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'Don't get too depressed by all this': An expert's perspective on the impact of climate change and plans for a sustainable future

Dr. Donald Wuebbles presented during "Tackling Climate Change in the Rural Midwest," a summit at Bradley University on Nov. 5, 2021.
Hannah Alani
Dr. Donald Wuebbles presented during "Tackling Climate Change in the Rural Midwest," a summit at Bradley University on Nov. 5, 2021. He returned to Bradley to speak in March, 2023.

Dr. Donald Wuebbels is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of climate for the company, Earth Knowledge. But over the years he’s held many titles.

Wuebbels was the assistant director with the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the Executive Office of the President in Washington, DC from 2015 to 2017, serving as the White House expert on climate science. He served as a lead author on multiple international climate assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-led the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment in 2017.

Last week, Wuebbels gave a talk at Bradley as part of the Worldwide Teach-In on Climate Justice. I spoke with him beforehand to learn more about the threats posed by climate change, optimism in the face of global problems and paths to a sustainable future.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You’re here as part of the Worldwide Teach-In on Climate Justice. In your experience, how important is teaching to the ongoing discussion about climate? And what kind of ideas start in the classroom?

Wuebbles: That’s what it’s all about. I mean, whether you're talking to students, or you're talking to the general public, or talking to members of Congress. You know, I feel my job is all about teaching and making sure people are aware of what clearly is one of the most important issues humanity faces, but a lot of people don't realize that.

I imagine you talk to people from all sorts of viewpoints on this issue. How do you approach skepticism when you're sitting down to talk with a skeptic? How do you approach that conversation?

Wuebbles: Well, skepticism is fine. I mean, any good scientist is a skeptic in the first place. But it's, you know, it's usually, the skepticism that you're talking about, in some sense, is really based on misinformation and lack of knowledge and lack of really, understanding, and a bias. You know, people were biased by their political beliefs. So what I tried to do is basically correct that misinformation, tell them what we understand, what we don't understand, you know, they have this idea, it's all based on models, you know, there's no observations, well, that's all based on observations. And the models just support that finding. And the models are what we use to project the future, because we won't have a second world to look at, to be able to use observations of somewhere else to tell us what the future is going to be like. But we can use our understanding of the processes to try to tell us what it might be like, by the end of this century.

Kind of the flip side of the coin, there was an interesting article in The Washington Post a few days ago about “climate doomers,” people who believe climate change can’t be stopped and there’s no real use attempting to. How do you approach that viewpoint?

Wuebbles: Certainly, there are people who think that it's hopeless. And so even tonight's talk, I will have a slide where I talked about how we need to maintain hope, that you can't look at the fact that this very depressing topic of what's happening to the Earth's climate means that there is no hope. In fact, you know, it's not like we're totally destroying the world, but we're having a huge impact on it, and it's gonna have a huge impact on humanity. Basically, you know, the Earth's climate is changing about 10 times more rapidly than nature changes the climate, in a typical sense. As a result, it's really hard for humans and ecosystems to be able to adapt to that. But, we can deal with this. And also, I feel strongly about that. And I try to make sure people understand that.

You mentioned your talk. It's titled: “Our Changing Climate: The Science and the Pathway to Sustainability. Obviously, it's a big question, but how does that pathway start? And what does sustainability eventually look like?

Wuebbles: Well, we basically have three choices when it comes to climate change, we can mitigate, which is reduce the emissions that are driving this, basically, from our burning of fossil fuels and land use change. We can adapt, which means as changes are occurring, that we have adapted our systems to be able to deal more effectively with it, or we can suffer and right now we're doing some of all three. And if we really want to look at the future in a sustainable way, we need to be doing a lot of mitigation, a lot of adaptations, so that we don't suffer and that is all doable.

Often when people talk about climate change, that suffering you talk about, they talk about sea levels and air temperature, what are some other ways that climate change affects our day to day?

Wuebbles: Major floods, because more precipitation is coming as larger events, you know, we've been hearing about all these atmospheric rivers hitting California. Well, there, those are a lot bigger than they used to be because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. And as a result, we're seeing larger events. Larger droughts in places, larger, severe storms, hurricanes are becoming stronger. So it isn't just about temperature and sea level rise. Those are important. But that's not what it's all about. In fact, I tend to think the most important thing affecting us is the increasing intensity of severe weather.

Obviously, climate change is, you know, a global issue, it affects all of us. But it's also often framed as an equity issue. Would you explain how climate change sort of has disproportionate impacts on different populations?

Wuebbles: Well, for most of us, we can deal with climate change. We live in air conditioned homes, and we have significant enough income that we can deal with the environment around us to kind of protect ourselves. But for the poor, and the elderly, particularly those that don't have those resources, then they have to deal with whatever confronts them. And if things are becoming more intense, you know, whether it's more severe heat waves, or flooding, or droughts or severe storms, they just have more difficulty in dealing with that. So equity is a major issue affecting the poor and the elderly, particularly.

Where have you seen progress over the years in this field, what's inspired hope for the future?

Wuebbles: Well, you know, the US is already approaching 40% of its energy coming from non-fossil fuel sources. It’s growing dramatically, year by year. So, that's a strong sign that we can deal with this. We need to keep pushing it. There are those who want to make short term income off of the use of fossil fuels and continuing to push that, but that we can deal with this. So yeah, that's been very much a positive that, you know, we are making progress. You know, even a red state like Texas is getting to the point where most of its energy is coming from non-fossil fuel sources. So we can, you know, it just shows that we are capable, and that there are good reasons to do this, both in terms of what it means for jobs for the economy, and for the livelihood of American people.

When you give your lecture, you're going to be in front of a lot of students, young people, the next environmental science and climate experts of the future. What is your advice to them?

Wuebbles: The big thing is, don't get too depressed by all this, you know, recognize that this is a problem we can deal with. It is important, it's gonna be very important to them, it's gonna be very important to their children and their grandchildren. Take this seriously. Try to help determine the solutions. And probably the best thing any of us can be doing is speaking up about it, making sure that people are aware that this is really important. And it is based on real science and science is very clear. And it's gotten to the point where there is no argument in the science community anymore. It's just basically gone. It's really a matter of what do we do about solutions?

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.