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What does hope for climate change look like?

Stanford ecologist and climate scientist Chris Field looks to the 28th UN Climate Change Conference for a roadmap on what he considers solvable challenges.

Sand dunes on the outskirts of Dubai, site of the 28th UN Climate Change Conference. Nancy Pauwels / iStock

What, if anything, can another international climate conference achieve? Stanford ecologist and climate scientist Chris Field is bringing his sense of hope to Dubai for the 28th UN Climate Change Conference Nov. 30 – Dec. 12. (Read a Q&A with other Stanford scholars about their hopes and expectations for the climate talks and see details of Stanford's engagements onsite.)

Field is an adviser to the Climate Overshoot Commission, a group that suggests ways to reduce risks if the world’s nations fail to meet their 2015 pledge to keep global warming below 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – a prospect that appears increasingly likely. Going beyond this threshold will likely worsen heatwaves, droughts, floods, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people while costing hundreds of billions of dollars in adaptation measures, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The commission – former heads of government, national ministers, directors of intergovernmental organizations, leaders of environmental groups, and academic experts – released a report earlier this fall calling for massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, largescale adaptation measures, carbon removal and exploration of solutions, such as reflecting sunlight away from the Earth to lower temperatures. Below, Field discusses how the U.S. and larger world can make meaningful strides toward such objectives.

You’ve been going to climate conferences for decades. Why hasn’t the world made more progress?

My sense is that the reason we haven't had more traction on climate action really has two main components. As long as people feel like the heat wave, or flood risk, or drought is someplace else, not affecting them personally, it is hard to get serious about action. Second, we don’t have a really durable political coalition around action on climate. As long as every election has the potential to change the trajectory of climate policy, it is really difficult to generate the essential long-term commitments to finance, infrastructure, and research. 

How can we change this dynamic?

Tragically, nature is already making the case that climate change affects all of us. Anyone who has lived through the last decade would need to try really hard to avoid the evidence that climate change is already affecting their lives and businesses. For the second challenge, it needs to be clear that climate solutions can work for almost everyone and not create a class of winners and a class of losers. In addition to the benefits from decreased climate impacts, solutions need to address the economic viability of every region, including regions that were historically dependent on producing or consuming fossil fuels. For example, farmers in the US are currently heavily dependent on farm equipment that runs on diesel. What does a non-diesel future look like for them? Former coal miners need to be retrained, but what does that look like? We need to solid explanations for how the energy transition works for these communities.

How can we convince companies in the oil and gas industry to get on board with climate solutions?

I think we need to move beyond a frame based fundamentally on confrontation, where the advocates for action on climate win and other entities are left behind. We have lots of opportunities for deploying a wide range of technologies, including technologies we built in historically fossil fuel-dependent areas. For example, I’m optimistic about the prospects for increased hydrogen from natural gas, combined with carbon capture and storage (often called blue hydrogen). We already know how to capture the carbon dioxide that comes from making hydrogen from natural gas. And carbon storage requires the capabilities of the oil and gas industry. Hydrogen provides an opportunity to fill gaps in the energy that comes from renewables. It can be used to make electricity when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. At the same time, hydrogen from natural gas with carbon capture and storage sets the stage for an eventual situation in which the cheapest way to get hydrogen will be from electricity, and we transition beyond oil and gas.

How would you respond to critics who say oil and gas companies can’t be trusted to act in good faith on climate issues?

Looking backwards, I agree that oil and gas companies have had pernicious influences, casting doubt and diverting attention from their role in the climate crisis. I think after decades, one thing we should have learned is that the industry is powerful and sophisticated, and it produces products that are still in high demand. I think we should have also learned that they want to stay in business and at least some of them recognize that the way to do that is to be a part of the solution rather than the main driver of the problem. With stronger incentives to prevent emissions, oil and gas, especially gas with carbon capture and storage, can help accelerate the energy transition.

What role should historically marginalized communities play? 

The voices of frontline communities that have been exposed to pollution, where industrial development has caused grave environmental harm, need to be heard. They need to be heard not only in discussions about remediation of historic harms, but also in the context of the deployment of energy transition technologies, whether it's siting wind and solar,  mining, or green hydrogen production.

What makes you think meaningful progress is possible?

We muddle through everything, and all of the evidence to date is that we're going muddle through accelerating climate action. The Inflation Reduction Act really is a transformative commitment of resources from the United States, which has had a very start and stop history in support for climate action. We're seeing dramatic progress in the prices of renewables. We're seeing dramatic progress in capacity to do things like produce hydrogen without emissions. We've got a powerful set of technologies lined up and ready to go. I think the politics are increasingly aligned with action, in many regions. The next step is increasing the push to bring policies, technologies, and communities together to accelerate the pace of action. I am optimistic about progress. At Stanford, researchers are addressing many of the topics most critical for accelerating progress, ranging from energy technologies to climate politics and finance. We are focused on practical solutions for the real world.

Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor of Earth system science within the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, a professor of biology, and the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

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