Reel Talk - Dr. Alex Ruane Interview

Reel Talk - Dr. Alex Ruane Interview

We are excited to kick off a new interview series as a part of our Reel Talk blog.

As we continue to grow our community and work together to end deforestation, we want to continue to educate ourselves as well as our audience around sustainability. Part of that education process is connecting with thought leaders in the space.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Alex Ruane - co-Director of the GISS Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is also a Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report (IPCC AR6) that was released this year. Here are a few excerpts from our discussion:

Can you share a little bit about your background and tell us about how you came to be one of the leading researchers on climate change?

 

I became interested in the weather because I wanted to be the first one to know about a snow day at school or when my baseball games would get rained out. I was always looking at the weather forecast trying to figure out what was going on because I saw the immediate impact that weather and climate have on people. 

I went on and studied atmospheric sciences and then got into climate science. I now work at the GISS Climate Impacts Group in New York City and I'm the co-director of the Climate Impacts Group. What we do there is try to identify the climate information that is needed to prepare for climate change and a more resilient future. 

That means we're looking at climate extremes today and way out into the future, but thinking about it from the perspective of specific things like cities or farmers or natural ecosystems, so that we can identify what resources we have in terms of NASA data sets and models and projections.

What are some of the most important findings from the IPCC report?

 

What really stands out about this report is that we have increasingly connected the dots between the extreme events that we have seen and the human influence. In the past, the IPCC has made increasingly strong statements about how humans are influencing the climate system. But those were originally rooted most strongly in the average temperatures and the average sea levels and things like that.  

What we are now doing is following that chain even further and showing that humans have contributed and directly influenced the type of extreme events that we now see, whether it's a heat wave in British Columbia or floods in China and Northern Europe.

Tell us a little bit about why the fight to reduce deforestation is so important in reaching our climate change goals?

 

Humans have been influencing the climate system in several different ways. The biggest one that you hear a lot about is the greenhouse gas emissions that come from energy consumption. But we've also been influencing the climate for a lot longer than that by the way we have changed natural ecosystems into human governed ecosystems. 

We have seen an overall reduction in the natural biomass by chopping down forests, by shifting marshlands into other types of land uses, other things like this. These actions have had a net impact of releasing a lot of carbon that used to be in those trees, in those forests, in those marsh plants out into the climate system.

In many cases, those forests have accumulated this carbon for hundreds, if not thousands of years of interactions and growth cycles. These cycles not only store carbon in the living trees, but also puts carbon into the soil and acts as a way of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So, when we remove forests - not only are we releasing the carbon into the atmosphere, but we are also reducing their ability to pull more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Which means the emissions that we have stay in the atmosphere longer and continue to warm the climate.

What is the role that you play in order to get the right information out to the population, so that if they have the means to make better choices, they're also aware of what impact that has?  

 

There's a big question of scientific literacy and people being equipped to understand it. But even if we assume a fully educated population, you need information about the products that you're buying in terms of their origins and outcomes. Right now, much of the economy is based around economic decision points. There's an approach taking off in the scientific community called the triple bottom line approach, where we think about the economic costs, the social costs and the environmental costs. 

You could argue that the climate change challenge has its origins in the fact that the costs of energy were not well reflected in terms of the environmental and the social impacts - which basically allowed pollution to be free. Now that we are recognizing that there is a cost to pollution, the next question is can people factor that into their decisions? Are they given the information to do that? And then it really becomes an ethical and a moral choice, which no climate model is capable of simulating.

As a climate scientist, we can point to the challenge and say that if we continue as we are, or if we follow a pathway towards higher emissions or lower emissions, this is what we will see. Then it becomes a question of different priorities and different information systems that will allow different outcomes to come into play. 

What do you hope our audience takes away from the report?

 

Climate change really is no longer some future tense problem. We now see that climate change is affecting every part of the world and it is becoming more pronounced with every bit of warming. 

That can be intimidating or sound scary, but it also shows that we have the power to change it. If we can reduce those emissions, we can stabilize the climate, we can avoid those bigger uncertainties that might come further down the line. 

In that sense, I hope that people recognize that climate change has already begun and we are seeing it and we are connecting it to our actions, but also connecting it to our ability to shape that future.

Do you believe that people making small lifestyle changes can have a big impact, ultimately? 

 

Yes, I would say that the actions on an individual level are very important for a couple of reasons. One is they show that there is a will power. There is an ability and a willingness of people to make choices, to demonstrate that this matters. To demonstrate that climate is important to them and that they're willing to make decisions based on this concern. 

The reason this is important is because it creates markets and it creates interests, and it creates the motivation for new technological investment to meet that demand from an individual standpoint.

Those things are very important because that creates the larger kind of the ripple effects and when those ripples turn into waves is when people see that demand. People see that there is a registered interest on an individual level, and that this can have a big impact. Now, of course, lots of people making small choices adds up, but that next step where those choices add up and then people make it easier for them the next time or they make it so that the system is receptive to that - that's the phase that can have a really big impact.

 

If you'd like to see the full interview, you can watch it here

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