Berkeley leadership for social movement on climate and justice

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I came to UC Berkeley 20 years ago, largely due to the campus’ unrivaled reputation as a place that fosters world-leading scholarship and social engagement. I have not been disappointed: My research has flourished here with hundreds of publications and opportunities for work that 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 have met and worked with at UC Berkeley.

The climate crisis we now face cries out for an even greater wave of use-inspired basic and applied research, and critically, for 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 than at UC Berkeley.

Today, climate change-exacerbated wildfires have devastated parts of California, the Amazon rainforest and other locations around the planet. Hurricanes are wreaking havoc. An unprecedented wave of extinctions is taking place, and the 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 costly core energy technologies not only in California but also in many places around the world. 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 two 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 2023 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 state 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 it has now tightened that limit 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 its 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 to under 2 degrees Celsius — 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 2015 Paris climate accord 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, as well as in our own UC Berkeley Energy Resources Collaborative and campus climate strike leaders. UC 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 UC Berkeley community to step up again and further educate itself, as well as to partner locally and globally on a diverse range of climate-smart actions. Natural gas must be phased out. Interstate and international trade must become low-carbon. The benefits of a clean economy must be central to everyone’s opportunities and economies regardless of race or gender, not just to 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 can based on what 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 UC Berkeley has in the past shown that as a community, it is up to the task. That is why we “Strike for the Climate,” today, Sept. 20, and why we need to take this moment to challenge ourselves to build bold, new partnerships.

Daniel Kammen is a professor and chair of the UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Group, as well as a professor at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. He has served as science envoy for the U.S. Department of State.