Media Briefings

Climate essentials for 2021

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With the election of new leadership in Washington, climate change has reemerged as a national policy priority. SciLine’s media briefing gets reporters up to speed on the science that will inform key climate-related decisions in the year ahead. Three deeply knowledgeable climate scientists provided an overview of where things stand today with regard to climate change in the United States and offered research-based updates on options for mitigating U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate impacts that are likely inevitable.

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RICK WEISS: Thank you, Josh. And welcome, everyone, to this SciLine media briefing on climate essentials. As a quick introduction for those of you who may not be familiar with SciLine, we are a philanthropically funded, editorially independent, free service for journalists and scientists based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our overarching mission is simple. It’s to make it easier for you to get more validated, research-backed evidence into your news stories. We do that through a variety of programs that I won’t go into now except to note our most popular matching service through which we can find you great experts with solid communication skills when you need a scientific source for your story. We find these scientists with the right expertise for you, we make sure they’re available within your deadline, and then we share their contact information with you and get out of the way so you can do your reporting. And by the way, no one’s paying to be on these scientist lists. There’s no university paying. We have a team of former journalists and Ph.D. scientists who are finding you excellent researchers from all over the country and helping you get in touch with them. So check it all out at

Today’s media briefing is especially timely, I think, given the new emphasis in Washington on climate change. But while you and others will cover all kinds of climate-related policy announcements this year, the first order of business for appropriately covering climate change and the focus for us here at SciLine is understanding what the climate situation actually looks like through scientists’ eyes. We know that many of you covering this beat are not specialty science reporters, but you’re covering this for your communities. And you’re covering this because it’s what – climate change is happening in your communities or to your communities. And that’s why we’ve pulled together three people who can clearly explain and unpack the fundamentals for you, so you can include the best scientific context in your stories and build your climate journalism on that foundation of research-backed facts. So let’s get started. I’m not going to take time to do full introductions of our three guests. Their details are on the website.

I’ll just say that we will hear first from Dr. Kathie Dello. She is the state climatologist for North Carolina and director of the North Carolina State Climate Office. And she’s going to provide an overview of the current climate change situation in the United States to make sure we all understand where we’re starting from as scientists and policymakers aim to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Next, we’re going to hear from Dr. Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and – at Stanford University. And he will be looking at the challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the mitigation part of the climate change puzzle and will map out some of the science-based strategic avenues available to achieve those cuts. And third, we’ll hear from Dr. Katharine Mach, associate professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who will talk about the research – about our best options for adapting to those impacts of climate change that are now, to some extent, inevitable. So OK, enough introduction. Kathie, please take it away with your overview.


Climate Science Update


KATHIE DELLO: Will do. Can you see my slides? Well, good afternoon to those of you on the East Coast, and good morning to our Western friends. As Rick said – and thank you for that gracious introduction – I’m the state climatologist of North Carolina. It means I study North Carolina’s weather and climate so deeply. And I’ll just offer a personal story. It snowed here in Raleigh. And I knew it was going to snow overnight, so I set my alarm at 3 a.m. to wake up and see it. And sure enough, it was snowing. I’m a little tired today, but I use that as my gut check. You know, weather is, you know, truly at my soul. I love it so much. And when that stops being fun or I stop feeling curious about the planet, I’ll know that it’s time to move on to something else. But right now, I’m still waking up at 3 a.m. And I’m just going to provide an overview of climate science in the U.S. We don’t have very much time, so I’ll just mention it was the second warmest year on record globally. So 2020 ended up right behind 2016.

We’re not setting global cold temperature records anymore. It’s just not happening. And the U.S. was the fifth warmest on record. And the U.S. had seen its five warmest years since 2012. So we’re seeing the impacts of climate change and feeling it in truly every state in the country. The NOAA maps don’t provide Alaska and Hawaii. I’m sorry if some of our friends from those states are on there. But we saw warming in all the states, especially along the coasts. So in my home state of North Carolina, it was the third-warmest year on record. And then looking at the West Coast, where we saw terrible wildfires this year and drought, all of those states were much warmer than normal, too. And then folks will look to the middle of the country and say, well, what’s going on there? It’s not that it wasn’t warm. It certainly was warmer than average. It just wasn’t as warm as what we saw on the coasts. And if you’re looking at daily temperature records, the maximum temperature records outpace the minimum temperature records by a ratio of 2 to 1.

So we’re seeing more hotter days. We’re seeing more hotter nights, especially where I live in the Southeast. And we’re just not seeing as many of those cold days. Sure enough, it snowed in Raleigh, N.C., last night. Winter still happens. But we’re tilting the odds toward more of those warmer days. But the precipitation’s telling us a different story. And truly, in 2020, which was an absurd year for all of us, for many different reasons, the weather and climate had to jump in as well and take its claim as being completely abnormal. We’re seeing the wet parts of the country get water and the dry parts get drier. So like I said, terrible wildfires and drought in the Western U.S. last year. And then we saw 30 Atlantic hurricanes. Many of them made landfall in the Gulf. One made landfall in my state of North Carolina. But we got the remnants across the entire Southeast. It was just a wet year. But while we’re seeing extreme precipitation increase because of hurricanes, we’re also seeing it because of different types of storms as well. So we’re getting different weather patterns and supercharging the atmosphere with more moisture. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture – we learned that in thermodynamics class pretty much in Day 1. So when the atmosphere has all that moisture in it, it’s juicy, and it’s just ready to rain, rain, rain.

So we’re seeing, like I said, the wet parts of the country get water. And there really is that dividing line, you know, at the Continental Divide. Drought is a problem in the East Coast, in the Northeast – certainly saw it last year. And extreme precipitation certainly is a problem on the West Coast. We saw an atmospheric river of substantial size in California just a couple days ago and in Oregon and Washington the week before that. So while the overall pattern is tilting toward one direction or another, we still have to deal with those other sides of the coin. It’s not as simple as it sounds. And then we had $22 billion weather and climate disasters last year. And weather and climate cost the U.S. $95 billion last year. And the West Coast just gets one icon for the firestorms, but you could have put that icon in many different states and the drought icon in many different states. You see the Atlantic hurricanes showing up and the impacts that we saw in the Southeast. We had tornadoes. We had severe weather, hailstorms, a derecho. And then the less-than-billion-dollar disasters, which still matter, don’t even make the cut.

So when you’re thinking about things like extreme heat and front-line communities, where people don’t have sufficient access to cooling and are facing heat-related morbidity and mortality, that’s certainly a climate change impact that we’re seeing here in the Southeast, and it’s popping up around the rest of the country. So even if it doesn’t cross the billion-dollar disaster mark, it’s still a big deal. We’re spending a lot of money on climate change. I think my five-to-seven minutes are up. We have plenty of time for questions at the end. But thank you for listening. And I’ll turn it over to my colleague.


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Kathie. And I’ll turn it over to you, Chris.

Climate Change Mitigation


CHRIS FIELD: Thanks, everyone. And thanks so much, Kathie, for setting the stage. I want to talk for a just a few minutes about climate change mitigation – human interventions to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. And there are a bunch of technologies that we have available. And there are a bunch of technologies that we have available. The take-home message that I want to leave right from the start is that we are making impressive progress across all of these technologies, that if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to find a way to dramatically accelerate progress. And that’s what I want to talk about today. We have a multi-century legacy of increasing use of energy for the economy that has driven releases of greenhouse gases. If we are going to stop climate change, we need to bring the releases of carbon dioxide down to zero very, very rapidly.

For a two-degree warming, we basically have a budget. That budget says if we were to start reducing today, we would need to bring emissions to zero by 2086. If we’re going to strive for an even more ambitious 1 1/2-degree target, that date for zero emission shifts to before the middle of the century because we’re almost on top of 1.5 degrees now. Of course, the actual pathway of decarbonization isn’t going to look like this kind of straight line. We’ve got some kind of a business-as-usual emissions, and we’re going to take steps across the economy and around the world in order to decrease those emissions. But there are some kinds of processes where it’s really, really hard to scrub the last of the emissions out. And if we’re going to stick within a budget and find a way to bring net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero, we’re going to have to have negative emissions where we’re withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, resulting in some kind of a decarbonization pathway where we see – the yellow line shows crossing the net-zero line sometime in the latter decades of the century for a 2 C target.

If we can go with the more ambitious 1.5 C target, that zero crossing line shifts to about the middle of the century or a few years after that. Incredibly important to note that we don’t solve this problem without an ambitious mix of decreasing CO2 emissions, tackling other greenhouse gases and finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with the challenge of meeting a 1.5 or 2 C target, meaning we’ll probably overall be removing CO2 from the atmosphere in the last decades of the century. Where do the emissions come from? Overall, about 75% of greenhouse gas emissions come from energy utilization. And the other quarter comes from mostly agriculture – agriculture, forestry and other land use is what AFOLU is – and some from industry and waste. Specifically, the energy slice is more or less equal parts making stuff, industry, moving things around, transport, and buildings. The agriculture, forestry and other land use is a combination of deforestation, mostly in the tropics, and emissions associated with livestock and growing crops. I want to say just one or two words about where we are with each of the technologies and how much progress we’re making.

So for producing zero-emissions energy, we have a wide range of technologies, from wind and solar to biomass and hydro and nuclear. The take-home message with where we are now is we’re making really impressive progress. Wind and solar are cheaper than coal in much of the world. Renewables are growing rapidly, but they’re still a relatively small fraction of our overall energy mix. And the big technological limit we have is in long-term storage. And until we can solve that, it’s going to be really hard to have the highest penetration of renewables possible. When you look at the utilization of renewables around the world, they’re really surging. But if you were to read a publication called The Oil and Gas Investor, you would see a picture that looks more like this where even though the deployment of renewables is surging, we’re still seeing it only amount to a couple of percent of global energy, and utilization of hydrocarbons is staying frustratingly high at the three-quarters or so of the total. Electrification – we’re making real progress.

But it’s frustrating that even though electric vehicles, essentially a mature technology, it’s still only a couple percent of new car sales. And the contrast between the EV1 in 1996 and the Chevy Volt in 2021 shows how far we’ve come but how little penetration we’ve really seen. And over-the-hill technologies like the Elon Musk Hyperloop in the bottom of this figure are still a long way off and represent big challenges in terms of the technology. For carbon dioxide removal, the best option is things like growing more forest – a real win-win-win if we can allocate the land and water that are necessary. Industrial solutions are beginning to be affordable, but there’s still a long way to go before we can deploy carbon dioxide removal at scale. Energy efficiency is super-important. That’s been the big win in terms of U.S. decarbonization over the last several decades. And without energy efficiency trends, we would be using 85% more energy than we’re using now.

You know, it’s important to recognize that not all the emissions come from carbon dioxide. Some come from methane released by cattle. And there are some industrial processes like steel production is basically using carbon to convert iron oxide into carbon dioxide and iron and is really, really challenging to figure out a path forward. Can we do this? We can definitely do it, but we’re going to have to make real expenditures. The Biden administration has proposed spending $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years that they anticipate will be amplified by $5 trillion of private and public expenditures. My personal forecast is that when I look at the balance between expenditures, avoided damages and increased growth, it’s well worth the expenditures. But we need to be ambitious about making them now.

It’s also important to recognize that technology and science are only part of the puzzle. We need financial mechanisms. We need solid policies, and we need to recognize that conditions are diverse around the world. More than anything else, we need the leadership to deploy the technologies that are increasingly mature and attractive, and we need to deploy them much more rapidly than we have seen over the past several decades. Thanks so much. I look forward to your questions.


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Chris. And over to Katharine.

Climate Change Adaptation


KATHARINE MACH: Perfect. As Kathie described, climate change is already affecting virtually every part of the United States. And in terms of the impacts that matter most for communities, often they’re felt through extremes. In recent years, certainly in the last year, we’ve seen intense floods, for example, in the Midwest. We’ve seen those storms rolling on shore in the Gulf, as that slide from Kathie depicted. We’ve seen catastrophic fires across the American West, permafrost melt in the Arctic and extreme heat unfolding in agricultural and urban communities alike. And what’s really powerful for our ability to prepare for these impacts is that we can increasingly tease out the role of our emissions of heat-trapping gases, event by event, scientifically understanding how we’re turbocharging the extremes that unfold. And these extremes are having damages for jobs and livelihoods and health, well-being and even the social fabric for communities affected.

And for adaptation, what’s also interesting is we’re starting to see communities and governments advocating for change. Really crucially, the damages that happen in a changing climate are not just a function of the hazards, those sharp ends from the climate systems – the floods, the fires, the heat waves. But instead, the damages that affect people are a function of our levels of preparedness. Preparedness can span from building codes that shape which houses survive when a storm comes through to choices about after a disaster. Do we relocate or rebuild? They’re also about planning. Are emergency plans in place for how you keep people safe in a changing climate? In this landscape, adaptation is a term used to describe the process of becoming more resilient, more prepared in the face of a change in climate. Adaptation is about adjusting to the climate and its impacts, attuned to the changes in the pipeline into the future. And as Chris described, really, the success of our adaptation efforts across the United States fundamentally depend on how ambitious we are in reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases. So this is a major moment for adaptation.

And in terms of scientific support for ongoing decision-making, what we’re realizing is that the actions now happening are across scales. We see farmers adjusting when they put crops in the ground in response to those changing patterns of heat and rainfall. We see local communities making sure there is increased access to cool locations when heat waves strike. And we’re also seeing the ways in which federal agencies play a critical role in this landscape. But there are substantial challenges. Some of the major areas of innovation in the space of adaptation are addressing these three pillars. First, the challenge of equity – legacies are pivotally important in the climate challenge. Number one, they shape how much heat-trapping gases have gone into the atmosphere, how much warming is locked in, irrespective of our need to drop the emissions down, as Chris described. But they also shape who’s susceptible to the harms that result.

So for example, we’re seeing increasing scientific work at the nexus of climate justice and racial justice. Areas across the United States that were historically redlined – so under-invested in, racially linked lending practices – are hotter on average. And that’s not just the case in the outdoor environment, for example, as a function of how much green space there is. It also is seen in building quality. And so these questions of how we adapt are crucially important to our past and our past where not everyone has had the same experience. Second, incomplete – we don’t necessarily know what works in all cases. There’s a real risk that investments that happen now may not build towards long-term resilience. So for example, if we try to resist water and keep it out everywhere, oftentimes, counterintuitively, that can lead to increased development in the most risky places. Science-based decision-making and decision support is increasingly looking at these interactions between now, what we know about what is effective and ensuring that we’re on a long term trajectory of resilience as well.

And finally, isolated – much adaptation to date has focused narrowly, for example, on flooding. But as we see in the recent report and long-term study from FEMA, just released, increasingly there’s a recognition that there are profound interconnections between climate, a change in climate and what matters to people. So that narrow focus on flooding will inevitably connect to poverty. Cycles of poverty exacerbated when flood after flood occurs. They link to long-term health outcomes, sustain stable incomes, many other factors of well-being. So in terms of the innovation in the pipeline and the challenges for the adaptation science research agenda ahead is, number one, the degree to which coordination is essential for adaptation.

For example, where is finance coming from as communities move towards greater preparedness? Where is finance coming from for disaster relief? Where are incentives misaligned? Oftentimes for a local government, it makes sense to encourage development – more property taxes, for example. However, if affected homeowners don’t know they just bought a house that is highly at risk when the next flood comes through, we see the misalignment ramifying up to challenges for our national flood insurance and disaster relief more broadly. Moving forward, the innovation is also very much focusing on the connections across hazards taking an integrated approach. Oftentimes, climate change risks are all about the cascades. A flood knocks out power followed by intense heat. If you don’t have air-conditioning on, that heat wave is now worse because of the flood followed by the fire. And we see how this is not just about that narrow disaster angle. It’s the interconnections between the changing climate, school systems, public health.

And finally, there’s an increasing recognition in terms of adaptation we see across the United States and the advantage of being proactive, making sure we have more options on the table into the future to keep people safe. How do our investments today affect what can happen tomorrow? I’m guessing, based on my own work in terms of providing decision support to local governments, that in many of your communities, local governments are already starting to think about the options. Some municipalities have resilience officers focused solely on climate change adaptation across all of government. In other cases, it’s the way the changing climate is now being considered in emergency management, economic development or public health. And really, it’s an inspiring moment where communities around the country are laying groundwork for adaptation innovations and increased preparedness.


How closely linked can reporters say certain weather extremes are to climate change?


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Katharine. Great. I want to remind folks on the call, if you have questions, hover down at the Q&A, and you can submit them there. Also, a reminder that all these slides will be up on the SciLine website soon after this briefing, and a full transcript will go up within a couple of days after that as well. I’m going to get things started here with a question for Kathie. And Katharine and others may want to weigh in here. But you put some emphasis on a lot of the extreme weather that we’ve been seeing. How closely linked can reporters now actually say that some of the weather extremes that we’re talking about here are connected to or caused by climate change writ large? What’s the best way for reporters to handle that question?


KATHIE DELLO: Yeah, that’s a great question. And when I started my career 12 years ago, reporters would ask, and we would say something like, well, you can’t tie every single weather event to climate change. In 2020, we’re shifting the background states so much. We’re not doing formal attribution studies on every single one of these events. And an attribution study is really just finding the fingerprints of climate change in a single weather event. But we know that we’re shifting the background states so much, the averages so much that we’re seeing climate change in these individual events.

So it’s not a far reach to say that climate change is making these things worse. And then we can look to peer-reviewed literature. We know that hurricanes are getting stronger and wetter. We know that it’s exacerbating drought and heat in the West. And you would have to start to – it would be a matter of kind of, you know, if eight doctors are telling you you’re sick and two aren’t, it would be a matter of going with the two that are telling you you’re not sick to say that climate change isn’t changing these things.

RICK WEISS: Katharine, anything…


KATHARINE MACH: Yeah, the only thing I would add – totally agree with everything Kathie said that this has just been a major area of innovation in the science, teasing out a fingerprint of our influence event by event, and increasingly not just in the events but also the damages they have. So when that flood occurs, what does that mean for buildings that are affected? Things like the World Weather Attribution project or the annual reports from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Science are great resources in terms of just looking at a lot of events one by one.

Why have the 1.5 and 2-degree limits been highlighted as being so critical?


RICK WEISS: Great. Chris, question for you – with all the talk of 1.5 degrees and 2-degree limits, can you say a little bit more first of all about what those, you know, specifically refer to for reporters who may not know quite how those are defined, but also why the 1.5 and 2-degree limits have been highlighted as being so critical?


CHRIS FIELD: It’s a really good question. And there have been decades of scholarship on when climate change produces what, in the words of the U.N. Framework Convention, is dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. I think there’s no question that we’ve already passed the level of dangerous anthropogenic interference. And recent conversations have mostly focused on when do we face the risk of passing a tipping point where climate change becomes really unmanageable, where the kinds of adaptation solutions that Katharine talked about, for example, no longer can protect people and ecosystems? And there’s a compelling body of evidence that in a world of continued high emissions where we’re looking at three or four centigrade by the end of the century, that we will have passed some of those tipping points.

There’s very high confidence that there are important tipping points in the carbon cycle where vicious cycles are initiated in sea level rise where we face many meters of sea level rise and in kind of the social fabric. We don’t have a high level of confidence about exactly where those tipping points are. But 1.5 provides a really high level of safety. Two provides a pretty good level of safety. And it’s clear, and as the Paris Agreement affirms, that we should be doing our very, very best to stabilize warming at less than 2 C to avoid these really unmanageable outcomes.

RICK WEISS: And is 1.5 or 2 degrees C relative to…


CHRIS FIELD: Relative to what the preindustrial global average temperature was – in recent years, we have seen a few individual months that have already been 1.5 C or more, higher than the pre-industrial average. Globally, we’re between one and 1.1 degrees higher than that preindustrial average which we don’t know with a super high level of precision because there weren’t that many thermometers then. But we’re getting real, real close to 1.5. The reason that emissions have to decrease so dramatically for 1.5 is we’re just about on top of it. Now, 2 is a big challenge technologically, mainly because there’s – so much stuff would have to be replaced with non-emitting technologies to get us to 2. But the estimates are that we have the financial resources, and we have the technologies to stabilize somewhere between 1.5 and 2.

Are there model cities or states that have done a particularly good job with adaptation planning?


RICK WEISS: Let’s see. A couple of questions here for Katharine – first of all, there’s a request from a reporter to clarify or repeat the resource that you mentioned a moment ago. I’m not sure if that was the AMS Journal or another resource you mentioned, but if you could repeat that so journalists can look to that. And then can you address the question of whether there are model cities or states that have done particularly good jobs with adaptation planning that reporters might want to look at as examples and go to their own local communities for comparative purposes?


KATHARINE MACH: Yeah, wonderful. OK, so the two sources I mentioned and as Kathie described, I think they’re a perfect representation of how rapidly the climate science side of adaptation has advanced. And what they’re doing is basically saying, for a whole bunch of events, can the models be spun up to answer this question of how much have our heat-trapping gases emitted into the atmosphere to date increased the likelihood or intensity of given extreme events? So the World Weather Attribution project is one resource to look at that basically does – extreme event happens, run up the models and tease out whether it’s heat waves, damaging coral reefs or drought in the Midwest, really saying what’s the role of our heat-trapping gases? And the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Journal of Science also is another resource that does an annual report looking at a large number of events over the preceding year. So model cities – well, I think a lot about adaptation in Miami and South Florida.

So I’ll just describe what’s happening in the Miami context because it’s actually very parallel to what we see in many different cities. And this is a real recognition that adaptation, climate, weather affect so many different societal priorities. So it’s not as if you can just have a tiny little office of climate adaptation and they do their job, and the city is now prepared for climate change. Instead, what has to happen is, you know, for example, what’s happening with our roads – increasingly not just disaster flooding but on the high tide. Is water coming up through the drainage that used to be sufficient? What about public health circumstances and extreme heat? So what we’re seeing in South Florida through collaborations across local government is this very common strategy of having a resilience office. And increasingly, there are hundreds of these in small municipalities across the United States and globally. And these offices are working with every agency at the local government to make sure the strategies are in place to keep society safe. In different places, there’s a real need to be responsive to what the local priorities are. So if you’re in an agricultural region, the heat impacts may be profoundly felt by outdoor workers.

If you’re in an urban core, it would not only be outdoor workers, for example, working on the electricity grid but how that’s felt in terms of nighttime heat waves. And so those complexities and the need to mainstream or what we’re seeing in many local governments – you could pick any big city. It’s going full bore. And increasingly and what’s so important is that this move – is moving into our medium- and small-sized cities as well. Many different states are similarly putting into place this type of infrastructure that has to cut across the government. That’s the case whether you look at New York or California. In places like Texas, I would say we’ve seen some really profound innovation at the county scale. And so these types of needs to mainstream – happening city by city. Increasingly, we’re going to see a return to this likely in the federal agencies where there’s an effort to look at what’s happening with climate change impacts affecting the objective across every single federal agency as well.

RICK WEISS: Right, thank you.


KATHIE DELLO: And I’ll just jump in and make a plug. I’m – it’s the home team, but North Carolina is doing some good things as well, in part because Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew were so devastating. And eastern North Carolina has been in just a period of constant recovery and still hasn’t recovered from these hurricanes and the way that federal funding is doled out through HUD disaster funds. And it arrives late. And it can’t directly go to the resiliency efforts that it needs to go to. North Carolina started to think through some of these things, put forth a really forward-thinking adaptation plan that came out last year soon after we went into lockdown. So maybe it didn’t get a lot of attention, but I would look to that one, too.

Are wildfires a climate problem or a management problem?


RICK WEISS: Great, thanks. And, Kathie, while we have you, you had mentioned wildfires earlier in your overview. And of course, in the last administration, there was a lot of talk about whether a wildfire problem was really a climate problem or a management problem. Can you help tease that apart for reporters, so they have a clear understanding of what’s going on with that dynamic?


KATHIE DELLO: Yeah, and since I’ve already inserted myself into the narrative by admitting that I woke up to see snow, I spent a decade in Oregon. And seeing the wildfires truly, truly tore at my gut. It was absolutely devastating because it’s something that I studied and talked about happening for a decade, and there it was, which was really surreal. But it’s never just a climate problem because we’re here. So we’re managing all of these systems. We’re managing our natural systems. We’re managing our built environment. And Katharine can speak much more to this than I can. But none of this would matter if we weren’t here. So, certainly, there is forest management on the table and the way that states are funding forest adaptation and firefighting and how it’s a piecemeal approach across the western U.S. But, certainly, we know these hot, dry summers just add to the likelihood of big fires. And we’re also seeing big greenups (ph) in the spring and then big dryouts (ph) in the summer with this hot and dry weather. And then there’s all this fuel there to burn. So there’s absolutely a climate angle to it, too.

If we bring down CO2 to net zero, will the warming level off and climate stabilize within a decade or two?


RICK WEISS: Great. OK. This is a question I’m going to throw out there for anyone to address this. It’s a little bit of a long question, but let me go through it. From Meera Subramanian, who’s a freelancer – can someone speak to the recent study that warming is not as baked in as previously thought? From Inside Climate News, she quotes from a story that there is less warming in the pipeline than we thought, according to an Imperial College of London climate scientist, Joeri Rogelj, lead author of the IPCC Next Assessment. He said that it is our best understanding that if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off, the climate will stabilize within a decade or two and there will be very little or no additional warming. That’s a little different than I think what we were hearing from your charts, Chris, and from a lot of people in the climate space. What’s happening there?


CHRIS FIELD: You know, the evidence that warming stops when emissions stop has been growing for some time. The report is completely correct that if we could wave a magic wand and have CO2 emissions go to zero tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t see additional warming. For a long time, there was the idea that there was sort of inertia in the climate system because people were doing simulations where they said, well, if we leave the CO2 concentrations steady, what happens? And under conditions when the CO2 concentration is steady, there is a period of a few decades of warming. But if you actually stop emissions, the CO2 concentration gradually goes down because CO2 is dissolving in the oceans. But there is important inertia in the coupled human climate system that’s really, really important to keep in mind.

And that inertia isn’t due to the way that climate works. It’s due to the fact that somebody just bought a new car yesterday and they were going to keep that car for 20 years. Some – a new coal-fired power plant was just inaugurated last week in Indonesia or China, and that coal-fired power plant is going to continue to operate for 30 or 40 or 50 years. So at this point, the way to think about inertia in the climate system is that it’s almost entirely coming from human-built infrastructure. And as we think about accelerating the transition to zero emissions, what we really have to do is figure out how to drive early retirement of existing infrastructure and how to prevent the construction of new infrastructure that’s going to continue these greenhouse gas emissions over many decades.


KATHARINE MACH: Maybe I’ll just add two other things I think can be helpful. So first, it’s really important to recognize that our traditional environmental challenges like air quality are, in some crucial ways, different from our current challenge of the changing climate. So with traditional challenges of, say, air quality, you’ve got an industrial facility spewing out toxins into the air. You turn the smokestack off or you embed scrubber and that air pollution comes out of the air and the air can clean up right away. But as Chris is describing, a really important nuance for climate change is that once you have put heat-trapping – long-lived, heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, that warming is permanent, nearly permanent.

So what that means and really linked to those trajectories of emissions to this – the declines that Chris was describing is that for any warming limit, we have a finite carbon budget. And once we’ve used that up, we will be at the temperature it corresponds to. And that really means that these choices of what we do now have long-lived implications for how much warming will be experienced, not additional warming, but the level of temperature increase that holds, for decades into the future.

As CO2 in the atmosphere dissolves into the oceans, what impact does that have on ocean acidification?


RICK WEISS: And, Christopher – one of you, just while we’re on this topic, a question from myself. But you mentioned that, yeah, CO2 levels can go down once we stop producing it because it’s getting absorbed by the ocean. But the ocean doesn’t necessarily appreciate all of that carbon dioxide and growing acidity either, right? Isn’t that an issue?

CHRIS FIELD: Absolutely. The reason that we have seen CO2 in the atmosphere rise as slowly as it has is because some of the emissions dissolve in the oceans and that has made the oceans more acidic, creating up a wide range of environmental problems for the ocean. We don’t have control over whether the CO2 that we put in the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans or not. As long as we keep emitting, a lot of it’s going to go in the oceans. And when we stop, this land – the ocean/atmosphere balance will re-establish itself. One thing that it’s important to remember is we’re stuck – as Katharine just described with the warming for a long time – we’re also stuck with the acidification of the oceans over a very long period.


KATHARINE MACH: One of my favorite phrases coming from a background of ocean sciences is that the oceans are growing hot, sour and breathless. So they’re heating up, and they’re acidifying. But also, even the oxygen levels in the oceans are changing, both because they’re hotter and also because currents are shifting in a warmer ocean. And these complex impacts in terms of the ocean physical side of the equation has effects for fisheries, for coral reefs, for oysters and for many of the resources that we rely on in the near-shore coastal ocean, as well as the deeper waters of the open ocean.

Are there climate risks in proposals for a large increase in federal infrastructure spending?


RICK WEISS: Here is a question from Christie George (ph), a freelancer. Are there climate risks in proposals for a big increase in federal infrastructure spending? For example, Obama’s recession recovery plan relied on infrastructure projects that used a lot of cement.


CHRIS FIELD: The answer is yes. Infrastructure can be a huge ally in the fight against climate change, and infrastructure can be an incredible enemy in thinking about going forward. The kinds of infrastructure that make the most sense for fighting climate change, or as Kathie mentioned, improving the electrical grid, things like improved networks for transportation and communications can be incredibly important for the disaster risk reduction that Katharine and Kathie both talked about. But if we commit to infrastructure that locks in emissions or that prevents us from deploying the kinds of technologies we need to solve the problem, we make it much more challenging. And when we – it’s important to remember that the U.S. isn’t the only actor here, and that countries around the world are looking at huge commitments to future infrastructure. And the decisions that are made through processes like (unintelligible) and road initiative will have a lot of leverage over how challenging or straightforward it is to decarbonize in the future.

Where should journalists look for resources related to climate preparedness and resilience in their states?


RICK WEISS: I want to ask a general question for any or all three of you reflecting some of reporters’ interests here about where they can go to find out what’s going on locally with preparedness, with resilience, with energy efficiency efforts. Is there a single place within states? Is it going to vary state to state? What kind of advice can you give to local reporters who want to cover how this big issue is really happening where they live? Any one of you could start.


CHRIS FIELD: Well, I’ll just say that in California, the state government has been really active in being a central depot for climate change information. And there’s a, you know, a tremendous variation from place to place around the country. California – very active in habitation resilience, very active in decarbonization and active in climate communication. I think that across the spectrum, from cities to NGOs to private companies, there’s an increasing amount of information available. But it is still very much a buyer beware environment, where there’s a lot of misleading or incorrect information out there. And I would encourage people to start with trusted sources – major universities, state governments, local governments. And under the Biden administration, I’m confident that we can count on the federal government to be an honest broker for reliable information.


KATHARINE MACH: (Unintelligible) and I guess I can just add a few things. So at the local level, if you are in an area where there is a resilience office – Google, like, you know, your municipality chief resilience officer – where those offices exist, they’re phenomenal. I find that I can email anyone on the staff, and they get right back to you. Their whole job is to help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and ensure preparedness to climate, recognizing that climate interacts with so many different things. Just to point out a few other resources. The National Climate Assessment is a wonderful resource that really has regionally relevant information and also is increasingly pushing towards processes of sustained assessment. And I suspect over the next five years or so, we will see increasing efforts to make knowledge not just something that’s about research for narrow questions, but broadly available science for ongoing societal decision making.


RICK WEISS: Any advice, Kathie, where people might go to, either in North Carolina or in general?

KATHIE DELLO: Chris and Katharine both gave great resources. And I guess I’d like to just point back to Katharine. There is this huge body of university researchers who are studying adaptation and are connected to these cities and towns and states that are working on these plans. And there is a neat group called the – I’m going to get the acronym – the acronym is ASAP. It’s the American Society for (ph) Adaptation Professionals. They have a really slick website. You can go there and get connected with people who are working both academically and on a practitioner level.

When considering carbon budgets, how problematic is the fact that most industrial carbon capture projects involve enhanced oil recovery, which injects CO2 into old oil wells to get out more oil to burn?


RICK WEISS: Great. Question here from Ashley Brown (ph), a freelancer, and she’s asking another question focused on carbon dioxide removal. When considering carbon budgets, how problematic is the fact that most industrial carbon capture projects are enhanced oil recovery, which injects CO2 into old oil wells to get out – to get the oil out and eventually burn more oil?

CHRIS FIELD: That’s a really great question. And when we look at the portfolio of technology options for carbon dioxide removal, it’s important to recognize that most of what we have done so far in terms of carbon capture and storage isn’t really removing CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s taking the CO2 that comes from combusting of fossil fuel, grabbing on to it and then pumping it back underground into a geological storage reservoir. And that’s what mostly happens with this enhanced oil recovery that the question is referring to. And as the questioner points out, it’s a genuine dilemma where we’re moving CO2 from smokestack stream, but if we’re using it to get more fossil fuel to make more CO2, it’s unclear that that’s helping us move forward.

On the other hand, a lot of what we’ve learned about how to do CO2 capture, compression and pumping into geological formations does come from the background of using these technologies. And it’s pretty hard to imagine the kind of aggressive decarbonization pathways that I talked about without using carbon capture and sequestration, both for smokestack emissions and for the technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Increasingly, we’re going to need to transition away from thinking about carbon capture and storage as a mechanism primarily for enhanced oil recovery to using it primarily as a strategy for decreasing emissions and increasing CO2 removals. And we need some kind of additional incentives in the system beyond the money that you can get from selling the oil and gas you recover in order to really bring those to maturity.

What kind of infrastructure or other adaptation measures are most needed to protect people in the United States from extreme heat?


RICK WEISS: Thanks, Chris. I will just make a note here. We have a comment from Mark Schleifstein, a longtime environment reporter, noting for reporters that the Society of Environmental Journalists is actually a great source for information and sources. That’s true. So is SciLine. We have quite a bit of stuff on the website, so we certainly encourage reporters to look there as well. A question here from Tony Barboza, LA Times. Maybe this is for you first, Katharine. What kind of infrastructure or other adaptation measures are most needed to protect people in the U.S. from extreme heat?


KATHARINE MACH: OK. Extreme heat specifically has a lot of different factors in terms of what leads to exposure. So I think maybe this question is more around built environment infrastructure, but I’ll just say, in many cities, the interaction between the buildings where greenery is – are you near a hot ocean or not – strongly shape those dynamics of heat within the city. So oftentimes, it’s a complex interaction between that urban heat island and what’s experienced. A big area of investment is, first of all, how straightforward is it to keep a building, a home or an office, hot or cool? So that’s a very local, modular scale of infrastructure. But building by building across the U.S., weatherization plays a very big role in terms of what it means to keep the building hot or cool. If you cool it down and it leaks right out, that’s really important. I think an important angle here – oftentimes, there’s a profound interaction between infrastructure and the utilities required to maintain it. So oftentimes, both weatherization and, for example, utilities assistance can be really important at the household scale for keeping things cool.

The next question is, what is the type of exposure to heat that happens in transportation networks? So for people reliant on public transportation, is there shading when you’re waiting for a bus? In a hot environment, that really, really matters. Other questions come down to some regions of the world are pushing towards thresholds for basically human survivability, usually as a function of both humidity and extreme heat during certain portions of the day. And so if you’re at your upper physiological threshold for agricultural work, the infrastructural questions are not just what can you do to keep people individually cool, but to organize entire systems such that people are not outside during the hottest times of day. I think, lastly, if you look kind of in all of the national assessments of what our infrastructure is experiencing, oftentimes, it’s the profound interconnection. So the electricity grid is profoundly affected by heat. Oftentimes, that’s in complex interaction with other forms of extremes, whether it’s flooding or fires. Increasingly, we’re seeing a world – and from the LA Times’s perspective, I’m sure this is a very familiar experience – where these questions of infrastructure readiness in a changing climate are not just about the direct impacts of a changing climate, but the way we need to manage our infrastructure, for example, bringing down power lines to prevent the starting of wildfires. So heat is complex, but I think our built environment oftentimes is pivotal for shaping what it is – people are exposed to and especially vulnerable people in terms of the elderly or people who are out there working in the heat.

RICK WEISS: Super interesting to hear the whole spread there from major utility projects down to bus shelters, so a lot to handle there. Kathie, go ahead. I interrupted you.


KATHIE DELLO: Oh, that’s OK. I was just going to jump in. That was a great answer. In the Southeast, we commonly say it doesn’t matter that it’s hot. We have air conditioning everywhere. Well, that may be true, but folks can’t afford to turn it on in some places. Air conditioning is expensive. So it’s a huge equity issue in North Carolina and one that we’re thinking about.

What role should nuclear energy play in responding to climate change in the United States?


RICK WEISS: Great. I’m going to try to squeeze in one more quick question from a reporter here, and then I’m going to ask the three of you each to give a little bit of a – just a one-minute wrap up with some real take-home – your favorite take-home message for reporters here. But just – if we can get a quick answer to Andrew Hazard’s question here, a freelancer, about what role do you think nuclear energy can or should play? And any plan to rapidly clean our grid and reduce emissions? And what concerns still remain on nuclear waste storage and those environmental impacts?

CHRIS FIELD: Great question. Real quickly – nuclear provides greenhouse gas-free electricity. It provides it 24 hours a day. The big problem we face with nuclear in recent decades has been its ability to compete on the basis cost. Nuclear reactors are being shut down around the U.S. on an ongoing basis because it’s more expensive to generate the electricity that way. If in the future we can come up with a way to provide energy, electricity from nuclear cheaply, reliably and safely, there’s a real space for it. At this point, I don’t see us being on a runway to being able to accomplish the three goals of reliability, affordability and safety.

What are some key takeaways for journalists covering climate change in 2021?


RICK WEISS: Anyone else on nuclear? OK, great. Well, at this point, we’re just about at the end of our hour, and I do want to give each of our speakers an opportunity just to throw out a take-home message for reporters. I want to remind reporters before we start to close that, as you do wrap up this briefing, you will see a short survey there. It takes just a half-minute to fill out. It’s very helpful for you to take that half-minute and tell us what you think and what we can do better. So thank you for taking the moment for that as you go. But first, let’s hear from each of our speakers, just one thing that you really want people to have stick to them as they leave today. Kathie, I’ll start with you.

KATHIE DELLO: Yeah. And thank you for the invitation and the confidence that I could talk about the entire U.S. because I do study one state very deeply. And that’s my take-home point. There are climate change stories in your state and in your towns. And you don’t have to look very hard for them. Reach out to scientists. Reach out to practitioners. Slide in their Twitter DMs. They’re happy to tell the stories of climate change in the communities. So it is a very local problem. Sure, you know, it’s a global problem, too. But it’s in our backyards. And we’re seeing it here and now.

RICK WEISS: Great, thank you. Chris. Yeah, Chris.


CHRIS FIELD: Developing climate change solution is an incredibly exciting topic. It’s an exciting topic to cover as a reporter. And it’s exciting era to live in. Providing the technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to zero and fundamentally solve the climate problem is something that we can definitely do. It’s something we’re doing now, but we’re just not doing it at the scale and pace that we need to avoid the worst damages of climate change. And there are lots of stories out there of breakthroughs that are being made in the technology and in the policy and in the finance. And there are wonderful opportunities to cover those.

RICK WEISS: Thanks, really appreciate that positive message. And journalism can help enlighten people about those. Katharine.


KATHARINE MACH: And for me, many of the local stories of the climate challenge that are so inspiring are the fact that efforts to increase our preparedness are happening now. And I think what’s really important about the adaptation entry point is that it comes down to specific places, no matter what – people and their relationships with the land, their relationships with their community, their relationships with their cities. And so even as we see increased coordination at the national level, this question of – who is doing adaptation? How is it unfolding? What is the process like? Are we keeping our options set open for well-being into the future? – has strong groundings in virtually every community across the U.S. And thank you for the opportunity to share some of these science thoughts with you.


RICK WEISS: Great. I want to thank all of our guests today. I want to remind reporters on the line here as well that we just yesterday at SciLine put out a new, very condensed and useful fact sheet for you that focuses in particular on environmental justice issues as they relate to climate which came up a little bit today – some very interesting facts that got touched on here today about the history of redlining and how that is actually shaping out to make a difference in terms of temperatures in different parts of different cities and so on. So if you go to, I believe you will get there. Look for environmental justice. I also want to encourage people to go to the website generally. Follow us @RealSciline.

And just finally, again, a big thanks to three excellent sources. Thanks so much for really wonderful presentations and a lot of great detail for reporters to run with here. I hope this will encourage people to keep up the work of writing these important stories. And with that, we’re going to close this briefing today. Thanks all for attending. And we’ll see you at the next SciLine briefing.

Dr. Kathie Dello

State Climatologist for North Carolina and Director of the North Carolina State Climate Office

Kathie Dello is the director of the North Carolina State Climate Office and the state climatologist of North Carolina at North Carolina State University. Previously, she was the associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. Dr. Dello has participated in four state climate assessments, in Oregon and North Carolina, as well as state and local adaptation planning processes. Dr. Dello has a Ph.D. in environmental sciences.

Dr. Christopher B. Field

Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University

Chris Field is the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and professor for interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University. His research focuses on climate change, especially solutions that improve lives now, decrease the amount of future warming, and support vibrant economies. Recent projects emphasize decreasing risks from coastal flooding and wildfires. Dr. Field was co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2008-2015, where he led the effort on the IPCC Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” and the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Dr. Field has a Ph.D. in biology.

Dr. Katharine Mach

Associate Professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Katharine Mach is an associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a faculty scholar at the UM Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy, focused on environmental science and policy. Her research assesses climate change risks and response options to address increased flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, and other hazards. Through innovative approaches to integrating evidence, she informs effective and equitable adaptations to the risks. From 2010 until 2015, Dr. Mach co-directed the scientific activities of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She is a lead author for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and the US Fourth National Climate Assessment. Dr. Mach has a Ph.D. in biological sciences.

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