UCSB GCLC Rep David Lea on UC’s Climate Leadership

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By Kate Columbus, Outreach Intern, UCSB Sustainability

David Lea biking up Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2017. The monitoring station at the top of the climb is where the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel burning was first documented, by Charles David Keeling of UCSD.

From melting ice sheets to changing weather patterns, there is no denying that climate change is negatively impacting our world. To respond to this growing environmental crisis, the University of California system pledged to emit net-zero greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicles by 2025. Known as the “Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI),” this five-year-old pledge is pretty ambitious for a university system that has ten campuses, five medical centers, and three national labs.

Although this seems like a far reaching goal, the UC system has made great progress with the help of the Global Climate Leadership Council (GCLC). Comprised of UC administrators, professors, staff, and outside experts, GCLC advises the UC system on the best practices, policies, and technologies that will help achieve their carbon neutrality goal. The council also provides guidance on how to integrate CNI and other sustainability goals into the UC system’s teaching, research, and public service mission.

One of the GCLC representatives is UC Santa Barbara’s David Lea, Professor in the Department of Earth Science and Affiliate Faculty in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. Receiving his undergrad in geology from Haverford College and his Ph.D. in oceanography from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lea switched from geology to oceanography to focus on the chemistry of the ocean and the carbon cycle. He was also interested in reconstructing changes in ocean circulation and how they related to past climate change. While pursuing his Ph.D., a series of papers describing records from the Antarctic Vostok ice core were published that showed that the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere had varied in concert with climate change. “I remember the moment I heard about the papers,” Lea said with a smile. “That’s when I first realized the connection between what I was doing as a graduate student and global climate change.”

When Lea started working at UCSB in 1989, he initially focused on reconstructing ocean circulation changes, but always had climate change in the back of his mind. His lab made a big breakthrough during the late 1990’s developing a tool that reconstructed ocean temperatures in the past; that tool lead to an important discovery: climate in the low and mid latitudes (outside the polar regions) also varied in concert with carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. This discovery expanded the implications of that pioneering Vostok study. “We know all this information about the link between greenhouse gases and climate, but what are we going to do about it?” Lea asked.

After twenty years of working on the natural science side of climate change, Lea decided to spend a year in Washington D.C. advising the team at the State Department that was negotiating the Paris Agreement. He was the science advisor who directly advised Todd Stern, who President Barack Obama appointed as a Special Envoy on Climate Change. After a year of learning how the policy process works, Lea came back to UCSB and started teaching a course at Bren School about climate science for policy makers that was based on his experiences at the State Department. Lea also became more involved with sustainability efforts on-campus, which led him to his recently appointed spot on the GCLC.

Describing CNI as a “bold initiative to try to get the entire system to be carbon neutral,” Lea gave a rundown on the different scopes of greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 1 is comprised of emissions that we generate at the university, whether it be a truck driving on-campus or the university burning natural gas. Scope 2 includes emissions associated with electricity we purchase from Southern California Edison.

According to Lea, UCSB has made progress towards reducing scope 2 emissions by installing 5 megawatts of solar, which displaces electricity normally purchased from SoCal Edison. However, it’s not the perfect solution as it is only effective when the sun is shining. Since UCSB still uses natural gas and purchases electricity from SoCal Edison, which burns natural gas to generate electricity, one option for UC is to “offset” the emissions associated with natural gas by buying credits towards practices that remove carbon. Lea gave a simple example of “offsets”: if a company plants trees around the community, UC might pay the company to plant more trees equivalent to the carbon the system released in order to become carbon neutral.

“Offsets” are controversial as it can be expensive and money is flowing from the campus to other entities. Lea is less in favor of projects where UC dollars are sent to other places to offset carbon, even if those other goals are very meritorious. He prefers to look for UC-generated offsets or projects that benefit the campus and surrounding communities, such as replacing fluorescent lights with LED lights and helping students with commuting.

Although Lea has ideas on how to eliminate emissions, he would love more input. “The number of people informed about CNI is relatively low,” Lea admitted. He strongly encourages students, faculty, and staff to give input on potential projects they would like to see on campus or in the communities we serve. “We should advocate for the things that the campus feels will benefit them,” Lea added. “I would love to have students, faculty, and staff involved in suggesting ideas, brainstorming, and general feedback. Are people willing to see the UC use their resources a certain way? Do they support that?” Lea hopes that more people will become aware of CNI and the projects associated with the initiative.

“I have some experience with the federal government. The ways things are going now, let’s just say we’re not moving in the way most climate-concerned people would like to see us move,” Lea said. “This is a chance for us as a campus and community to put our money where our mouth is.”  Although the UC system is a small fraction of global emissions, Lea believes that it is important to “walk the walk” and limit the damage as much as possible. “Even if it seems like what we’re doing is small, if we set an example… if we can inspire people… if we can be a laboratory to test ways to reduce emissions… those are all together part of this [change]. If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? If not now, when?” Lea emphasized.

Lea believes that reaching students, through teaching, research and campus programs, is one of the best ways to help the world move forward on the problem of climate change. Have some great ideas for how to eliminate emissions at UCSB or want to get involved with CNI? Join an environmental organization on campus: there are several organizations focused solely on climate issues. You can also join a UCSB Sustainability committee or event focused on climate. Lastly, feel free to reach out to our CNI engagement ambassador, Christian Gallegos-Alarcon with your ideas, suggestions, and questions.