Dr. Shaina Sadai Talks About COP27, Climate Justice, Sea Level Rise, and Corporate Accountability

October 26, 2022 | 1:06 pm
L. Delta Merner
L. Delta Merner
Lead Scientist, Science Hub for Climate Litigation

Next month, Egypt will host the United Nations’ 27th annual international climate negotiations, known as the Conference of the Parties, or in this case COP27. While there is enormous potential for UN climate negotiations to transform climate action, meaningful progress has been delayed in part by the fossil fuel industry’s deceptive tactics. Last year’s COP was notable as the first to explicitly mention “fossil fuels” in the final decision document. But still, at COP26 there were more than 500 delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry. This meant that the combined number of delegates from the fossil fuel industry was larger than the delegations of some countries. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) attribution research shows the role that industry has played in the climate crisis and this needs to be a clear part of the decisionmaking and climate accountability at COPs.

Climate accountability is now in the headlines in the United States. Last week, the New Jersey attorney general announced that the state is filing a lawsuit against major oil and gas companies and their largest trade association. The suit claims that BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute misled the public despite clear knowledge that their products cause climate change.

For more than 50 years, the fossil fuel industry has obstructed meaningful climate action. Through greenwashing ads, disinformation campaigns, attacks on scientists, and production of fake scientific evidence, the industry has engaged the playbook of deception to undermine climate action. There are a growing number of climate scientists and activists working to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in allowing the consequences of climate change to worsen, despite knowing about the impact of fossil-fuel produced heat-trapping emissions since the 1950s.

As US climate litigation grows and people around the world simultaneously prepare for the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Egypt, it is critical to examine the role that obstruction has played in the global policy arena and explore how science can help to advance discussions of accountability and justice. UCS’s new Hitz Family Climate fellow, Dr. Shaina Sadai, is stepping into this emerging area of work. An expert on sea level dynamics and climate justice within the UN negotiations, Dr. Sadai is working to ensure that her scientific studies get in the hands of decisionmakers who are shaping our world today. Sadai earned her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst in the Department of Geosciences. I recently sat down with Sadai to better understand her research, passion for her work, and the role of science in climate accountability, from the local lawsuits to international climate negotiations.

DM: To start, tell us a little about your doctoral research. Where did you begin your research journey with climate change and what are some of the biggest takeaways from your research?

SS: My climate change research journey began in 2015 when I started my Ph.D. at UMass Amherst. Before that I had worked in other scientific fields. My research evolved over time, but initially focused on trying to understand how ice sheet collapse—specifically Antarctic ice sheet collapse—could impact climate change around the world through changes in the oceans, sea ice and atmosphere.

One of my advisors had been researching how much Antarctica could contribute to sea level rise in the coming centuries, and another advisor was studying how large releases of freshwater from melting ice sheets had caused very abrupt changes in climate in Earth’s past. My job was to bring those two things together by taking the Antarctic sea level data and using that to run simulations with a climate model to try to get a sense of what Antarctic ice sheet melt would do to other parts of the climate system, in particular global temperatures, sea ice extent and ocean circulation.

We found that under scenarios with high heat-trapping gas emissions, in which Antarctica undergoes significant melting and destabilization, the impact on global climate could actually temporarily slow down the warming air temperatures.

I found that result unsettling because we talk about air temperatures as the metric for the Paris climate agreement and it seemed concerning to me that Antarctic collapse could both cause sea level rise and slow down temperature increase at the same time. If Antarctica undergoes a large-scale collapse and the warming signal slows as a result, then if that ended up raising the remaining allowable carbon budget, it could be seen as leaving more time to still meet the goals of the Paris agreement. But rising temperatures aren’t the only factor when we are thinking about climate impacts.

A large-scale Antarctic collapse would be absolutely catastrophic for coastal populations and ecosystems because it would cause a huge increase in sea level rise. What are the implications of this for climate justice? How did we end up with global average temperature as a metric in the Paris agreement? What populations and factors could we be overlooking by defining the success of international climate policy by one globally averaged metric when we know that impacts are always local, what one location experiences will be different from another location, and even within a given location the impacts will be experienced differently by different people based on their social identities. I decided I really needed to explore those questions and ended up pivoting the rest of my research to understand the climate justice implications of these modeling results and the broader landscape of how scientific research informs policy.

To explore climate justice, I drew on the three-fold framework of justice theory. It says that just outcomes require full political participation, recognition of the underlying social drivers of privilege and oppression, and an understanding of the uneven distribution of impacts across space and time. My research has just been accepted for publication and will be coming soon, in the meantime a poster version of it is online.

DM: I love how interconnected climate justice is throughout your research. As a scientist, how did you engage with climate justice movements?

SS: Shortly into my Ph.D. program I realized that I really wanted to find ways to get climate research into the hands of climate activists and policymakers in an accessible way. I started doing trainings on communicating with policymakers, having meetings with congressional representatives, and writing blogs. At the same time, I started speaking at public forums and talking to local activists about new reports, including UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and developing classes for undergraduate students to teach about climate change from a perspective that included both climate science and sociopolitical considerations, such as geopolitics and justice.

In these classes and forums I discussed sea level rise science, but also the ways that fossil fuel infrastructure was causing the land to sink off the coast of Louisiana—which increased flooding—and how real estate developers were pushing communities of color out of inland neighborhoods near Miami because they saw the land as future high-end, ocean-front property. The framing I used always combined science with justice impacts at the community level and the politics underlying why climate action has been so slow, which is largely due to undue corporate influence and denialism and the ties between polluting industries and specific elected officials. Since I was running climate simulations for my Ph.D. research on what the future could look like and seeing in them possibilities for the future that didn’t look pleasant, I felt this pressing need to be doing more than just running simulations.

Climate change is such a massive issue, and it will take so much engagement from so many people. I wanted to figure out how I could best contribute to that. At the same time, I was realizing that my research also had a lot to contribute at the international level.

I restructured my Ph.D. partway through to be not just scientific modeling but to bring in political science and human geography and take a more interdisciplinary and applied lens, particularly around UN climate negotiations, how science informs policy, and how that impacts climate justice. Now I’m extremely excited to be here at UCS using my research in a whole new way by helping inform litigation.

DM: This month marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which had devastating impacts on the East Coast. Last week the New Jersey attorney general filed a case against a number of global oil and gas corporations for misleading the public on climate change. How can scientific research such as yours help to inform these legal cases?

SS: The case filed in New Jersey focuses on how the fossil fuel industry’s longstanding tactics of deception and disinformation have exacerbated the climate impacts communities are facing today. The decades that the fossil fuel industry manufactured doubt about climate science were decades during which sea level rose and we lost time that could have been spent reducing emissions and adapting to changes. In turn, the New Jersey attorney general’s complaint mentions sea level rise 70 times and cites sea level rise research and UCS attribution science.

If things had played out differently and meaningful climate action had been taken many years ago, coastal communities would not be dealing with threats as extensive as they are today. I applaud the AG for seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the harms it has caused—and continues to cause—to New Jersey’s residents and ecosystems.

Limiting sea level rise is key to mitigating coastal impacts, and that means we need to reduce emissions and protect the ice sheets from further destabilization. Scientific research can attribute emissions to impacts, and this informs a lot of the lawsuits that states, counties and cities are filing today. There is plenty of room for new attribution studies looking at these impacts, and also for expanding corporate attribution work to other industries that play a large role in driving emissions.

DM: The research you do has global implications, and you mentioned that you restructured your work to better inform the UN climate negotiations. With COP27 just weeks away, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s meeting. What do participants at COP27 have to do to limit further climate damage? What is standing in the way?

SS: To limit climate change-related damage, parties to the Paris agreement need to address three things: reducing emissions, adapting to changes that are already occurring, and addressing the loss and damage that climate disasters are currently causing.

For the first piece, there needs to be a well-designed, justice-centered plan to reduce heat-trapping emissions. Primarily, this needs to come from a phaseout of fossil fuels to lower carbon dioxide emissions, but we also need to be reducing short-lived, high-impact gases such as methane, which primarily comes from agriculture—in particular animal-based agriculture—and oil and gas operations.

The Global Methane Pledge, in which more than 100 countries have so far agreed to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, came out of COP26 last year. It was a good start, but so far discussion of agriculture’s role as the primary driver of methane emissions has not come up much in the discussions of how to implement that pledge, so I hope to see that topic featured more at COP27. Reducing emissions in the context of the Paris agreement and its primary goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures means countries need to come to COP27 not only with strengthened nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—the plans each country makes for how to do their part—but also the steps that show they are making progress on these plans.

The discussions on mitigating heat-trapping emissions from the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries can often move slowly in part because of corporate lobbyists who are present at the negotiations and even serve as delegates in the negotiating rooms. This is something that climate activists have pointed to often as a factor that holds back progress. Discussions must prioritize the needs of frontline communities and not the needs of corporations that are looking to protect their business models instead of the people experiencing climate impacts.

Some countries’ NDCs focus on reducing heat-trapping emissions if they are high emitters, but NDCs can also request aid for implementing their adaptation plans and technological assistance for helping with their renewable energy transitions. In terms of making progress on adaptation, wealthier nations need to stop stalling on providing the assistance they promised over a decade ago to help countries adapt to unavoidable climate change impacts.

Heading into COP27, loss and damage is crucial. Loss and damage is the term for recognizing that people are already dealing with the devastating consequences of climate impacts, such as wildfire and flood damage, and that there needs to be compensation to help with recovery. Last year, countries that have been heavily impacted by climate-fueled disasters requested the development of a financial mechanism for addressing loss and damage. But that didn’t happen. Since that time many more disasters have taken place, so actual implementation of a financial mechanism for loss and damage is critical at this point.

All three of these response components—mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage—are necessary. Limiting harms in places such as island nations, which are heavily impacted by climate change but did virtually nothing to contribute to it, means reducing emissions, ensuring that they are get the adaptation assistance they have requested in the forms of grants, not loans, and ensuring that they are provided with the financial compensation they need for the loss and damage they are already experiencing.

DM: With COP27 just around the corner, what would you want to say to experts engaging in these international negotiations?

SS: One of the most important things is for people to listen to the folks who are experiencing the impacts of climate change right now. The science has been well-established for decades, the political process has been ongoing, but what is different now than when these UN negotiations first began is that a lot more people around the world are suffering from the devastation of climate-fueled storms, floods, wildfires and other impacts and the people who are experiencing these impacts firsthand are attending COP in much higher numbers than when the negotiations began.

But it is not clear that the voices of impacted people will be heard at the upcoming COP. The high price of travel and accommodations, for example, make it difficult for them to attend, and a lot of climate activists have said they are being left out. I would really hope that the negotiations this time around pay more attention to civil society voices than to lobbyists from the industries that caused the climate crisis in the first place. Whether that happens remains to be seen.