Dan Kammen: ‘The stakes are high’

Dan Kammen, the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley and a climate adviser to the Obama administration, has attended Conference of the Parties (COP) climate negotiations on and off since 2001, presenting new energy research and community engagement results.

Berkeley News caught up with Professor Kammen — as he prepared to leave for COP21 (taking place Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris) — to get his take on the climate summit. (His activities at COP21, and those of his students and colleagues, can be tracked via his twitter feed, @dan_kammen.)

Dan Kammen

Dan Kammen

What role will you and your students play in Paris?

I will be chairing an event around Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment in Notre Dame (Dec. 7) as well as a United National Foundation event on women and cookstoves. I’ll also participate in events with the “C40” cities for climate protection, at Paris City Hall, and an event with UC Berkeley and other students arranged by the International Association of Research Universities. There will also be a series of discussions around aggressive new decarbonization programs, where a number of government, academic and community leaders from California will be playing significant roles.

The 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen is considered a failure in that it didn’t produce a substantial agreement. What has changed in the intervening years that may set the stage for a better outcome?

There are so many aspects of this transition, but the simplest would be that from the original climate accord, the Kyoto Protocol from COP3 in 1997, the structure was that of an agreement that all could sign, with very differentiated targets for the rich nations (a small reduction in the pace of global warming) to those for poorer nations (no obligations at all). That process became largely a platform for arguments around blame and inaction.

The clean-energy scientific, technical, market-based and policy areas have all made major steps forward since then, and this has changed the tools available. Now, we see a “coalition of the willing” mindset, where nations, states and other groups are offering up their individual (or collective) commitments.

Thus while we are still far, far above a path to the 2 degrees C (or ideally lower) target, the process is constructive in that we are aggregating voluntary commitments. Instead of a path for 5 to 6 degrees C warming by the end of the century (which would be catastrophic), we are looking at 3 to 3.5  degrees  — roughly speaking, still a disaster, but less so — and new innovations and opportunities for further emissions cuts are seen as additions to a “global pie” of efforts.

What are the stakes at the 2015 climate summit, and what’s your prediction as to what will be the biggest sticking points?

The stakes are very high, as we have wasted so many good years — and decades — when we could have been more aggressive building understanding and making the change in the energy, food, water, forestry, urban and other systems that we need to restructure.

President Obama and Premier Xi

President Obama and Premier Xi sign an historic bilateral climate agreement in 2014.

I have been a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1999. The IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and the scientific consensus has been largely the same for almost two decades.

The agreements and commitments — to financing and implementing climate solutions — that will be made Paris will certainly not be enough. But we can build on the individual and collective actions proposed so far. If this happens, Paris will be a success in moving from climate debate and foot-dragging to meaningful action. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Will the U.S. emerge as a leader in making substantive commitments to lower greenhouse gases? If not, which countries are the true leaders globally?  

The U.S. already is a leader. The historic U.S.-Chinese agreement on a bilateral approach to climate, signed by President Obama and Premier Xi in 2014, has already reshaped the landscape — with the two largest energy users (and carbon emitters) committing to change. My lab is very involved in building models that inform and can guide these decisions.

In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government is banning marches and demonstrations in public spaces. How important is grassroots activity, versus the official negotiations, and how might grassroots groups now make their voices heard?

Grassroots actions are critical around the COP process, as the entire event could involve some 50,000 people, national negotiations and a huge array of side events that hopefully will bring together groups that can finance the change we need, and the many organizations that are implementing low-carbon strategies for energy, human rights, sustainable forests, wise use of water and more.

The deplorable attacks in Paris and the ongoing threats will certainly change some of that “vibe,” but hopefully the many, many, opportunities for meetings and dialogue will suffice this time.