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"Meaningful impact? Yes (as compared to ‘business as usual’). Enough? Far from it, but it’s a start, and that’s what’s important."

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Physics Professor Rich Wolfson Reacts to Paris Climate Agreement

December 15, 2015

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Following the much-anticipated climate agreement reached in Paris last week, we asked Rich Wolfson, the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics, who has taught about global warming and climate change at Middlebury for years, to offer his initial reactions to the agreement. When we reached him, Wolfson was attending the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, where, he noted, there was a lot of discussion around climate change and the Paris agreement. 

What’s your initial reaction to the agreement reached at the end of COP 21?

RW: Relief, and hope. Relief that 195 countries could come to an agreement at all. Hope that this will inspire them to go further. I like the frequent use of the word “ambitious” in the agreement (which, by the way, I’ve read in its entirety). 

Why was it possible to reach an agreement this time when it failed in the past?

RW: I see two main reasons: pressure from citizen groups, like Bill McKibben’s, and the overwhelming and ever-strengthening scientific evidence (overwhelming to nearly everyone but the U.S. Congress).

Does this agreement have enough teeth to make any meaningful impact on carbon reduction?

RW: Meaningful impact? Yes (as compared to ‘business as usual’).  Enough? Far from it, but it’s a start, and that’s what’s important. 

The New York Times says this agreement signals to industry that “a new era is here.” Do you think this agreement will provide the incentive needed for industry to make a serious shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables?

RW: I’m afraid that remains to be seen. But the agreement is one more step—along with citizen and government awareness and technological/economic advances in alternative energy—on the path to reducing and eventually eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. 

Will the U.S. be likely to carry out its commitment under the current and foreseeable political climate?

RW: That's uncertain as long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.

As an educator, what would you most want to impress on your students about the COP 21 proceedings?

RW: That it’s only a start, but it’s an encouraging start, and that it’s based on quantitative science that citizens ought to understand better.

What else is important to know about the agreement, either scientifically or in terms of policy? 

RW: In terms of science, it continues the shift away from specific limits and CO2 concentrations to the impacts of climate change, specifically in terms of the tolerable temperature rise (which, although still listed as 2˚C, is now showing hints that 1.5˚C would be preferable). In terms of policy, there’s lots of flexibility in how individual countries contribute to emissions reductions. There aren't a lot of teeth in the agreement—but it’s not without some teeth. 

Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College.


I have the highest regard for Dr. Wolfson and his ideas on our country's needs. I have relished 3 of his superb physics lecture series offered by The Great Courses. If I were not age 85, I'd rush up to Middlebury College to further my studies with him (I have a M.S. from the University of Chicago some 65 years ago. Took a seminar with Enrico Fermi, my advisor was Harold Urey.)

by Thomas King (not verified)

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Rich. Professor Wolfson, in his last response to the interviewer, doesn't indicate if he thinks the shift away from specific limits and CO^2 concentrations to a focus on impacts is a beneficial or detrimental shift. I'm wondering about his thoughts on that.

by Marc Lapin (not verified)

In general, I think that impact-based criteria are better, for two reasons: (1) They're more meaningful to the general public (although impacts of a specified temperature rise are a bit vague, and 2˚C sounds so small that, without further education, it isn't clear to many why this rise is climatologically significant) and (2) an impact-based criterion allows policymakers more flexibility in meeting the criterion. But we're so far from where we need to be that any numerical limit—total carbon emitted to the atmosphere (e.g., 1 gigatonne), annual emissions caps, target CO2 concentration (e.g., 350 ppm or whatever), target radiative forcing
 ...View More
at 2100 (as in the IPCC scenarios) seems to me a meaningful way to set climate goals.
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by Rich Wolfson (not verified)

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