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To Fight Climate Change, Experts Say Hope is Key in NMSU Talks

Feb 18, 2019

The American Southwest faces a multitude of threats when it comes to climate change; hotter temperatures, increased forest fires and longer droughts to name a few.

It’s a monumental problem, but a problem Dr. Scott Denning, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University can describe in three words; simple, serious and solvable. 

From left, Dr. Scott Denning is an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University while Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and co-director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Both experts recently delivered talks as part of New Mexico State University’s Climate Change Education Seminar Series.
Credit Drs. Scott Denning and Katharine Hayhoe

New Mexico State University is hosting experts like Denning as part of a yearlong seminar series about climate change. The simple part of his talk focuses on how and why climate is changing while the serious portion centers on consequences for humans and the environment. 

On the solvable side, Denning said New Mexico is poised to take advantage of renewable energies.

“You have abundant sunshine. I’ve been here for a couple of days, I haven’t seen a cloud yet. And you have good wind resource. You’re well positioned for sort of new tech and intellectual capital and the workforce of New Mexico is rising to the challenge of developing new technologies," Denning said. "So, I mean there’s a challenge there, but like many challenges that people have faced over the years I’m optimistic that you guys and maybe more broadly the human race will rise to this challenge and solve this problem.”

While Denning said the world is already moving in the right direction to generate more renewables, the pace needs to pick up.

A 2018 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has added to that urgency. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, it said worldwide carbon dioxide emissions must be cut about 45 percent by 2030 and reach "net zero" by 2050.

It would have been better had we gotten really serious about this 30 or 40 years ago, but it’s never too late to stop making it get worse, right. We are moving in the right direction, we need to move faster. I think it is feasible. I’m not sure that we can get to zero carbon emissions by 2040 or 2050 but we can and I hope we will move in that direction as quickly as we can," Denning said.

Activists like Alex Huber are wasting no time. Huber is an organizer with Environment New Mexico, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group in Albuquerque.

The group is gathering 2,000 petitions from NMSU students to send to the Chancellor to present to the Board of Regents. She said the goal is to transition the school to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“It’s something which we talked to the Chancellor about and he is on board which is very exciting," Huber said. "What he needs from us is to make sure that the community, faculty, staff are really engaged and support this issue. So, the more signatures we get, the more support that shows and will help present our case in showing that the community really cares about our environment and this where we need to head.”

Huber said she hopes a commitment from NMSU will set a precedent for other schools and states to follow. The City of Las Cruces has already set a goal of 100 percent dependence on clean energy by 2050.

Huber and other group members attended a virtual seminar given by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

Hayhoe spoke about barriers facing public acceptance of climate change. Among the many myths she dispels is the opinion scientists don’t know enough.

“We’ve known for more than 100 years that trace gases in the atmosphere, no matter how few there are, they’re very powerful and they are the thermostat of the planet. By digging up coal and gas and oil as well as contributions from land use change, deforestation and agriculture. We are wrapping an extra blanket around the planet that it does not need and that is the main reason why the planet is warming," Hayhoe said.

The environment isn’t the only climate experiencing rapid change. America’s political landscape has become significantly more polarized in recent decades. President Trump is a known climate change denier.

But what do politics have to do with opinions on climate change? "Everything," Hayhoe said.

“Research has shown that the number one predictor of whether we agree climate is changing and humans are responsible, the impacts are serious has nothing to do with how smart we are or how much education we have. The number one reason is simply where we fall on the political spectrum. That is the number one predictor," Hayhoe said.

But, Hayhoe said, thermometers aren’t Democrat or Republican. She said priorities on climate change shouldn’t depend on party affiliation but rather the fact that everyone lives on the same planet.

Ultimately, she said what really stands in the way is a lack of hope.

That’s why one of the best things experts say people can do to combat the problem is to talk about it. They said discussions about climate change can help people discover the values they share and find ways to work together.

It’s why Denning talks to people from all backgrounds several times a month.

“I want to talk to them about solutions. I want to talk to them about being brave and ponying up and getting out there and doing the work and making the world a better place. So, whether they’re on one side or the other or somewhere in-between, I think this is something we all ought to be talking about and I do it as much as I can," Denning said.

That combination of education and grassroots activism can help transform attitudes on climate from despairing to optimistic.