Climate Solutions Conference: Ways to Move Forward
By Thomas Anderson

The Climate Solutions Conference, held on February 1 at Orange Coast College, came into being to fill a need to empower more people with the tools that are needed to push the momentum for change forward.

We all know the obstacle: a breakdown in communication. John Reager, NASA/JPL scientist, pointed out that 97% of all scientists agree that the climate crisis is real and the consequence of our unprecedented burning of fossil fuels creating greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. And yet, due to misleading news reports generated mostly by the government subsidized fossil fuel industry, 54% of the American public is not sure this is true. It is a fact that carbon dioxide hit 400 ppm in 2015 after not rising above 300 ppm in the preceding 400,000 years. This is enough of an increase to raise average global temperature by 1.5 degrees, melt ice caps and raise sea levels. Since 1980 the U.S. has sustained an unprecedented 258 weather and climate disasters where overall damages and costs have reached or exceeded $1 billion. How can those of the 44% of Americans who agree we’re in a crisis maximize our impact?

Robert Fofrich, UCI PhD candidate, pointed out that there is no safe level of temperature increase. All agricultural practices are dependent upon climate stability that requires a less than 2% temperature increase. Fofrich spoke of ways to change our CO2 producing infrastructure. Retiring or decommissioning fossil fuel burning power plants. Increase the cost of carbon fuel regulation. End taxpayer subsidies to fossil fuel corporations, and instead subsidize solar and wind to be our sole source of energy. Afforestation—planting trees where they have not previously existed—and reforestation are some of the cheapest ways to capture CO2.

Dianalauro Cueto, Civil and Environmental Engineer, spoke of the importance of new building energy efficiency and upgrading existing homes and buildings as ways to reduce energy use, reliance and costs. Refrigerants are a major contributor of greenhouse gasses. HFCs, which replaced CFCs and HCFS to spare the ozone layer, have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Alternative refrigerants have been developed but need consumer support and government action. If the world economy is not decarbonized by 2028, it will become exponentially difficult to reduce emission and temperature increases. Doing as much as possible as quickly as possible may cost $12 trillion, while inaction will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars more.

Member of the Amigos Board of Directors and UCI PhD candidate, Joana Tavares, spoke about places on Earth that take in carbon. Something every Amigos member who takes the Naturalist training class learns is that photosynthesis locks carbon in plants. Giant trees lock in huge amounts of carbon, as do wetland ecosystems. They transfer their stores to the soil, and when trees are burned or the soil disturbed, carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere. Humans are putting 50 gigatonnes (1 gigatonne = 1 billion tons) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year through emissions, deforestation and wetland destruction for agriculture and urban uses. 30-50% of food produced ends up in landfills where it releases methane. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China. 50% of those gases stay in the atmosphere, 50% are absorbed into the ocean. While phytoplankton produce oxygen, they only live for a few weeks, and photosynthesis is not the driver in the oceans. Physical processes, air mixing with water, dissolving and becoming a part of the ocean, remove carbon from the atmosphere at a very high price—increasing acidification of the ocean which affects a wide array of the ocean food web.

Speaking more on the conservation of wetlands as a carbon sink, David Banuelas, UCI student and member of the Newport Bay Conservancy, pointed out that wetlands around the U.S. coast store 500,000 metric tons of carbon per year. California has lost 85% of its coastal salt marshes due to agricultural and urban development, so preservation and restoration of the remaining wetlands is critical. Unfortunately, virtually all the development has cut off the flow of sediment to the marshes, and without continual sources of sediment that allow for them to renew and regenerate, saltmarshes are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Saltmarshes store carbon in the dense growth of salt-adapted plants and yet they are likely to become mudflats if the sea level rises. While mudflats are useful for wildlife, they are not carbon sinks.

Keynote Speaker Tiffany Eng of California Justice Alliance talked about human costs of climate change. Her group defends the concept that it is the basic right of all human beings to live, work and play in a healthy environment. Heat, floods, fires, drought, disaster relief affect demographics very differently. The most affected are the least responsible. Low income resident and people of color disproportionately experience greater environmental burdens. They often live closer to greenhouse gas facilities and farther from their jobs. They have less access to affordable housing, electric vehicles, greenspace and renewable energy. Creation of new clean energy facilities can also have unintended impacts upon economically disadvantaged communities. The economy or the environment—this does not need to be a choice. Instead, we now have the opportunity to create more community engagement, to be more conscious of the impacts of all our choices.

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