A new report from the world's leading climate scientists finds that climate change is "a threat to human well-being and planetary health." Juliette Rooney-Varga, professor and director of the Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell, joined hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel on Morning Edition to talk about the report, and what its predictions mean for the world and Massachusetts. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Jeremy Siegel: The U.N. Secretary General António Guterres used some pretty alarming language talking about this report, calling it a “damning indictment of failed leadership,” saying “delay means death” and warning of an “atlas of human suffering.” Break down for us what this report showed.
Juliette Rooney-Varga: I think we're increasingly seeing the scientific community trying to get the attention of world leaders to take action, because of the concern that if we don't take action that's commensurate with the problem, it's likely to spin out of control. If we don't take action — this is not baked in — but if we don't, we could see compounding impacts and knock-on social responses that are likely to overwhelm our ability to respond.
Paris Alston: We have climate goals that are set out 10 years from now, 20 years from now. Are those goals going to be able to keep up with the pace at which this is accelerating?
Rooney-Varga: So Massachusetts does have strong climate goals that are actually aligned with the science — cutting our emissions from coal, oil and natural gas (of heat-trapping gases) by about half within the next eight years by 2030, and to near-zero by 2050. And that's what we need to do. I think the question is, how are we going to reach those goals? And of course, how are we going to get the rest of the world to follow along?
Siegel: Let's talk a little bit about what's at risk in Massachusetts locally. We're dealing with sea level rise and warming ocean water. This report said that lobster populations in Southern New England decreased by 78 percent from 1984 to 2014, for example. What are you concerned about when you think about this report, and when you think about the state we're living in?
Rooney-Varga: The kinds of impacts we expect to see in Massachusetts include more extreme heat waves, more extensive heat waves, more extreme droughts, sea level rise on the order of a foot — that's actually pretty much no matter what we do by 2050, and potentially more than three feet by 2100 if we don't take strong action.
So there's a long list of things that those kinds of impacts affect, from small family farmers, to the health of inner city communities. Actually people don't often realize that heat waves are the number one cause of mortality and illness from climate change. But I'll tell you honestly that the thing that keeps me up at night is the risk of compounding impacts and damages. And really, the fact that we don't know. If we put too many stressors on our social systems, we're not really sure how we're going to respond. And so I think the potential for mass migration and displacement, and for economic stress and for breakdown in social systems, those are the things that keep me up at night.
"I think the potential for mass migration and displacement, and for economic stress and for breakdown in social systems, those are the things that keep me up at night."JULIETTE ROONEY-VARGA, PROFESSOR AND DIRECTOR OF THE CLIMATE CHANGE INITIATIVE AT UMASS LOWELL
Alston: Are we going to feel those effects disproportionately, especially in terms of race and class?
Rooney-Varga: Absolutely. Race, class, and socioeconomic status. Communities of color, but also amongst all of us — women who are pregnant, the very young, the very old, people who have preexisting or prior health problems: Poor air quality will cause those people to suffer more.
Siegel: When we hear about these impacts of climate change, it can be really scary. Imagining your house having to be moved because of rising sea levels, because of climate change. And it can feel a little daunting to know what to do personally. You might be recycling and thinking, is this really going to do anything to help with these effects of climate change we're looking at down the line? You head up the Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell. What do you think can be done? Not just big picture, but day-to-day for everyday people who are thinking about wanting to reverse the effects of climate change. What can we do?
Rooney-Varga: That's a great question. Again, the really important thing to emphasize here is it's not too late. We can still act. I really would encourage us all to think beyond personal action. Even if it's just engaging your family or your community, your church, or synagogue, or mosque — anything beyond yourself is going to accomplish a lot. We know that 75 percent of people in Middlesex County where we live are worried about climate change. So you're not alone. Talking helps, and people want to talk and actually figure out what to do.
It is important as you raise Jeremy, that you ask yourself, "well, if I'm recycling, am I doing my part?" I would say no — sorry to say that. The answer is no. The reality is that we don't have time for actions that don't have impact. I'm not saying that recycling is bad, or that avoiding straws is bad. I'm not at all saying that, but I'm saying that we need to understand that we have this information from the scientific community that there are high impact actions. You can take things like insulating your home, switching from fossil-fuel based furnaces to efficient electric heat pumps. increasing access to public transit, increasing access to healthier modes of transportation like walking and biking in a safe way, and putting a price on carbon and on the fossil fuels that emit carbon. And then giving that money back to us all, is a way to really effectively address this problem.