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Climate Change Expert Joins Korbel's Pardee Center

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Alyssa Hurst

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Alyssa Hurst
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As a kid, Brian O’Neill was already asking the big questions. He wondered what Earth would be like billions of years in the future and envisioned our sun as a red giant well into its lifecycle.

Although he hasn’t yet tackled Earth’s very distant future, he can tell you what it might look like in, say, 50 years.

O’Neill joined the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures in September. The center is affiliated with the Josef Korbel School for International Studies and known around the world for its work on long-term forecasting and global trend analysis. In addition to his work at DU, O’Neill will continue work as convening lead author for a chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. 

International studies may seem an unusual fit for someone with a background in journalism and earth system sciences, but his current position fosters the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of his work.

O’Neill’s research, which builds on past work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, addresses global climate change through integrated assessment. “The broad style of work I do is mostly longer-term, mostly larger-scale,” he says. “I particularly focus on global environmental change — mainly climate and societal changes that are relevant to figuring out how serious the climate change issue is and what kinds of things we might be able to do about it.”

According to O’Neill, most environment issues go through a couple of stages of questioning. Stage one scopes out the problem. “Do we have to worry about this?” he says. “Then, when everyone is convinced we need to do something about it, the work shifts to ‘like what?’ What do we know about which options would be effective? Under what conditions?” That’s the meat of O’Neill’s work.

Some of his research focuses on actionable solutions, but he also addresses potential risks of both climate change and its proposed solutions. “There is still a lot we don’t know about what the risks are,” O’Neill explains. “There’s a recent report that came out last fall on how big of a difference it would make if we had 1.5 degrees of warming versus 2 or 3. That answer depends on a large number of things, [like] what are the societal conditions we are assuming will exist when we experience these amounts of warming. If everyone is rich and well-educated and healthy, then you get a completely different risk than if the opposite is true.”

His work sets out to reveal those possible future scenarios, like an accurate and well-researched magic eight ball. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold. It’s uncertain,” he says. “It’s unfortunate we don’t know, but we have to make decisions anyway.  So, how do we take into account that uncertainty as best as possible to make effective decisions given that we don’t know how the future is going to turn out?”

Essentially, he says, this work characterizes uncertainty. For example, if researchers want to know what the future of urbanization might look like and how that could affect climate change, O’Neill dives in: “What is a rapidly urbanizing world? How do we know that? What numbers should we use for the high end and the low end? What does a high end mean? Is it the most urbanization we could possibly imagine? What is that even based on?”

Niche though this work may be, O’Neill is not the only one tackling it. Ten years ago, he joined a group of like-minded researchers from around the world to outline a set of future scenarios to be used by the entire climate science community. “If every study assumes something different about income, population, urbanization, level of technology, it’s very difficult to draw a synthetic conclusion even about a simple, straight-forward question,” O’Neill explains. “If everyone uses the same assumptions, then you can put their results together, and they are comparable in some way.”

Those scenarios have been in use for five years now. And for the first time, the originators and science community are coming together to address them, in what’s been dubbed the Scenarios Forum, scheduled for later this month. The forum will bring more than 300 attendees to DU, where they will address how well the scenarios have served the community so far, and where room for improvement might exist.

Once the forum is off O’Neill’s plate, he’ll be focusing more on the campus community, including teaching his first classes this April. “What I’m looking forward to doing more of at DU … is focusing on the interactions between climate change, the risks it generates and development issues,” he says. “That is something I think is a real strength here — and a real opportunity for me to add to this interdisciplinary area of work.”

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