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White House Climate Scientist Reacts To U.N. Report


A hotter planet is inevitable, and many parts of the world are already experiencing the upheaval that climate change brings. Those are among the conclusions of a major new report from the United Nations. At the same time, climate scientists say humans have a narrow window to avoid the worst-case scenario. For the Biden administration's perspective on this report, we're joined by environmental scientist Jane Lubchenco. She leads climate and environment science efforts at the White House.

Thanks for being here.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Hey, Ari - good to be here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What was your first reaction to the findings of this report?

LUBCHENCO: I guess I had two reactions. One, this confirms what we've known for some time - that the planet is warming. But it says it in very graphic, sobering terms.


LUBCHENCO: There is just no doubt that the warming is caused by people, and it's increasing in intensity. It is becoming much more rapid. And the consequences that we're seeing all around the planet are devastating.

SHAPIRO: It's also really clear that the window to act is closing fast. And the Biden administration has set a goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade, which is a challenging goal to meet. And yet today's report suggests it might not even be ambitious enough, that by 2030, global temperatures might have increased beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. Do you think the White House needs to set even more ambitious benchmarks?

LUBCHENCO: Ari, what's clear is that the window for addressing the changes that are needed is narrowing. If we want to achieve the 1.5 degree target by mid-century, we have to be net-zero by mid-century. And that's a huge, huge target. The Biden administration has proposed the most aggressive, forward-looking changes to achieve that. And we are marching along, implementing those in some very forward-looking, smart new ways. I can tell you that every agency is involved, and there's a laser focus on getting the job done in ways that create jobs and bring benefits to people around the planet as well as the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Even if emissions were to hit zero right away, this report says some global warming is already locked in for the next couple of decades. And this summer we have seen the consequences of record heat - wildfires, flooding. So as that increases, does the Biden administration need to rethink its plans for adaptation and resilience for surviving ever more extreme weather and rising seas?

LUBCHENCO: I'm so glad you focused on adaptation because it's equally important. Yes, we need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, but we also need to prepare to do a better job of dealing with the changes that are already happening all around us, whether it's extreme weather or sea level rise. Climate change is with us, and it's getting worse, so we need to be better prepared. And we are moving rapidly to do exactly that.

SHAPIRO: So what does that mean? Like, does that mean telling people they won't necessarily be able to rebuild in areas that are prone to flooding? Does it mean clearing places that are prone to wildfires? I mean, what does that mean?

LUBCHENCO: It means working with communities to better anticipate and be prepared for the kinds of changes that are underway and that are happening. Whether it's wildfires in the West or floods or extreme storms, whether it is drought, all of those changes we are reacting to, we need to be prepared for those. And that means working with communities and figuring out ways that are going to transition folks to being less vulnerable to these changes that are happening now.

SHAPIRO: Not everybody is on board with this ambitious agenda. In another part of the program, I spoke with Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, a state that's experienced many of the consequences of climate change already. And here's what he said when I asked about his reaction to this U.N. report.

RICK SCOTT: I think we clearly want to and need to address the impacts of climate change, and we've got to protect our environment. But you can't go kill all the jobs and think you're doing something good for families 'cause you're not.

SHAPIRO: So even this stark report has not persuaded people who say, if cutting emissions means stopping offshore oil drilling, count me out. What do you do with that?

LUBCHENCO: The proof is in the pudding. The jobs are there. The economic benefits of aggressive action for climate change is crystal clear. And we are seeing that in the uptake of renewable energy. We're seeing that in all the auto manufacturers pivoting to creating hybrid vehicles or electric vehicles. So the economics are there, the jobs are there, and people are going to be seeing that.

SHAPIRO: That is climate scientist Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

LUBCHENCO: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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