Confronting Truths about Climate Change

Holly Jean Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability.

Holly Jean Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability.

The author of "After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration,” discusses the milestones in the accelerating pace of global heating.

Reeling in a Runaway Train

This is 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming, says Holly Jean Buck, an assistant professor in UB’s two-year-old Department of Environment and Sustainability, a few days after July temperatures in British Columbia reached 49.6C (121F), an all-time high for Canada, and the town that set the record was wiped out in a wildfire. “I think we’re on track for 3 degrees.”

She is speaking about yet another catastrophic milestone in the accelerating pace of global heating. But it came as no surprise to Buck, who has emerged as one of the environmental movement’s most prominent voices on the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change.

Buck’s 2019 book, “After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration,” published to wide scholarly acclaim a few months before she came to UB, outlines a near future far beyond planting more trees and converting to electric vehicles. According to Buck, the coming years must include tens of thousands of factory-size installations to pull carbon from the air, perhaps even fleets of airplanes to seed the world’s skies with a permanent hazy cover to deflect the sun’s rays—all in a desperate race to limit global heating to a somewhat manageable 2C degrees increase.

“Unless we really ramp up ambition, that’s where we might be,” she says. “We still could limit to 2 degrees if we can put climate policy in place in the next couple of years. But at 1.2 degrees, we’ve already used up more than half our allotment.”

Alarming, yes. But somehow Buck makes these dire truths sound like solvable problems—perhaps the result of an intriguing, highly credentialed career path that brought her to UB.

The daughter of a linguist and a homemaker, Buck became interested in the environment as a suburban Maryland schoolgirl in the 1990s, “when sustainability became a thing.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in English, worked as a geospatial technician in the U.S. and Europe (“I’d go to some weird town, and turn this piece of equipment on and off every night”) and taught creative writing as a fellow at Naropa University in Colorado.

Buck’s growing fascination with the sociology and politics of climate change took her to Lund University in Sweden for a master’s in human ecology. Then came a PhD in development sociology from Cornell as a National Science Foundation fellow and a stint at UCLA as a postdoctoral research fellow. She also served as an analyst for the U.S. State Department, “briefing policymakers on humanitarian issues around the world.”

“After Geoengineering,” Buck’s first book, bore the stamp of her skill as a creative writer. It opens with a choose-your-own-adventure array of vividly described futures for “you” to experience. For example, you might live in a 2070 where society is successfully managing carbon and your grandchildren play with toy mini-forests; or a 2070 where wars and public backlash have halted carbon control, the globe is heating exponentially and your grown son texts to tell you, “I’m scared.”

“I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed by any means. The situation is really alarming.”

Holly Jean Buck

Buck arrived in Buffalo during the pandemic and moved to the Southtowns with her partner, Florian, a digital media specialist, and daughter, River, now 5. After one year at UB, which included publication of a book she co-edited, “Has It Come to This? The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering on the Brink,” her enthusiasm has only grown.

“I’m excited about all the different ways of thinking within the department and how we can learn from each other,” she says. “The students I’ve had in my classes are really intellectually curious and pragmatic. They want to get something done.” She adds that New York State, with its ambitious climate legislation and funding, is “a very good place to be doing this kind of research” and “could really be a home of climate action research.”

Yes, but is there hope we can avoid a 2070 of exponentially rising temperatures and vanished memories of blue skies?

“Social systems are nonlinear and dynamic,” Buck says, “so I think it’s possible that we shift from the trajectory we’re on. We have most of the technologies we need to decarbonize and maintain a good quality of life for everybody. It’s really a matter of the social innovation to get them out to everybody in an equitable way.

“So I think it’s possible,” she says with a mordant laugh, “but I don’t think it’s guaranteed by any means. The situation is really alarming.”

Story by Jeff Z. Klein

Published September 24, 2021