The scientific community agrees: Climate change is real, it’s driven by human activity, and it’s getting worse.
Californians understand this better than most. Having just emerged from a record-breaking drought, likely exacerbated by climate change, we are acutely attuned to the perils of a warming planet.
Ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement offered California a basis for hope. The U.S. was finally acknowledging that climate change is a global problem that demands a global solution.
Nearly 200 nations signed on to the Paris Agreement, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change on a global scale. Signatories recognized that tackling climate change will require sustained and focused efforts that transcend national boundaries and political divisions.
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In a symbolic gesture of solidarity, the U.S. and China, jointly responsible for nearly 40 percent of all emissions, ratified the accord on the same day. Less than a year later, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accord.
As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it’s imperative that the U.S. act on its pledge to reduce emissions to 26 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. Any climate agreement that doesn’t include the U.S. is a climate agreement more rhetorical than real. This is especially worrisome for California, where ecosystems and natural resources teeter precariously between sustainability and calamity.
As chancellor of UC Merced, I’m keenly aware of the consequences of climate change for California. UC Merced scientists and Valley farmers alike remind me that California stands at a precipice. How the U.S. chooses to respond to climate change will determine whether our state plunges headlong into a climate abyss or emerges stronger and more sustainable than before.
Climate change threatens to upset the fragile balance of California’s resource web. Two-thirds of the state’s water comes from the Sierra Nevada. Researchers at UC Water – a multi-campus research institute headquartered at UC Merced – expect that warming will lead to a decrease in the Sierra snowpack, one of the state’s largest water reserves.
Work from our Sierra Nevada Research Institute demonstrates that since the early 1980s, global warming has resulted in a 500 percent increase in large forest fires in the western U.S. Even our coastlines aren’t immune. In 2013, when 90 percent of ochre sea stars along the Pacific coast died from sea star wasting, rising ocean temperatures were a major factor in the spread of the disease.
California needs the Paris Agreement because effective climate action requires global efforts. The Paris standards are reasonable and well within our reach to meet or even exceed. We can do this through a collaborative effort between universities, businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, and even the actions of individual citizens.
Universities can lead by example. More than 600 colleges and universities, including UC Merced, have committed to eliminating carbon emissions. At UC Merced, all of our buildings are LEED-certified. Plus, we’re working toward an ambitious Triple Zero pledge – zero net energy, zero waste, and zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
I am proud to have joined 20 other university chancellors and presidents from across the country on the Climate Leadership Steering Committee, part of the Climate Leadership Network organized by the nonprofit Second Nature.
The network is committed to mobilizing the knowledge and practical expertise within higher education to accelerate global climate action, rapidly reduce carbon pollution, and increase institutional and community resilience to climate hazards.
Businesses must also continue to play an active role in urging policymakers forward and setting sustainability goals of their own. Major global corporations, including Apple, Dupont, Shell and Walmart, have urged the U.S. to maintain its commitment to Paris. Meanwhile, many American companies are investing in clean energy, recognizing that energy efficiency and carbon reduction are a blueprint for prosperity.
Half of our largest companies have set goals to cut emissions, which could lead to a reduction equivalent to the elimination of 45 coal-fired power plants every year.
Cities also play an important role. More than 400 cities have pledged to cut carbon pollution and build climate-smart communities, and 60 of them have climate targets that are even stronger than the U.S. target under the Paris Agreement.
Climate change is as much an economic issue as an environmental one. Today more than 3.3 million Americans are working in the clean energy economy – more than all the jobs in the fossil fuel industry combined. This is a good start. But we must make a conscious, concerted effort to minimize our reliance on fossil fuels and increase our commitment to renewables.
Although climate change is bigger than one state and bigger than one nation, effective climate action requires American innovation and leadership. The Paris Agreement is a platform for global solutions, but I am convinced that California has what it takes to lead the way.
It will require continued political and personal resolve, investment, scientific research and innovation. But the fight to reverse the damaging effects of climate change is well worth the effort if we succeed in creating the clean energy economy of the 21st century that our children and grandchildren so desperately need and richly deserve.
Dorothy Leland is chancellor for the University of California, Merced.