By Gabe Lareau
You’d be hard pressed to find any international climate treaties, agreements, or legislation not influenced by the work of University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Donald J. Wuebbles — the result of an entire career dedicated to climate science and advocacy.
A 1970 U of I graduate in Electrical Engineering, Wuebbles first discovered his passion for atmospheric sciences in his postgraduate work and earned his Ph.D. in the field in 1983 from the University of California Davis. After he returned to his alma mater in 1994 as a professor, Wuebbles played an integral part in establishing the School of Earth, Society, and Environment in 2006 and served as its first director. The school, and both its interdisciplinary Sustainability major and Atmospheric Sciences major (which Wuebbles also helped develop), have become nationally renowned.
Wuebbles’ influence, however, expands far beyond Illinois. From early 2015 until January 2017, he served as Assistant Director with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the Obama administration. On the international circuit, Wuebbles has co-authored numerous assessments for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), his leadership helping IPCC garner the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Additionally, as a Board member for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and author of more than 500 peer-reviewed science articles and reports, Wuebbles has firmly established himself as a force in modern climate research and communication.
Q Magazine author Gabe Lareau sat down with Wuebbles in November 2022 to discuss his work, the changing climate, and how we are to tackle what he describes as humanity’s greatest challenge.
From 2015 to 2017, you were the White House expert on climate change; you know your way around Washington. Given the results of the 2022 midterms and the make-up of this new Congress, where do we stand on tackling climate change in the short term?
That’s a complicated question. The fifth National Climate Assessment is going on right now. Those are reports required by Congress following from the Global Change Act of 1990, signed in 1992 by the first President Bush. That law requires us to assess our understanding of what’s going on with climate change and its impacts on the American people. I was a leader in the second, third, and fourth ones, not as much in the new one.
Congress this last year passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is really in large part about climate change. I don’t see, at least with this administration, there being any further changes because of the Republican majority in the House. But there is a lot in the IRA ready to get us going, particularly in terms of incentives toward reducing our emissions of the greenhouse gases resulting from fossil fuel use. We’ve started already to make the transition away from fossil fuels. And we are already seeing a lot more use of solar and wind energy, more battery-powered vehicles and things like that. I think what the Inflation Reduction Act will do is really highly move us in that direction. Once we have the momentum going, I don’t see that being reversed.
When I give presentations to Congress, what I discover in private is that essentially all the Republican members of Congress know that the climate is really an important issue. It seems to be something within their party that they have to deny it as part of their platform. But the reality is they know it’s important and they know the science is real.
It’s all about the science. It’s not about politics. What we do about it as solutions is where the politics comes in.
As you mentioned, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. From a global standpoint, will this legislation have any meaningful effects on the global community now that the U.S. has finally done something substantial? Will other nations start to follow?
I think once we really show that happening, that, yes, it acts as a kind of a model for other nations. And I think it will have an impact, but it’s not going to be immediate. But over the next decade, I think that can be really important. I’m very hopeful that because of these incentives getting that transition started, the momentum will be so strong that it will make the transition complete over the next 20 to 30 years. We really need to get to what is called net-zero emissions by 2050, if possible, but certainly by 2060 at the latest.
As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for your service on the IPCC, what’s been your main takeaway from working with such a diverse group with one set goal?
Our primary goal is always to put out the best science. We’re scientists, not politicians. And the science tells us there is a very serious problem. The chief scientist for the United Kingdom a few years ago said this is not only one of the most important problems, it may be the most important problem of all time for humanity. We need to take it seriously. The international assessments have really demonstrated that fact with the reports we’ve done.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was started by the U.N. in 1989 with the idea that it would bring together scientists to assess the state of the understanding of climate change, much like the U.S. Global Change Act, which was passed by Congress the following year. I was a coordinating lead author for a chapter in the very first assessment and continued in that role for four or five different IPCC assessments. They’ve continued to just build a stronger case throughout time. What we knew 32 years ago when we did the first assessment still holds true and has only been strengthened by further evidence: more observations from satellites, and more observations of all types indicating just how serious this issue is.
We’ve found a lot of new things — such as the concerns about extreme weather and its increasing intensity that we did not know about back then — that make this even more serious and require major attention. Those assessments were very useful, and I think will continue to be useful. There’s been an argument going on: “Should we really need these things?” Well, I think we do because I think we need to just keep updating our understanding. Also, I think the reports themselves are useful and provide information to policymakers that is needed for them to make the right decisions.
We’ve all heard about rising global temperatures, how the Arctic is thawing, and catastrophic weather — which has been especially prevalent recently. But what is an effect of the climate crisis that you would like to see get more attention?
The media like to call this “global warming,” and that was a term that was kind of developed about 15 or 20 years ago. It’s misleading to most of us as scientists because it suggests just a little bit of warming, but that’s not really what it’s about. This is really about the increasing intensity in extreme weather, which includes heat waves. About 20,000 people died in Europe this past summer due to their heat wave. That’s not insignificant. We have seen similar heat waves throughout the world.
Coming soon are heavier-duty droughts. We now think the drought in the Southwest is likely going to be further strengthened over many decades, centuries potentially. There may be parts of the Southwest that essentially become unviable for humans. It’s a very serious issue and we need to be probably more concerned about that than we have been. The water in the West, I think, is a major issue that doesn’t get enough attention in the rest of our country. However, this isn’t just about heatwaves and droughts, it’s also about more precipitation coming as larger events. For example, more extreme precipitation in the Midwest and the Northeast is leading to more incidences of flooding. Stronger hurricanes are also affecting our coastal regions.
Sea level rise is the other really major issue. Over the next 10 to 30 years, we expect an extra foot of sea level rise. Some people may say, “Well, that doesn’t sound like much.” But one foot has a huge impact on coastal areas, and it will make some areas essentially unlivable. Then, when you have a storm surge or you have a high tide, it’s going to make things even worse.
It’s also a question of tipping points. We don’t fully know the ramifications of the melting sea ice in the Arctic. Probably over the next 30 years we’ll no longer have sea ice in the Arctic in the summer. Melting permafrost in the Arctic could also increase atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases. Could these kind of responses to the changing climate result in further permanent changes to our climate? We need to understand such potential tipping points.
Another thing that probably doesn’t get enough attention is ocean acidification. As we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a high fraction of that carbon ends up in the ocean where it turns into carbonic acid, making the ocean less basic. The potential impact of that on ocean life is still not clear, but it could be quite important. I worry about that as being the thing we haven’t paid enough attention to at all.
How do we balance adapting to present catastrophic weather crises while also trying to prevent future ones?
We basically have three choices: mitigation, reducing those emissions; adaptation, responding to the changes we can’t stop; and suffering. Right now, we’re doing some of all three.
In the future, we’re going to need to adapt. But are we going to adapt by thinking ahead or are we just going to respond to disasters as they occur? Well, we know that responding to disasters as they occur is much, much more expensive than planning for the future. So, we need to get into the other mode.
It’s hard for us as a capitalist society to really deal with that, but we need to be in that mindset. Otherwise, a whole lot more lives and impacts on the economy are on the line. I have no question in my mind that we need to learn not just how to adapt, but adapt proactively.
On a global scale, one’s individual carbon output isn’t even measurable. But collectively, we’ve caused immense environmental harm. What individual action can we take, if anything, that might have a non-zero effect on mitigating climate change?
Communication is probably the single most important thing we can do. Telling those who represent us that this is really important, that we need to take it seriously, and that they need to then enact policy that will deal with mitigation and adaptation. That’s where it starts. And that includes how you vote, too.
There are things we can do ourselves, reducing our own emissions. This usually means trying to be more efficient in our use of energy. It also saves money. It’s a very useful aspect to think ahead and plan your trips more efficiently and effectively. In the end, it’s a win-win because you’re saving lives, you’re saving resources, and you’re saving your own cash.
“Climate doomism” is an attitude that any more effective action to be taken in fighting climate change is beyond our capacity. So how do we fight this way of thinking?
Yeah, I find that distressing. People always ask me, how can I be so optimistic? I’m optimistic because we can deal with this. It doesn’t do us any good to be just distressed or depressed about it. If you have a can-do attitude, we can take care of this and we can make it better for the next generation.
I think being proactive in thinking about how effective we can be to really deal with this is important, and being optimistic is part of that picture.
Recently, David Wallace-Wells published a story with The New York Times Magazine saying we’ve avoided the climate apocalypse. Is this just a nice catchphrase, or does the science actually support that?
I saw that article, and I don’t agree with it. I don’t think we know that we’ve avoided the worst possible impacts of climate change. I mentioned tipping points earlier. We don’t know how some of these feedbacks in the system are really going to affect us in the future. One I really worry about is the increasing number of wildfires. Millions of fewer trees are holding carbon and wildfires are putting carbon back into the atmosphere.
Perhaps even more important is melting permafrost. This could also put a lot more carbon back into the atmosphere. These kind of things, these tipping points, we don’t understand them well enough yet, but they could make this even more serious than we realize.
While I like to think we avoided the worst of the changes by beginning to reduce emissions, I still worry about potential feedbacks within the climate system that could totally change that picture. It’s important that we try to continue to improve our understanding of those feedbacks and how they might affect the system. So, no, I don’t agree with that viewpoint.
It’s the general consensus that the world is falling behind on meeting the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Is limiting warming by only 2.5 degrees by the end of the century goal still feasible? Are the goals set in that agreement still feasible or were they ever?
The Paris Agreement really is a recommendation of trying to keep changes below 2 degrees centigrade. Anything above that is going to bring really major change. There’s nothing magic about that number, but it’s a good goal.
We’re at 1.1 degrees centigrade right now. The Paris Agreement tried to say not only keep it below 2 degrees, but to keep it at or below 1.5 degrees centigrade. My analyses indicate that it’s almost impossible for us to keep it at those levels. We are not likely going to stop emissions by 2050, which is what that would entail. Can we keep it at 2 degrees centigrade? Yes, but it’s going to be very hard. What we do in the next decade, how well our society is going to transition its energy and transportation systems, will really determine whether we can keep it at 2 degrees. I remain optimistic about us being able to do that. But realistically, I doubt we will.
I suspect that we’re going to end up being more in the 2.5- to 3-degree temperature change. That’s going to be very devastating to our society because by the end of this century, it probably means 2 to 3 feet and possibly more of sea level rise. Plus, further intensity of severe weather. I find that very worrisome.
The worst-case estimates for temperature rise at 2100 have recently been reduced from 5 to 3 degrees, mostly due to projected abatement of coal production and the advancement of renewable energy. Do you see this as a cause for optimism?
As I said before, I think that’s somewhat unrealistic at this point. If you forget about the feedbacks I mentioned with permafrost and wildfires, then yes, we’re reducing fossil fuel emissions enough that we won’t be at the 5-degree centigrade level, probably more like 3.5 degrees or lower. And that is good. But I worry about those feedbacks; they’re the unknown that could really change that picture.
COP27 recently took place in Egypt. Do these types of conferences serve as a net positive for the climate? It’s easy to make a pledge to reduce emissions, or in this case to give reparations. But what’s needed for countries to turn that into action?
Some of my work was key to the Montréal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. They have meetings similar to the COP meetings every year, but they don’t get as much notice as they used to. Those meetings have been effective because it went from countries being asked to offer changes to being required to make changes. I think we’re going to have to do the same thing with climate change. It has to go from a voluntary effort to something which mandates that key requirements be met in order to greatly reduce emissions over the over the coming decades.
I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next year or two, but I think it will happen, perhaps in the next five years when we really make that transition in those international meetings. It has to happen.
In the United States, we get about 20% of our energy from renewable sources. How do you think that number will change in five, 10 years? Has that 20% had a measurable effect on our carbon output?
First of all, it makes sense economically. We know that coal is a more costly form of producing energy than natural gas. And even now solar and wind are already actually cheaper than that. Also, I just completed a paper showing that our use of fossil fuel emissions has caused most of the world’s air pollution problems. Their elimination by 2050 actually would mean saving 8 to 9 million lives per year.
So given the economics, given things like air pollution, it just makes sense that we make that transition. We need to move it ahead because of climate change and make it as rapidly as possible. I’m confident it’s going to happen, but how quickly is what I’m worried about. It has to happen soon.
How has your interdisciplinary education served to your benefit?
Oh, it’s been huge. I actually discovered the atmosphere as a graduate student here. I would consider myself kind of multidisciplinary in my thinking anyway, and I wanted to do something that was systems thinking, broader thinking. I needed a job after I got my bachelor’s degree, so for the summer I started working with Sidney Bowhill, a Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department.
Professor Bowhill was also doing studies of the upper atmosphere, so I spent the summer helping him with his private company he ran on the side. That made me realize, “Hey, this atmospheric science thing is pretty fun. This is what I want to do.” I totally changed my career and finished my master’s degree doing an atmospheric model. I then went to NOAA, then to Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and finally got my Ph.D. at UC Davis.
Throughout all that studying about the atmosphere, the ozone layer, air quality, and climate change, I began to realize we really need to understand societal relationships as well. So, I began to embrace more multidisciplinary work. When I came back to the U of I in 1994 to be department head, I brought that with me. I really wanted to see the university be more multidisciplinary. Gradually, the university has changed in that direction, and it’s going to have to continue. If we’re going to study all these major issues connected with the environment, we need to be looking at those from a variety of angles.
Compared to 10-15 years ago, are you more or less hopeful about the state of the climate than you were back then?
Unfortunately, the more I learn, the less hopeful I become. I mean, I’m optimistic, as I mentioned earlier, because I think we have a choice, first of all. But I also know more now about extreme weather, sea level rise, and other related issues like ocean acidification than I did when I first started working on this over 30 years ago for those very first climate assessments. Even 15 years ago, going back to the second or third national climate assessments as well as the IPCC, what we know now about those issues is so much different. In a sense, they look so much worse for humanity than they did back then. So, I think that I am more pessimistic probably than I used to be.
But at the same time, I get excited when I see what can be done. I used to think, for example, that climate change is going to cause such a reduction in food production that the Midwest wouldn’t be able to feed the world like it once thought it could, that climate change would drastically reduce yields. But now, I think of some of the newest science saying that we can adapt plants to deal with water in different ways and other technology developments. Then, I’m much more optimistic about our ability to continue to reduce starvation around the world. I think it’s especially important for the Midwest to continue to be a key player in that, so other areas of the world can enhance their abilities as well.
What is something that you think everybody needs to hear about the current fight against climate change?
First of all, this is all science. Secondly, this is one of the most important issues humanity is facing, period. Yes, we have a lot of more immediate concerns about the economy, terrorism, and whatnot. But we need to be thinking about these longer-term issues as well. They’re going to have such a huge impact on us, but also especially on our children and grandchildren. And I think it’s important we think about them as well.
About the Author …
Gabe Lareau is a junior from Moline, Ill., studying English with a concentration in Literature and Science, and is pursuing a Certificate in Environmental Writing. Additionally, Gabe works as a Communications Intern for iSEE. Gabe has blogged for Let’s Move Quad Cities and was their “Bike-to-Work Week” writer in 2021. He also successfully advocated for World Bicycle Relief in “The Project for Awesome,” winning WBR a $30,000 grant.