Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Politics


Despite what some politicians may tell you, the scientific evidence is clear: climate change is a real problem, and it’s a big problem. At a recent event jointly organized by Berkeley Connect in ESPM (Environmental Science, Policy, & Management) and Berkeley Connect in Physics, a panel of professors spoke to students about this pressing environmental issue.

Professor Kate O’Neill (ESPM), a political scientist who studies climate change, began by educating students about the Paris Agreement. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris this past December resulted in a global agreement on reducing climate change. For this agreement to be legally binding, at least 55 countries must sign it between April 2016 and April 2017. One of the main goals of the conference was to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius in comparison to pre-industrial levels. However, the countries only agreed on “pursuing efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Regardless, targeted emission reduction will not be forced – the amount each country decides to reduce will be voluntary.  

O’Neill described the outcome of the agreement as dispiriting. “We missed the boat on forestalling all of climate change,” she explained. She also mentioned that a mechanism for compensating smaller countries attempting to reduce emissions was left out of the agreement, which could have been instrumental to its success. However, there’s still a tremendous amount of hope surrounding the Paris Agreement.

Professor John Chiang (Geography) spoke next about the human role in climate change, which was first hypothesized in a paper published in 1938. Thus, it’s been scientifically tested for almost 80 years. He explained the greenhouse effect, and the challenge of predicting the Earth’s various responses to warming.

“The science is clear. There’s a very precise measure of the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere,” added Professor Inez Fung (ESPM/Earth & Planetary Science). Fung talked a little about her research, in which she has been working on a satellite that measures CO2 levels across the globe. She hopes to make the data available for the public to use, so as to affect environmental policy change. She hopes that her work will also influence other countries to follow suit with self-reporting CO2 data.  

Unfortunately, people cannot use satellite evidence in court yet. Scientists still have to figure out how to separate certain components of the data from others for it to be usable. “Science is necessary, but not efficient for the political process,” lamented O’Neill.

The panel ended by discussing how to talk about climate change so people realize the importance of the issue. “Don’t talk down to people,” suggested O’Neill. “Engage them where they are.” Taking a hostile approach to people who don’t believe in climate change will only make them less willing to accept information that directly opposes their beliefs. Also, said Fung, “The problem goes beyond whether you believe in climate change – it’s whether you are concerned about its impact.” The speakers strongly encouraged students to go forth and educate others about climate change, and to start conversations about its implications. The more people who are educated and realize the enormity of the issue, the better chance we have of saving the environment.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant