In the summer of 2015, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), in Falmouth, Massachusetts, was awarded the International Center for Climate Governance (ICCG)’s 2014 'Top Climate Change Think Tank' award for the second year in a row. An unassuming building atop a hill in a town better known for its beaches, bars, and oceanographic research, this non-profit has housed many world-renowned scientists over the years, including climate change expert Dr. Richard Houghton. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with him.
Dr. Houghton is an ecologist and Senior Scientist at the WHRC. He has contributed significantly to research that continues to expand our knowledge about climate change and how biotic systems, such as agricultural practices and human development, affect this process. His papers have been cited tens of thousands of times by scientists around the globe, and he contributed to the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Nobel Prize-winning reports in 2007. Although supposedly semi-retired, he can often be spotted working in his office in the center.
Much of Dr. Houghton’s work focuses on looking at the amount of carbon stored and released around the world and using these estimates to consider what might happen if the world fails to manage our lands in an ecologically responsible and sensitive way. His work shows that if we fail to stop deforestation and don't make serious commitments to reforesting degraded lands, climate change will have a much greater impact on our societies. According to Dr. Houghton, we need to understand that “the effects [of climate change], unchecked, are going to be unacceptable in terms of human death and misery (food and water shortages). That transitioning from fossil to renewable energy can largely negate those risks. And that we can make that transition technically, with far less misery than proceeding with business as usual.”
Of course, if we do want to shift our societies away from a dependence on fossil fuels, the way we produce our food will definitely need rethinking. Communities living in tropical forests have significant opportunities to increase carbon storage in their soils and decrease deforestation by sedentarizing as well as intensifying their agricultural production systems, but they cannot curb emissions by themselves. Countries like the United States that engage heavily in industrial agricultural practices—which not only contribute largely to greenhouse gas emissions but are also often environmentally damaging to their more immediate ecosystems—need to refocus their food and agricultural policies to support more sustainable ways of farming.
While the U.S. government has historically been slow to encourage the growth of more climate-friendly enterprises, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, released last fall, is seen as a positive step by Dr. Houghton. “The President's climate action plan is right. Get off all coal-fired electric utilities; increase car and truck mileage standards. We should also stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industries and, instead, direct those subsidies to [research and development] on renewable forms of energy (solar, wind). There should be government support for renewables, to encourage private investment. We should not count bio-energy (burning wood) as carbon neutral. Thinking idealistically, can you imagine a Carbon Security Department, that oversaw land use, energy, wood, sources and sinks of carbon? Right now, management of all kinds affect U.S. sources and sinks, but that management is directed at other goals.”
Unfortunately, 29 states have challenged the legality of the Clean Power Plan, and the U.S. Supreme Court has voted to put the plan on hold. This is nothing new for Dr. Houghton, who has witnessed similar political gridlock throughout his career. So how does one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, faced daily with the knowledge that inaction could lead to further instability and inequity on a global scale, keep himself motivated? “I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that people, at the deepest level, want the same things. For example, I think population [growth] would not continue to be a problem if women had the [same] rights [as] men and [the same access to] education. I'm also hopeful because there are technical ways out of climate, food, [and] water problems. It's not blind hope but, rather, a hope based on things that are possible. Technology isn't going to save us; that's not the solution. But it could help if we had the right mindset. Governments have to look after well-being and equity. Corporations make the one percent rich, but they're terrible at rights and environment.”