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Find Out Why

Dr. Shahir Masri on everything we need to know about climate now

2 June 2020|Find Out Why_Expert Interviews

Dr. Shahir Masri: assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment and epidemiology at the University of California-Irvine

In this exclusive interview with Find Out Why, Dr. Shahir Masri breaks down environmental science into digestible bits. He remains factual and gives answers to all important questions about the environmental risks that the informed citizen would need to know about.

Question: What are the risks associated with climate change, that global scientific community unanimously draws attention to?

Dr. Shahir Masri: Climate risks are manifold. Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities as well as major infrastructure that is closely tied to the global economy. Warming temperatures are leading to the spread of ticks, mosquitoes and other disease vectors into new regions, leading to increased Lyme disease, malaria and other zoonotic diseases. Severe weather also poses another major threat as record-breaking heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfiresoccur with greater frequency in many areas and are projected to continue along this path as the globe continues to warm. Over the next thirty years, the World Health Organization estimates climate change to cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths per year from such events. This doesn’t account for the nearly 4 million premature deaths already caused by toxic air pollution each year due to burning coal, oil and natural gas. Nor does this consider the lost employment hours and other economic impacts that occur with air pollution and severe climate-related natural disasters.

Q: In one of your YouTube videos you inform the public on the novel coronavirus. This video is a great source for anyone who is “news literate” in this digital era. How misinformation has damaged public’s perceptions on issues related to the climate change, the environment and/or epidemics?

A: I think misinformation has been catastrophic to addressing climate change and other major issues in both the environmental and social sphere. Some of this can be explained by what I’ve previously called the “online age of misinformation;” namely, the increase in the abundance of misinformation that has come to circle nearly every topic thanks to the rise of online platforms, bloggers, spurious news/media resources and other webpages that have appeared with the internet. In some cases, this might be random and misguided noise that can be expected, while in other cases we can be certain that misinformation has been spread intentionally by major stakeholders. For instance, a 2017 study out of Harvard reviewing over three decades of internal documents, publications, and advertisements by oil giant ExxonMobile confirmed that the company “misled the public” about climate change. Such pronounced and prolonged instances of intentional deceit have surely had profound impacts on both the public, but policy makers as well. And of course, this example of intentional misinformation is unlikely the only of its kind. The task now is to overcome the past and ongoing misinformation that that surrounds climate change by conducting climate outreach and communication with the public.

Q: In the last four years we have globally experienced extreme weather conditions. Are those linked to global warming?

A: The way climate science works is to understand the physical mechanisms that influence long term air and water temperature, precipitation, wind patterns and other climate-related phenomena over time. With that understanding, scientists can develop complex models to simulate the climate and predict how events such as extreme weather will change over time as the globe warms. Such projections do indicate that we can expect more major hurricanes, floods and heat waves as the planet continues to warm. However, that does not mean that we can identify any single extreme weather event as a “climate change event.” That is a nearly impossible task. It’s overall patterns that we must consider. And recent patterns of extreme weather certainly do line up with scientific projections. That, I believe, is cause for concern.

Q: Observations in climate change mostly come from weather stations, weather balloons, radars, ships and buoys, and satellites. If you were to choose one observation that really caught your attention and share it with our audience, can you explain why it is important or mind shifting?

A: I think these are all important ways of measuring changes in the climate. However, satellite imagery certainly tells the most visual story at the global level, given the altitude and high-resolution capabilities of such instruments. This has helped allow for the construction of such videos as this (click here) by NASA, which visually presents global temperature changes over time.

Q: Are there innovative ways to deal with the greenhouse effect, other than of course reducing emissions? Maybe an interesting space research on the matter, or the creative use of space technology?

A: I believe that exciting innovations outsides of reducing greenhouse gas emissions do more to quell our fears than they do to actually address climate change. We need to stay focused on reducing emissions. That is our best shot of solving the problem before it’s too late.

Q: Would you say that there is a connection between deforestation and the spread of new diseases like covid-19, that were previously carried by bats and other animals in the wild?

A: Yes, as we continue to deforest the world and encroach further into the habitat of bats, primates, and other disease-harboring species, we are increasing the likelihood that a deadly virus will be contracted from animals to humans. In a recent interview, Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Program, explained that around “75% of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic and, in fact, about 1 billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from these diseases.” These are compelling statistics.

Q: It appears there is a consensus that the pandemic and the consequent lockdown were generally good for the planet. If one looks at the significant drop of oil price however and the negative effect it can have on the amount of plastic waste produced for example (because it is now cheaper for companies to buy virgin plastic bottles than recycled ones) they would be more cautious before labeling positive this period for the environment overall. Are there any other concerns of that kind that we fail to see when looking at the short-term effects of the pandemic crisis on the environment?

A: I think it’s important to keep in mind the scale of environmental problems when considering the impacts of COVID-19. In the case of atmospheric emissions, for instance, it’s true that we’ve seen reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as the global economic engine has slowed, which is good for air quality and climate change. However, such reductions would need to be prolonged for an extended period to have meaningful long-term impacts on public health and the climate. And as you mentioned, reduced oil prices is somewhat of a counterweight. But again, this is only temporary. I can’t imagine such prices to be sustained in the long term. And of course, today’s oil prices are low not only due to economic slowdown, but also to Saudi/Russian oil pricing disagreements, which could resolve at any point and drive prices back up.

Q: The Paris Agreement for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and mark a new course in the global climate effort. Do you find it a good start in order to address the issue of the Climate Policy Gap?

A: Yes, I do think it is a good start. Yet more will be needed in the long run.

Q: The EU adopts legislations that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990, under its wider 2030 climate and energy framework. All key EU legislation for implementing this target was adopted by the end of 2018. However Green Lobbyists suggest that EU governments should invest further by using this year’s “once-in-a-generation” level of public spending for climate. Where this statement finds you and what is your experience with the US policies on the matter?

A: I do believe that governments need to apply much more of their national budgets to address climate change. There are those who contend that climate change is too expensive to address, however such arguments fail to consider the massive costs of ignoring climate change. I describe this at length in a 2019 article I wrote for The Hill.

Q: What is the role of individual responsibility and civil society according to your view?

A: I think of climate action in terms of 3 main pillars. At the top is where I put civic duty. We all must use our individual voting power to elect officials to office who recognize the threat of climate change and are willing to support meaningful climate action policies. Next I think we need to engage in public outreach and education to raise awareness about climate change and help empower individuals to make a difference. And third is where I rank personal carbon footprint. It’s still critically important, but it’s last on my list. That’s because we as a society have been talking about carbon footprints for a long time, and it hasn’t gotten us very far. It’s time for large scale national policy to address the issue. In my view, that’s our best shot of addressing the climate crisis quickly enough and at a large enough scale to have the impact we need to see. I discuss climate action at length at the end of my book Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.

Q: The vast majority of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change. Nevertheless, in some societies this is either a debatable issue or one that the general public lucks enough credible information. What is your personal action plan against that? How can our readers find you?

A: My personal action plan is to write articles, interviews, and books to help raise awareness about this important issue. I also organize and give public talks on climate change as well as interview those afflicted by climate change and those studying climate change so as to share educational videos with the public. My videos, articles, and my book can all be found on my website www.ShahirMasri.com. This is also where you can subscribe to my monthly e-newsletter. Lastly, I maintain an active Instagram account at @Dr.ShahirMasri where people can tune into my work and stay informed on key issues of the environmental and health.

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