Focus on climate change: UM profs step onto international stage as delegates to UN climate conference

University of Montana environmental studies professor Dan Spencer, right, and retired UM philosophy professor Patrick Burke attended the international climate talks at COP 24, the annual United Nations climate conference in Katowice, Poland. (Courtesy photo)

This is the second in a four-day series on climate change in Montana, and what state, local and private officials are doing to address it. The Missoula Current will focus on climate change throughout 2019.

Although cities like Missoula are doing what they can to fight climate change, it’s not enough to keep the planet from warming past a critical point. That requires a massive worldwide effort, according to two University of Montana professors.

“If I were a betting person, we don’t stand much of a chance,” said University of Montana environmental studies professor Dan Spencer. “But what I say is there’s no hope, so let’s get to work.”

Spencer and retired UM philosophy professor Patrick Burke learned how much effort world leaders are making when they attended the international climate talks at COP 24, the annual United Nations climate conference in Katowice, Poland, an hour from Krakow.

They were proud to represent Montana, but they’re not the first UM delegates to attend the UN climate conference. In 2009, the University of Montana established a scholarship to allow students to attend the 15th UN Conference of the Parties – COP – in Copenhagen. It turned out to be a momentous meeting where delegates acknowledged the need to limit the increase in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. UM students have attended every year since, but UM budget cuts eliminated that opportunity for 2018.

The two professors didn’t know they’d been accepted as delegates until October. At that time, they were studying ecological restoration on the Greek island of Tilos – Spencer was on sabbatical – so it didn’t cost them much to hop over to Poland before flying back to the states.

This was another critical year for the COP, but also a strange one.

In 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, a majority of nations, including the U.S., finally signed an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees. With only two weeks for each conference, they set a deadline of December 2018 to develop the “rulebook” for countries to follow to meet the 2-degree target.

But the world order has shifted since 2015, the biggest change being the U.S. now has a presidential administration that rejects science and climate change. This, in spite of the fact that the federal government issued dire warnings about climate change in its fourth National Climate Assessment released on Nov. 23.

The report concluded that, without a massive global effort to reduce greenhouse gases, “rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities.”

About a month earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies – released its report asserting that 2 degrees’ of warming would be catastrophic, so the limit should be reduced to 1.5 degrees. New information on the feedback effects of warming permafrost and melting polar ice shows even a 1.5-degree increase will lead food shortages, floods, wildfires, ocean warming and the massive die-off of coral reefs by 2040.

“The effects of climate change have been more serious and accelerated than any of the scientists thought,” Burke said. “The science says we’ve got to figure out how to keep 1.5 degrees as an absolute maximum. Even then, we’re going to be experience potentially disastrous results.”

The U.S. State Department responded to the report, saying only that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement at the earliest opportunity. That can’t happen before November 2020, when the Paris Accords go into effect.

“The Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Accords is giving the green light to other nations to reconsider. So Australia is considering and Brazil is reconsidering,” Spencer said. “If the Paris Accords fall apart, that’s the only international framework we have.”

COP 24 host country Poland is still heavily dependent on coal – 80 percent of its energy comes from coal. Protesters took that reliance to task during the conference. (Courtesy photo)

In the wake of the two reports, Spencer and Burke walked into the Poland conference to find basically no U.S. delegation was in attendance. U.S. officials showed up only one day to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible.”

“It was interesting going into a climate change conference as delegates from the United States who are completely opposed to our own government’s policy on that. We weren’t quite sure how we were going to be perceived,” Spencer said.

The two men were pleased to see other Americans weren’t letting current policies get in the way.

The “We Are Still In” coalition, which formed after Trump threatened to pull out of the Paris agreement, sent mayors, business leaders, congressional staff, and other climate actors from across the nation to engage with the other 23,000 delegates, letting them know the administration doesn’t speak for everyone.

“It was exciting to me that the main U.S. presence on a visible level was the “We Are Still In” movement,” Spencer said.

Behind the scenes, a U.S. contingent of mostly Obama-appointees did join the other 130 nations as they struggled to hammer out the rules, which were finalized a few days after the conference ended. Several delegates were disappointed that the rules and requirements weren’t stronger. Meanwhile, contentious talks about carbon credits were postponed until the upcoming COP in Chile.

“We’re talking about massive transformation of the whole economic structure of advance societies,” Burke said. “It’s still possible, but to date, we’ve taken no effective actions. Again and again, (UN Secretary General Antonio) Guterres and other leaders were saying that we have to transform the energy sector in a way it has never been transformed so rapidly before.”

Much of the focus at COP 24 was on reducing the reliance on coal-fired power and reducing greenhouse gases. (Singularityhub.com)

The men were inspired by the COP venue, a new conference center built on a former 19th century lignite coal-mining site. Organizers intended it to show how the world needs to make a similar shift from coal power.

“It was kind of Poland’s Butte,” Spencer said. “Now, Katowice is shifting its economy from coal to services and finance. But Poland is still heavily dependant on coal – 80 percent of their energy comes from coal – and their current government made it quite clear that they intend to continue that.”

That’s a problem. Out of all the fossil fuels, coal has the highest carbon content, making it the biggest contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. That’s why the IPCC report urged governments to keep fossil fuels, especially coal, in the ground. More than 20 industrialized countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have committed to eliminating coal.

But two of the largest countries haven’t joined in.

China continues to burn some of the dirtiest coal and is financing coal-powered plants in other countries. In the U.S., about one-third of our power still comes from coal, and the Trump administration wants that to continue or increase. In August, the government rolled back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, reducing restrictions on coal plants, allowing them to add another 60 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to the atmosphere.

The lack of national foresight and the glacial pace of negotiations and policy development has Burke worried about the future. The world has only a few more years to turn things around.

“There are many good small-scale efforts to move in the right direction. But we’re not talking about incremental changes over the next 20 or 30 years – we’re talking about the need to become carbon-neutral over the next 15 years,” Burke said. “It’s going to take the kind of close cooperation of nation-states that we have never seen. It’s not just screwing in a few fluorescent lightbulbs or developing electric cars. It’s a huge challenge.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

Look for these stories in the days ahead and follow any hyperlinks to stories you may have missed:

Monday: City and county leaders in Missoula firmly believe in the science behind climate change but admit there are financial restrictions on what can be done to address it. What are they doing now? What’s planned?

Tuesday: Although cities like Missoula are doing what they can to fight climate change, it’s not enough to keep the climate from warming past a critical point. That requires a massive worldwide effort, according to two University of Montana teachers.

Wednesday: Montana state employees can be hesitant to mention climate change in a state where some still brand it a liberal myth. But the Fire and Aviation Bureau at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is now planning for climate change.

Thursday: Does the University of Montana’s new president believe in climate change? Many of the students on campus do, and they’re busy doing what they can to make small changes as they consider one of the biggest threats to their generation.

Focus on climate change: Missoula leaders back the science, push for change