wish you all the best as you continue to ask questions about our remarkable social world. See you then.
Retrieving the Social Sciences is a production of the UMBC Center for Social Science Scholarship. Our director is Dr. Christine Mallinson, our associate director is Dr. Felipe Filomeno, and our production intern is Jefferson Rivas. Our theme music was composed and recorded by D'Juan Moreland. Find out more about CS3 at socialscience.umbc.edu. And make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, where you can find full video recordings of recent UMBC events. Until next time, keep questioning.