Q&A: Climate scientist Jim Buizer says leaving 'voluntary' accord won't matter

In April 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Paris Climate Agreement, while holding his 2-year-old granddaughter. At COP21 in December 2015, Kerry said, "The world has come together around an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet – a smart and responsible path, a sustainable path. And extraordinarily, we are 196 delegations, 186 plans. That is a remarkable global commitment." (U.S. State Department)

Planet Forward Advisory Board member Jim Buizer is professor of climate adaptation in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and director of the Climate Adaptation and International Development Program in the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. Buizer also previously was director of the Climate and Societal Interactions Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C.

As a climate scientist, we asked Buizer how he felt the withdrawal from the Paris agreement would affect science studies and communication going forward. Below is an edited version of his conversation with Planet Forward.

Planet Forward: Your work at the university is directly related to climate and climate change. How do you think leaving the Paris Accord will affect your work?

Buizer: It’s not going to affect it. Other than having to answer questions about what I think. I actually found myself in a different spot than a lot of my colleagues — lonely in rooms ... People were freaking out and I was actually glad. And, in fact, I found myself being hopeful that he would pull. And that was a weird place to be. It probably is counterintuitive to you.

And here’s why (I was in this mindset): The Paris agreement is an accord — it’s voluntary — it has been voluntary since the beginning and whether or not the country was going to meet its commitment — by the way were NOT on track, even with the Obama efforts, to meet them. The voluntary commitment and being a signatory gave us a seat at the table and gave us a chance to develop leadership. It didn’t mean that we were going to do anything about reducing greenhouse gases. The only thing that was required was a recording about 10 levels of carbon that each nation put forward.

Trump had already — over the last few months — begun gutting the laws and regulations that EPA had, that Obama had put in. So it wasn’t going to make really any difference whether or not we were in the accord or not in the accord, whether we were going to reduce greenhouse gases — that was already happening.

Secondly, in a corollary, that’s the bad news. Nationally we were going to do whatever we were going to do no matter what. Any chance that we have to reduce greenhouse gases doesn’t happen really on a national level; it happens because of companies like Exxon or BP, or states like California, or individuals like you and I are doing things. Because we’re in — we believe we’re in. We’re in this big challenge and we’re going to do what we can do. So it doesn’t happen at a national level.

The other thing is, I was aware it’s going to take something like 4-5 years to actually be out (of the Paris agreement). It’ll be really interesting to see what happens in, say, November or October 2020, the debate is going to be “which side of this are you on?” We’ll still be in the accord, having made moves to be out of it, but four years from now is 2021. So, the reason why, I thought, well, Mother Nature/Father Atmosphere — it’s really going to make NO difference whether we are in or out. What is going to matter is whether or not we have a seat at the table, and whether or not we can demonstrate leadership as a nation. So, as an American, that’s sad. ...

For my work specifically — the impact is actually not about the accord — my work IS being affected by his budget, with him gutting all climate budgets, because that stops the work. … It’s about the work that gets done, helping people understand the impacts and vulnerability and what we can do about climate variability and change... that work can’t continue. And we support a lot of students. I have four students — graduate research assistants — who are getting their Ph.D.s with this funding. That’s where it’s going to affect the work. I’ll have a tougher time getting the necessary funding, certainly from the federal government, so I’m seeking other sources.

Q: What challenges do you think the academic and scientific community faces in the coming years as a result of the withdrawal?

A: … We (used to be) listened to. We were invited to the table. We were doing the inviting — we had a seat at the head of the table. I’m imagining a future where that is no longer true. Because why should they? We’re seated leadership — we’re “just another country” now. In fact, we’re the largest undeveloping country there is.

Look around infrastructure, positions on nationalism, and weirdness in government — it looks an awful lot like (undeveloped) countries and the way those countries govern themselves. … It will be a while, but that’s the direction we’re heading. Social justice issues, and governance and all the broader issues — the corruption. There’s a list out there done by the UN body that ranks the countries and corruption and we keep going down and down and down on that list. ... In literacy and education — literacy, corruption, life span. Everything that’s considered to be a developed country — we are going down.

I certainly can’t walk into a room and can’t be sitting at the head of the table seat. The Europeans will be sitting in that seat or the Chinese will be sitting in that seat.

Q: How can academia bridge the divide on climate in America?

A: Sure. But not in the same way we thought it was going to be in the past. We had the finest (universities) … If you look at the Shanghai rankings, U.S. universities are something like 16 out of the top 20; we have the best higher ed. Universities and colleges are really strong in the U.S. and revered and respected. In coming to the debate, we have legitimacy as a place. But where I say, “maybe not so much, or we have to change our way” … in the past our legitimacy was based on the rigor of our science.

As an aside, for something for NCSE (the National Council for Science and the Environment), I was adding the Nobel Prizes … and since World War II we, the U.S., in the sciences — not peace or music or art — we have as many Nobel Prizes as the next seven countries that follow. So there is some credibility about what we do in science and engineering.

So I don’t think that is necessarily what needs to happen for the political divide — it has to be storytelling; it has to be communication; it has to be understanding that we as scientists might be good at piling up knowledge and proving fact. But we’re not really as good at communicating.

It struck me that some people park climate change — something that’s fact — in the same place that we have to park our faith.

Q: How does leaving the Paris Accord change the way we tell the climate story?

A: I think we shouldn’t let Paris distract us from what we’re saying and how we’re doing it. More than ever we have to come at it with sort of clarity of message and steptoitness - and all the stuff I said at the beginning, about how it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter, but ONLY if we keep Trump’s feet to the fire. We’ve gotta keep the conversation going ... And we need to make sure the rest of the world knows that our president doesn’t speak for us.

And that’s why I love the, yes, “We Are Still In” — I’ve been seeing that all over the place. And California doing what they’re going to do, saying, we’re going to go talk to the Chinese, since we can’t talk to our own White House. So I think that kind of activity, as far as messaging — most of what we need to do is actually use our own tactics. So if they say it’s all about the jobs, then it’s absolutely all about the jobs. They said we added something like 55,000 jobs in coal in this last year. Well, then I’d like to know what was added in renewables, etc.

And here’s another one — you want to save money on healthcare? … How strong is a healthy country — is it because of healthcare or the quality of air? Imagine if we’re not burning ANY fossil fuels in this country; that’s one way to save it.

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