Academics at UGA have joined the fight against climate change and are finding ways to solve climate problems in their own backyard.
Drawdown Georgia is an organization dedicated to combating climate change and significantly reducing Georgia’s carbon footprint by the year 2030 based on solutions tailored to Georgia’s unique social, economic and natural resources.
Founded by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation in 2019, Drawdown Georgia combines the efforts of academics statewide, including UGA’s Marshall Shepherd, Jacqueline Mohan, Puneet Dwivedi, Sudhagar Mani and Jeff Mullin.
Between 2019 and the end of 2020, Drawdown Georgia operated phase one of its mission, in which experts from across the state came together to research and analyze the best possible solutions to reduce carbon emissions for the specific needs of the state. Phase two began Jan. 1, 2021 and looks to implement these solutions and evaluate their effectiveness.
“Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming” is a book that gives a comprehensive list of the 100 most impactful solutions to fight climate change, and Drawdown Georgia emulates this list on a more localized level.
Georgia academics, including Shepherd, Mohan, Dwivedi, Mani and Mullin, whittled out non-applicable solutions, such as better tropical forest management, and identified the 20 most impactful solutions for the state in terms of carbon emission reduction, cost-effectiveness and overall societal impacts.
The carbon dilemma
Mohan, an associate professor at UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, specializes her work for Drawdown Georgia in forests and land use. She emphasizes the vital role of using Georgia’s forests and land as places for carbon storage rather than in the atmosphere or oceans.
The burning of fossil fuels leads to carbon storage both in the atmosphere, which traps solar heat that leads to global warming, and in the ocean, which acidifies seawater, heavily disrupting underwater ecosystems.
Naturally, carbon can be stored in the soil for thousands of years, but the cycle of carbon is continuously disrupted by the burning of fossil fuels.
“Storing atmospheric carbon safely and securely into our terrestrial ecosystems [is] the safest and the best solution for the planet,” Mohan said.
Mohan said the bulk of the work comes from promoting forests and planting and maintaining trees.
“Literally, nature does the vast majority of the work for us,” Mohan said.
Here and now
Despite the increasing seriousness of climate change leading to fewer and fewer climate change deniers, many people still see it as a future issue rather than one that is happening now.
Shepherd, the director of UGA’s atmospheric sciences program, cited the frequency of extreme weather events, the food we eat, public health, U.S. energy infrastructure and water availability as just some of the areas being affected by climate change right now.
Whether it’s increasing gas prices or a record-breaking heatwave, people are experiencing more effects of climate change and at a greater rate.
“They perceive them as not as connected, but there are things that happen in their daily lives that are very much impacted [by climate change],” Shepherd said.
For most people, a 1.5 degree Celsius difference in global temperature may not sound like a big deal, but there are tangible consequences that Georgians are seeing right now. For example, the changing climate correlates to more frequent and extreme hurricanes that threaten not only people’s safety but Georgia’s economy as well. Mohan said by destroying homes and crops, hurricanes are “all bad for people’s health and bad for people’s pocketbooks as well.”
Drawdown Georgia emphasizes all of the benefits that will come with switching to green, renewable energy. Phase one split its solutions into four distinct categories: economy, public health, environment and equity. The organization cites local economic and employment growth, improved air quality and better protection against extreme weather events as just a few of the benefits renewable energy will bring.
Drawdown Georgia also emphasizes bringing about all of these effects in a way that ensures all communities are benefiting equally in the process. While climate change is a crisis that affects everyone, it is not a crisis that affects everyone to the same degree.
“Poorer people have limited access to certain resources and so they suffer more from health inequities, energy bill costs and so forth,” Shepherd said.
But not only do lower-income communities have limited access to certain resources, climate change is also felt more intensely in their neighborhoods. With less trees to filter carbon and provide shade, for example, these neighborhoods are more susceptible to a changing climate.
“When a given region or a given city gets super hot in the summer times, the poorer neighborhoods get even hotter than the wealthier neighborhoods,” Mohan said.
These disproportionately-amplified effects are why Drawdown Georgia looks to reduce Georgia’s carbon emissions in ways that are impactful, cost-effective and equitable.
The issue of climate change is vastly complicated, and it will take the concerted efforts of many people to overcome. Drawdown Georgia has used the expertise of academics across the state to provide collective and comprehensive solutions, and they encourage others to get involved.
“Be engaged, pay attention to what’s going on at your local, state and national levels by your elected officials and hold them accountable as far as climate action no matter what,” Shepherd said. “This isn’t a political issue at all.”