Decades of Stanford Research Underpin Global Climate Talks in Paris

As they work toward halting global warming, international delegates at the Paris climate talks will depend on a knowledge base that Stanford scholars helped build over the past two decades.

“We’re on a collision course with climate impacts that have inescapable implications for our national security,” said Susan Rice, ‘86, President Barack Obama’s National Security advisor, at Stanford in October. “Attitudes are shifting, behaviors are changing, and we're embracing the necessity to lead, to innovate, to solve this problem.”

Stanford scholars have pioneered the research needed to recognize and meet the challenge of climate change since the issue came to light more than 20 years ago. Their findings help inform delegates from 195 countries who are slated to gather for the 21st annual Conference of Parties to a global climate agreement. The so-called COP 21 takes place from November 30 through December 11, and aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, guides delegates’ decisions through climate change assessment reports. These reports present a consensus of more than 2,000 researchers worldwide.

The perspectives of fourteen Stanford specialists in particular have shaped the IPCC and its reports since the first Conference of Parties in 1995. Scroll down to see their contributions from engineering, science, economics and law.

Climate Change Assessment Report Timeline

Second Report

Identifies a discernible human influence on the climate system

1995

Steve Schneider

By the early 1970’s, evidence of human-caused climate change was mounting. During this time, Stephen Schneider was one of the only scientists using climate models to examine the role of human-caused carbon dioxide and aerosol emissions in climate change. Research from Schneider and others revealed evidence of human-caused global warming and ultimately led to the founding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, a scientific body organized by the United Nations that assesses all aspects of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. Schneider would go on to be an intellectual leader and dedicated author on all four IPCC assessments during his lifetime.

Schneider spearheaded development of a set of guidelines for the interpretation of uncertainty in the assessment reports.

Pamela Matson

Pamela Matson studies the flows of nutrients among animals, plants, water, soil and atmosphere, a scientific field called biogeochemistry. Among other issues, she has explored how land management affects the flows of nitrogen and other gases from ecosystems to the atmosphere. As a Lead Author, Matson used her own research expertise and that of colleagues to evaluate and interpret the accumulating body of data regarding greenhouse gas emissions from land and water systems.

In the 1990’s, scientists had only begun to identify the sources of the dramatic increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases such as nitrous oxide and methane. But by 2001, Matson said, “There were hundreds of studies being done about factors leading to greenhouse gas emissions, and the uncertainty about sources was much reduced.” Among other findings, Matson’s chapter team reported that agricultural fertilizer was the dominant source of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide.

Kenneth Arrow

A Nobel Prize-winning economist, Arrow led a team that wrote about economic and social dimensions of climate change. “I was probably the only economist who had studied meteorology,” he said, noting he had served as a weather officer during World War II. Arrow’s knowledge of decision theory came into play when his chapter team laid out systematic ways of thinking about climate change for managers, scientists and engineers. They addressed the difficulty and value of making decisions with critically important, yet limited, knowledge. The team members also drew on Arrow’s expertise when they wrote about how discounting applies to climate change. Just as the value of today’s dollar may increase in the future due to interest and other factors, the value of climate-affected resources such as health and agriculture may increase over time. The team compared the benefits of near-term investment in solutions such as solar energy versus the costs of waiting: damaged resources and increased prices.

Arrow is the only Stanford scholar who has led the development of two different areas of a single report.

Third Report

Documents that impacts are already widespread

2001

John Weyant

John Weyant, a systems analyst, was a convening lead author for a chapter that compared different forms of climate change assessments that integrate knowledge from multiple fields. Among other findings, the review concluded that most integrated assessments at the time did not do a good job of assessing the social and economic organization of developing economies, leading to potential biases. Weyant also served as a lead author of a chapter on greenhouse gas mitigation. That chapter found, among other things, the overall impact of a carbon tax would depend not only on the size of the tax, but also on the uses to which the revenues were put.

Terry Root

Terry Root, a biologist, served on a working group that reviewed the science of climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. Among the group’s findings: available resources determine the effectiveness of adaptation in ameliorating economic impacts. Because of that, developed countries would likely adapt to climate change better than developing countries would, the report found.

Root served as a lead author for two IPCC assessment reports and a review editor for one.

She studies how wild animals and plants are changing with climate change, and whether warming will lead to a mass extinction of species.

Thomas Heller

Thomas Heller, an expert in international law and legal institutions, served as a lead author on a chapter that discussed policies and measures countries can take to limit greenhouse gas emissions. These include taxes, permits, bans and investment.

Special Report

Evaluates carbon storage options

2005

Sally Benson

Sally Benson, a hydrogeologist, served as a coordinating lead author. The report pointed toward oil and gas reservoirs and salty water aquifers as the most practical and well-developed options for storing carbon emissions. At the time, Benson was one of a small number of scientists in the world with extensive background in the study of how fluids move below the Earth’s surface.

Ken Caldeira

Ken Caldeira, a climate modeler, served as a coordinating lead author. In that role he worked to develop consensus among a team of diverse authors and to report findings in neutral and nonprescriptive language. “This work helps to bridge the gap between science and policy,” Caldeira said.

Caldeira’s chapter team wrote about carbon storage in oceans. They concluded that the oceans can hold vast amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby reducing global climate change. However, that storage creates new challenges by increasing ocean acidification, the scientists found.

Fourth Report

Finds warming of the climate system is unequivocal

2007

Thomas Heller

Thomas Heller served as a lead author on a chapter about sustainable development and mitigation. The chapter’s focus on the importance of social, political and cultural factors of sustainable development represented a departure from previous reports’ focus only on environmental and economic dimensions.

Heller is a participant in COP 21 negotiations.

Chris Field

Chris Field, a biologist, was a coordinating lead author for the chapter that focused on North America. One key finding was that climate change would constrain North America’s over-allocated water resources, increasing competition among agricultural, municipal, industrial and ecological uses.

Special Report

Explores the challenge of managing the risks of climate extremes to advance climate change adaptation

2012

Chris Field

Chris Field, a biologist, led the work on the 2012 IPCC special report about managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate-change adaptation. One key finding of the report is that development practice, policy, and outcomes are critical to shaping disaster risk, which may be increased by shortcomings in development.

Michael Mastrandrea

Michael Mastrandrea, a climate risk analyst, led coordination of a group that wrote about the intersection of climate change and the extreme climate events affecting the physical world and society. “Climate change presents growing risks to people, societies, and ecosystems,” he said. “The opportunity is finding ways to reduce and manage those risks, by reducing carbon and adapting.”

Fifth Report

Recognizes the challenge of managing risks of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Notes effective responses now can build a better world

2011-14

Chris Field

Chris Field, with Katharine Mach and Michael Mastrandrea, led coordination of a policymaker’s summary for Working Group II, which addressed climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Mastrandrea built on Stephen Schneider’s previous work when he led the update of uncertainty guidelines.

Katharine Mach

Katharine Mach, Ph.D. ‘10, a climate scientist, co-directed the scientific activities of a group that focused on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. She helped produce graphics of key risks from global warming locked in for the near term. Yet Mach’s diagrams also show that reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases now may open up options for a richer and more vibrant world in the long term by reducing hazards such as extreme heat and sea level rise.

“Imagine 70 authors gathered in a room, working intensively to condense a 2,000-page report into a 30-page summary,” Mach said. “When the entirety of scientific knowledge felt irreconcilable, you’d think chairs might be about to fly. When the breakthroughs came, it was like a giant group hug.” To manage the responsibilities, she drew on knowledge gained from being among the first cohort of Stanford interdisciplinary graduate fellows, she said.

David Lobell

David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist, was a lead author on a chapter that synthesized scientific knowledge about the impact of climate change on agriculture. The chapter included, for the first time, a synthesis of impacts from changes already occurring, for instance showing that wheat has been negatively affected by climate change.

Lobell and his chapter team also broadened the discussion of food security to include aspects that had not been studied in depth, but would be potentially important, such as the effects of climate change on nutritional quality, food pricing and poverty. Lobell also was a member of the core writing team for the Summary for Policymakers, a document which represents a synthesis of the report and was approved in a plenary session with delegates in Yokohama, Japan in 2014.

Charles Kolstad

Charles Kolstad, an economist, organized and led development of a chapter about economics, which had been largely absent from the previous two reports, and ethics, which had never been covered.

The risk of future costs from climate change may justify investments now,” Kolstad said. “Climate change is really an economics issue, on par in importance with the physical science.” His chapter team found that the costs of meeting aggressive targets to reduce climate change would be very high, but delaying action would push costs even higher.

Kolstad’s chapter team also concluded that there is no ethical foundation for sharing the burden of climate change between developed and undeveloped countries.

Noah Diffenbaugh

Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist, served as a lead author for a working group focused on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. A highlight of Diffenbaugh’s work was his creation of climate data figures for the globe and its regions. The figures included observations of temperature and climate model projections of temperature and precipitation, customized for the respective regional chapters in the working group report. The effort leveraged information and analysis from another working group, which focused on physical climate dynamics, to help provide continuity between the groups as well as across the regional chapters.

Chris Field

Chris Field co-chaired one out of a total of three working groups, the group that reported on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, from 2008 until 2015. He led the work on the (2014) report of his group’s contribution.

Field has been chosen to receive the fifth annual Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication. Jurors for the award decided that he exemplifies the rare ability to be both a superb scientist and powerful communicator in the mold of Stephen Schneider, according to the award announcement.

“A successful, high-credibility IPCC going into Paris is going to be one of the elements enabling a successful outcome,” Field said. “The key pieces are increasingly in place.”