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GPS faculty drive new solutions to the climate crisis

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Rendered tree with half of it looking barren in a wasteland environment, the other half is lush and green

Professors Jennifer Burney, Kate Ricke and David Victor discuss the latest sustainability efforts in EVs, food insecurity and solar geoengineering

Global warming is one of the most urgent threats facing humanity, disrupting the global economy and impacting everything from food insecurity to global health and migration trends.

At the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), a team of world-renowned scholars are working at the intersection of science innovation and policy to tackle climate-related challenges through interdisciplinary research.  

At a public event titled Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future, held Nov. 16, 2023, three of those faculty led a lively discussion on the wide-ranging effects of global warming and how new thinking about this tremendously complex problem can help ensure a healthy planet. 

“Our goal at GPS is to engage in research that enhances understanding and guides policy decisions toward a low-carbon future,” said Caroline Freund, GPS dean. 

David Victor, GPS professor and co-director of the UC San Diego Deep Decarbonization Initiative (D2I), served as program moderator, with fellow professors Jennifer Burney and Kate Ricke as part of the panel.

Controlling emissions through tech and politics

Victor provided insights on progress being made toward controlling carbon emissions through the marriage of technology and politics. 

“We will solve the climate problem with technology that allows us to decouple economic growth and the expansion of human welfare from the harmful emissions they cause,” Victor said. 

Victor pointed to the electric vehicle (EV) sector. A big question with EVs, he explained, is when people should charge their vehicles. In California, which has a solar-dominated grid, the ideal charging time is midday, when there is excess solar power and the lowest marginal emissions. However, the current tariff structure encourages nighttime charging. 

Victor described the UC San Diego Triton Chargers program, managed by D2I, which is the first large-scale experiment on how people respond to different informational prompts and cash incentives to charge their cars at different times.

Solving the food crisis

Burney then spoke about her research, which examines how to feed growing populations and stabilize the climate at the same time. 

“We are already in a world where climate is making it difficult to produce enough food,” Burney noted. “In recent years, decades of progress against hunger have been reversed.”

Burney explained that, as part of a multi-pronged approach, she uses big data to learn how to adapt agriculture to changing conditions. 

“There is no more robust group of experimenters in the world than the world’s farmers,” she said. “They’re always trying new things and are the most in touch with what’s happening on the ground.” 

In one example, Burney shared how she and her team used satellite data to look across the spectrum of irrigated and non-irrigated corn in Nebraska and then scaled the project globally to determine how irrigation affects cropping intensity. 

Solar geoengineering to mitigate climate change

But what if mitigation and adaptation are not enough? Ricke asked the audience to consider this very question. 

Ricke conducts groundbreaking research to explore whether solar geoengineering — a process where sunlight is intentionally reflected to cool rising temperatures — could help avoid the worst consequences of global warming.  

Ricke said that while there has been extensive work on the physical aspects of solar geoengineering science, there exists little research to understand the policy implications. 

“A robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure that any future decisions about using solar geoengineering are made for collective benefit,” Ricke said.

To learn more about how you can support climate-related research at GPS, please contact Donna Armand.

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