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President Joe Biden on Thursday pledged the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030, saying that the signs of climate change are unmistakable, the “science is undeniable and the cost of inaction keeps mounting.”
Chris Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies forest ecology and has conducted research into the role of forests in climate change mitigation, said Biden’s announcement is a step in the right direction and returns the U.S. to a leadership role in the complex challenge of addressing climate change. Gough spoke with VCU News shortly after Biden’s commitment.
President Biden is setting a goal to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by the end of the decade. What’s your reaction to that? Do you think that level of reduction would adequately address climate change, given the size of the challenge?
It’s absolutely a move in the right direction by the United States. And, I think the goal of the Biden administration is admirable in that it’s reversing policy that was moving us in the direction of emitting more carbon dioxide. But, because climate change is a global challenge, its resolution requires other nations to join suit. My read is that the current administration’s intent is for the United States, the largest cumulative emitter of CO2, to once again set an example that other developed nations will follow by finding ways to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The plan for how to get there is not yet in place, but the goal is. The details concerning exactly how we’ll do that, I think, will be quite complex and require consideration both at a national level, but also an international level. Re-engaging with the Paris Climate Agreement is a really important step towards the U.S. again contributing to the global endeavor of reducing greenhouse gases.
If the U.S. doesn’t implement something like Biden is proposing, if the status quo was maintained moving forward, what would you anticipate being the result?
I think the administration wants to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is where we’re headed if we do nothing. That could lead to ecological, economic and social injustice disasters.
There’s a big difference between an increase in temperature of two degrees Celsius on average and four degrees Celsius [brought about by climate change]. It may not seem like a lot, but to many organisms and ecosystems that may be the line between being able to cope with changing climate and, for example, the extinction of species.
And this has a ripple effect because mass extinctions not only affect the composition of ecosystems — for example, forests or areas where we like to recreate — but an abrupt and sharp rise in temperature could affect economically important species as well, like those that we plant for crops. And, declining crops could affect food supplies. And, if food supplies are affected, then that can lead to social unrest. I think this is what the administration is thinking; they’re making a pitch — and I think they’re right to make the pitch this way — that this requires a global effort and a fairly radical response to make up for the lack of response over the past several years by the United States.
You’re an expert in forest ecology and you’ve done research into forests and the role they play in the carbon cycle and climate change mitigation. If you were advising the Biden administration, what would you suggest related to forests and climate change policy?
One of the things we’ve learned from climate change science and policy over the last 20 to 30 years is that climate change mitigation requires a portfolio of solutions and that’s one of the reasons this is such a complicated issue to resolve. I would say to the Biden administration that forests provide one, but not the only, solution to climate change mitigation. They remain an important player in reducing our net contributions of atmospheric carbon dioxide, sequestering about a quarter of our emissions annually.
Management that moves in the direction of supplying us, in a sustainable way, with the natural resources that we derive and extract from forests is really important, but we need to do more to motivate the management for climate regulation alongside other goals. For example, we should manage forests for the sake of growing timber sustainably and sequestering some of our greenhouse gas emissions at the same time; those two goals do not have to be in conflict.
I think we’re just now taking the science that we’ve collected over the past several decades and learning how to apply that to good forest management that will result in climate regulation. So, I’d like to see more of that moving forward — active forest management for the purpose of climate change mitigation.