‘An issue that intersects’: UC Berkeley researchers continue to find climate change impacts, solutions

Photo of mounds of soil
Eric Sundstrom/Courtesy
UC Berkeley researchers have been studying the effects of and possible solutions to climate change. They have also studied the impacts of climate change policy on certain groups.

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As California’s familiar orange skies bring more conversations surrounding climate change solutions, UC Berkeley researchers are continuing to look into the environment from both scientific and social lenses.

In one scientific breakthrough from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, researchers made use of wood waste generated from orchards and forest thinning by turning it into biofuel, according to study leader Eric Sundstrom.

Photo of researcher in the lab

Eric Sundstrom / Courtesy

“In this case, we converted a woody biomass into fermentable sugars and then we use microbes to convert the sugars into ethanol,” said Carolina Barcelos, a leader of the study and researcher at Berkeley Lab.

Sundstrom said this breakthrough would ideally allow agricultural waste to be turned into biofuel in a more sustainable way than corn ethanol, which is more commonly used but requires more resources.

Further campus research, such as a study with campus chemistry professor Ronald Cohen, included looking into the relationship between ozone and aerosol levels and temperatures. Cohen said the research found that in Los Angeles, the hottest days came with the worst air pollution, but the pattern was more random 10 years ago.

Cohen added that this may mean policies from the past succeeded in reducing car emissions, and other chemicals are released into the atmosphere more as temperatures increase.

As of now, the study is speculating whether or not plants are the cause, according to Cohen.

“There were some observations that we showed that make that the most likely story, but it should be confirmed with more experiments,” Cohen said. “But to the extent that that’s true, people should be careful to choose which kinds of trees they plant in the city, and they should look for trees that are low emitters of organic molecules instead of high emitters.”

Research on campus has also examined the impacts of climate change and policies on communities.

One study found that California’s diesel emissions policies, developed by the California Air Resources Board, reduced emissions by 78% between 1990 and 2014.

Megan Schwarzman, a campus environmental health scientist and lead author of the study, said the study also found fewer cardiopulmonary deaths that can be attributed to diesel pollution.

She added that diesel pollution is a local issue, unlike carbon dioxide emissions, and largely impacts lower-income communities of color who live by ports, highways, warehouses and freight yards.

Campus researchers also published a paper looking into social effects of wildfires, and they found that wildfires can have long-lasting impacts on communities beyond lost homes.

Annie Rosenthal, a recent graduate from the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare and lead author of the paper, said the research discovered that wildfires can leave “ripple” effects.

One effect that was found was that decreased housing in an area due to wildfires can push residents into other areas, creating a higher demand. This then leads to an increase in rent prices, and people can have a more difficult time staying there as a result.

Rosenthal said the research also found that health care access can be affected by wildfires due to circumstances such as a health care facility burning down or a doctor having to move. She added that mental health can be affected, and some individuals experienced PTSD symptoms due to trauma from wildfires.

To Rosenthal, people see climate change solutions in a narrow way that focuses on impacts on the environment and health.

“It really is an issue that intersects with so many different professions,” Rosenthal said. “I would just encourage everyone to think about the way that climate change is already impacting, or will impact, the career that they are in or that they want to go into because I think, going forward, it’s going to be brushing with every profession.”

Contact Natalie Lu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.