'We're Going Backwards': A Climate Change Expert Sounds the Alarm

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we asked one of the authors of a major climate change report for an update on how we're doing.

By Megan McDonald April 21, 2020

The Florida peninsula is pictured looking northward from the International Space Station, which orbited 263 miles above the Caribbean Sea.

Image: NASA

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (known as the IPCC) released a landmark report predicting that the planet will experience major climate change-related crises as early as 2040 if the earth’s global average temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. The report’s authors warned that the effects of that level of global warming would include mass extinction events, the decimation of coral reefs, food shortages, droughts and super storms.

To help us understand the report, and how its findings might affect Sarasota, we spoke with Dr. Terry Root, a senior fellow emerita at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and a Sarasota resident since 2015.

Root, a Princeton graduate who got her start studying climate change based on birds’ migratory patterns, was a co-author of the IPCC's 2007 assessment. She has dedicated her life to studying how plants and animals are affected by climate change. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we asked her for an update on what's happened since the 2018 report (including whether there's a link between climate change and COVID-19) and what changes we can make in our own lives to ensure a better future for our planet.

How have things been going since we last spoke in 2018? 

We're going backwards. When the IPCC climate change report came out in 2018, it said that by 2030, we needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to be at 45 percent of what they were in 2010. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit and we all stopped traveling, the amount of greenhouse gases we were emitting were higher than what they would have been if we had ignored the report's recommendations and continued with business as usual. Until COVID-19, we weren't cutting emissions—we were expanding them.

It's sad that we can't go out and celebrate Earth Day this year. We need people to understand that the Earth needs to be protected.

How so?

The oil and gas lobbies are taking our country to the cleaners. For example, the government is weakening regulations on the release of mercury from coal. There are two things wrong with that: First, we're going to have mercury in the environment again, which we had essentially gotten rid of quite some time ago, and second, we're encouraging the use of coal, which is the highest greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel. That's moving in the wrong direction.

What about alternative energy sources? Surely there are economic and environmental benefits in them.

I'm a science adviser for a wind industry group called the American Wind Wildlife Institute; it's made up of half wind companies and half wildlife [non-governmental organizations]. The group gets together to talk about how to get rid of fossil fuels and make energy work without having the wind industry affect the environment. But the permits for putting in wind turbines are so much more restrictive than those for oil and gas.

Companies like Duke Energy have coal-fired power plants, but they've also put a lot of energy and effort into figuring out solar energy and wind energy, because that’s the future. However, I was just in a Zoom meeting with someone from Duke Energy as part of my advisory role with American Wind Wildlife, and he told me that Duke is putting a hold on all of its wind initiatives because there are so many regulations on them that they can’t get anything passed—but they can do anything they want as far as oil and gas.

What are you seeing as far as climate change and animals right now?

Right now, we're all seeing stories about lions sunning themselves in the road in South Africa because there aren't any cars, and that's great. But because of climate change, we're in a mass extinction event. It's already started. Right now, the extinction rate is about one in 10 species over 100 years. That means that if you put 10 species in a park and watch them for 100 years, one of those species would go extinct. It's really fast.

Yes, it's wonderful that the robins are singing to each other in ways they couldn't before, or that coyotes are coming out and walking around San Francisco. There's a lot of wonder right now—but what about the species that live at the tops of mountains that have gotten so hot that the animals can't survive? Scientists are predicting that we are going into one of the hottest springs and summers that we have ever experienced. In Sarasota, the number of days in which the heat index is going to be over 100 is going to be astronomical. It’s going to be tough for humans to survive—but we can go inside where there’s air conditioning. Other species can’t, and unless they move—which many of them can't, because they have very small ranges—they're going to die.

Do humans have the right to cause the extinction of other species? I don’t think so.

What about the link between climate change and coronavirus—is there one?

The thing that is really advancing zoonotic diseases like coronavirus, even more than climate change, is human population growth. We're moving into areas where we normally would not be in contact with animals.

Plus, as the world heats up, a lot of diseases—like cholera or malaria—can thrive. They do better when their environment is warmer. Malaria, which is a pathogen, could easily come to Florida, so could yellow fever. There are also diseases that are carried by ticks that have significantly expanded northward because it's warmer. The ticks are in places I never would have dreamed of when I was younger.

Are there any positives you see?

The world can correct itself if it isn't poisoned. The Earth is resilient.

What can we do in our day-to-day lives to help mitigate climate change?

Throw away your incandescent lightbulbs and use LED lights. Make sure the next car you buy plugs in and gets at least 50 miles on electricity. Put solar panels on you home. Try to cut back on meat and dairy consumption one day a week, or even one meal a week. Call Florida Power & Light and have them do an energy audit on your home—it's free!

Plant native plants, so animal species will have what they need to eat. The Audubon Society is a great resource for what's native in your area. Buy appliances that are well-rated on Energy Star. Go to cooleffect.org to estimate your carbon footprint and then pay a small fee to have the organization plant the trees it will take to help offset it.

With all of these examples, a little bit of forethought goes a long way. 

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