Sam Adams, BA ’02

Former Portland Mayor Heads US Climate Initiative

Earth is heating up—quickly—and that spells trouble for the flora and fauna who call it home.

But Sam Adams, BA ’02, who once pushed to make Portland the most sustainable city in the world while serving as its mayor from 2008–2012, could just end up saving it for future generations.

In January, Adams was named to lead the US Climate Initiative (USCI), a nonpartisan organization that could play a crucial role in halting Earth’s warming and saving the planet for the generations to come. The USCI is part of the World Resources Institute (WRI), which was established in 1982 to promote sustainable ways of life and provides scientific data and advice to politicians worldwide on how they can legislate to protect Earth.

Adams has never shied away from addressing climate issues. As mayor of Portland he announced his goal to make the Rose City the most sustainable city in the world, then shrank its carbon footprint through the Clean Energy Works program, established curbside composting, and passed the Climate Action Plan and the “We Build Green Cities” economic development strategy. When the World Resources Institute tapped him to be the new director of its US Climate Initiative, WRI president and CEO Andrew Steer called him “a dynamic and savvy leader, who will invigorate US climate activities at a critical time for the nation and planet.”

“The US Climate Initiative focuses on reducing and fighting climate change,” Adams said. “[Last year] was the hottest on record, and the impacts of climate change are becoming more frequent and more severe, at increasing cost to businesses, consumers, and public health.

“Our focus is on research and analytics, to inform decision makers to take action on climate change in the US and beyond.”

(World Resources Institute)

Fully ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that the acceleration of greenhouse gas buildup and subsequent warming of Earth is due to human activity, yet political movement on the issue in the US has been slow. As the environment in Washington, DC, has become increasingly contentious, scientific data that is accepted globally has, in America, become a partisan issue: a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found 64 percent of Democratic Party supporters believed Earth was warming due mostly to human activity, compared to just 23 percent of Republicans; among Tea Party supporters, that figure dropped to just 9 percent.

The US Climate Initiative intends to combat the partisan side-taking by providing scientific analysis and data-driven support to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, from Capitol Hill to City Hall.

“USCI research is really respected for the fact that it has very strong analytics, and is nonpartisan and independent,” Adams said.

And the work done by the World Resources Institute and the US Climate Initiative could, in very real terms, save the planet—at least as far as the lifeforms (including humans) living on it are concerned.

The third stone from the sun has, throughout its 4.5 billion-year history, gone through cycles of glacial advance and retreat—seven cycles in the last 650,000 years alone, with the last ice age ending approximately 7,000 years ago.

Many factors contribute to the warming and cooling of the planet—including natural variations in its orbit as it circles the Sun—but one factor that is of key interest to scientists is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane, redirect back downward the solar radiation that would ordinarily reflect off the surface of the planet and dissipate back into space, meaning heatwaves are now trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. The more greenhouse gases there are in the atmosphere, the more solar radiation is trapped, and the more the temperature rises.

And the greenhouse gases are building up in a hurry.

(University of California, San Diego)

During the last 400,000 years, the amount of C02 in the atmosphere has fluctuated from approximate lows of 180 parts per million to approximate highs of 300 parts per million. Scientists calculate that for life on Earth to flourish, that number should be kept below 350 parts per million—optimum conditions for living organisms, including humans. While Earth was already beginning to enter another warming cycle prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the revolution started the rate of warming accelerated greatly, and in 300 years C02 went from 180 ppm to 400 ppm, a level not seen since the Pliocene Epoch 5 million years ago. The 350 ppm level that scientists believe we should remain below? Earth passed that in the 1950s, and just kept going. Picture Mount Everest at one end of the Cascades—it is a spike that sticks out rather clearly alongside the much lower peaks and valleys around it.

With more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Earth is warming at a rapid rate. The twenty warmest years on record have all occurred since 1980, with the ten warmest occurring within the last twelve. The 1980s were the warmest decade on record until the 1990s turned out to be warmer, only to have the 2000s be even warmer again.

As Earth heats up, polar ice and glaciers melt, leading to rising sea levels, increased coastal flooding, and a reduction in the amount of available clean water. Warmer oceanic water means hurricanes grow larger and move faster, making them more deadly. The oceans are absorbing some of the C02, but that is making them more acidic and less tolerable to the corals and shellfish that make up key links in the food chain.

The planet that nurtures and sustains us is, basically, starting to turn on us.

The task ahead of the WRI and the USCI is as sizable as it is important. In addition to opposition at home—presidential candidates have stated that the planet isn’t warming at all (Ted Cruz) and that there isn’t even scientific consensus on the issue (Marco Rubio)—many of the world’s biggest polluters, including China and India, are rapidly growing nations whose emissions are byproducts of their size and their own modern industrial revolutions.

This last point is addressed in the current Climate Action Plan, which states “it is imperative for the United States to couple action at home with leadership internationally. America must help forge a truly global solution to this global challenge by galvanizing international action to significantly reduce emissions (particularly among the major emitting countries), prepare for climate impacts, and drive progress through the international negotiations.”

Several of the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases, including Russia and Japan, have pledged to cut their emissions, but only if other nations promise to do the same. Ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris at the end of the year, the US has released its own plan, proposing to cut emissions by up to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 10 years.

The WRI and the Adams-led USCI are making their impact felt, too: achievements both have contributed to over the last five years include the passage of the New York Declaration on Forests, which will restore 350 million hectares of deforested land worldwide; a new US Climate Action Plan, which includes parts of WRI’s own “Four Point Plan;” and new Environmental Protection Agency renewable fuel standards.

“Despite partisan difficulties, it is an exciting time to be here,” said Adams. “We work with everybody in office, at the federal, state, county, and city levels, and the opportunity to fight climate change on a global scale is an exciting one.”