Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Climate crisis needs Berkeley’s leadership in social and environmental justice

By Daniel Kammen

Climate Strike participants at UC Berkeley .
Climate Strike participants at UC Berkeley (Photo by Yasmin Anwar)

I came to UC Berkeley 20 years ago, largely because of its unrivaled reputation as a place that fosters both world-leading scholarship and social engagement. I have not been disappointed: my research has flourished here with hundreds of publications, and opportunities for work I value with state, federal and international agencies and non-governmental organizations on climate protection, clean energy, and environmental justice. I could not have accomplished this without the colleagues and students I met and worked with at Berkeley.

The climate crisis we now face cries out for an even greater wave of use-inspired basic and applied research, and critically of social activism. This will take different forms for each of us, but in the tradition of the Free Speech Movement, I am convinced that there is no better place to get this done.

Today, climate change-exacerbated wildfires have devastated parts of California, the Amazon and other locations around the planet. Hurricanes are wreaking havoc. An unprecedented wave of extinctions is taking place, and differential impacts of climate change on poor and minority communities are now well documented.

Two decades ago, solar and wind energy were promising technologies with some strong converts and supporters, but seen by some as too expensive or intermittent to be core energy sources for vibrant economies. Energy storage and electric vehicles were not seen as economic anytime soon.

Today, solar and wind energy are the least cost, core energy technologies not only in California, but worldwide . Energy storage technologies are hitting price and performance targets that were originally forecast to be reached in 2030 . California met its 2020 clean energy target three years early, has already exceeded its 2020 goal of 1 million solar rooftops and is pushing for 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020 as well. In addition, California has the only climate policy that calls out and directs state funds to address social equity and environmental justice as a core component of our climate plan. We have passed legislation to zero carbon emissions out of our economy by 2045 . Nationally, some of the presidential candidates are detailing much needed multi-trillion-dollar energy and climate policies.


But all this is not enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC on which I have served since 1999, and which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, first established a mission to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but has now tightened that to 1.5 degrees due to the severity of environmental, economic and social damage that each extra bit of warming will bring .

Today, California is not on pace to meet our long-term (2045) climate goals. The past two decades have also shown that our regional and global leadership and partnerships are vital to the entire global effort to limit global warming under 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees Celsius warming (80 percent or more than 90 percent reductions in emissions, respectively) , which is the international standard agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord (2015) and through assessment by the IPCC.

The next phase of action and activism needs continued scientific, technical and policy innovation, of course, but it will require far more than that. Climate responsibility and stewardship requires an expanded level of urgency that we can see in the inspiring youth leaders such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor, and our own Berkeley Energy Resources Collaborative (BERC) and campus climate strike leaders. Berkeley has, in the past, taken on such social transformations, and the world urgently needs us to take an expanded role yet again.

We need the Berkeley community to step up again and further educate itself and to partner locally and globally on a diverse range of climate-smart actions. Natural gas must be phased out. Inter-state and international trade must become low-carbon trade. The benefits of a clean economy must be core to everyone’s opportunities and economies regardless of race or gender, not just the affluent and privileged. Biodiversity must be sustained and restored despite huge threats and pressures.

Our collective research and first steps have shown that all of this is possible, but it must happen faster and more inclusively than in the past. Today we need to launch as large a social transformation as we have seen is now possible on the technological side, but we can’t take another two decades for this to take full effect.

These challenges are huge, but Berkeley has in the past shown that as a community it is up to the task. That is why we Strike for the Climate, (on September 20) and why we need to take this moment to challenge ourselves to build bold new partnerships.

Crossposted from the Daily Californian newspaper.