flooding
“Sea level rise is a definite,” said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, at a conference by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C. “There will also be significant heat impacts on agriculture,” particularly corn and rice production, given those crops are often grown in areas already a bit too hot for them. “The average summer will be hotter than we’ve ever seen. In the tropics, it may be too hot to work outside during the day.” And what’s the worst that could happen? Alley said “it could get so hot people could no longer live in the tropics. And sea level rise could wipe out territory where one-tenth of humanity now lives.” These are the “‘mights,’ the risks.”

To spur the globe to action on the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now finalizing its latest assessment report. To improve national efforts, the United States is also working on its new national assessment report. Katharine Jacobs, director, National Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, University of Arizona, who is coordinating the creation of the national report, said the goal is not just to write a report by the federal government outlining its actions, but a multi-sector analysis that will “build a community of people who are working on these issues” at the federal, state, and local levels. While Congress is not expected to act on climate change anytime soon, there are tons of state and local initiatives underway that could be further connected and boosted.

Anthony Janetos, director, Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-range Future, Boston University, said these new reports will have a greater focus on adaptation, a shift in itself. “It’s not about adaptation in the future, it’s about efforts happening now.”

Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use, U.S. Geological Survey, and a member of IPCC, said the last assessment report five years ago documented a one degree rise in temperature. In the upcoming report, the increase will grow to 1.5 degrees. She’s most worried about the “hot spots, places of most vulnerability, where people are not equipped to adapt.” She said in the tropical countries, “there are a number of people who can’t adapt.”

For Jack Kaye, associate director for research, Earth sciences division, NASA, the fear is “some little change” will lead to “tipping points, thresholds.” He’s looking to collect as much data as possible to “reduce uncertainties in models.” He added that while climate change may be “beyond anyone one of us, it’s not bigger than all of us.”

Some interesting thoughts in their wide-ranging discussion moderated by Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR:

How Can We Factor People into Our Climate Models?

Jacobs said “the physics of climate change is quite simple, but adding human factors into the equation” makes it more complicated. “The intersections of the physics and our behavior is what’s complex.” As a result, she said there needs to be stronger partnerships between physical and social scientists.

Kaye agreed, adding that “we need to study human decision-making processes to understand the broader process of change.” The issue is “very few physical scientists are trained to do this.” The only way forward is to “underpin climate solutions in both physical and social sciences.”

On the positive side, “university students can now major in sustainability” at some schools, said Burkett. Some geospatial programs are also already merging physical and social science curricula, creating “future Earth” programs. Kaye said “things are morphing in that direction.”

The central idea here was articulated by Jacobs: “addressing climate change can’t just be the realm of scientists, but also something that involves society.”

How Can We Deal with Apathy among the Public?

Jacobs said it’s important to turn away from the U.S. Congress, a source of major frustration, and look at “state and local-level heroes.” There’s a lot of people out there who “really care.” If the general public is apathetic about climate change, “that shows there is an issue with how we are framing it.”

Harris at NPR said when he visited Stanford University, the president of the university told him “10 percent of students are dealing with climate change.” He added that students studying technology may feel differently, more positive.

What about Geo-engineering the Climate?

For Janetos, geo-engineering the climate is worth considering. “We all have home insurance. We make some kind of investments to achieve a future goal or guard against some outcome.” Perhaps, we also need to coming up with geo-engineering as a sort of insurance scheme for the planet, in case our collective efforts to limit emissions fail.

Kaye added that the “question is not going to go away soon,” so more questions need to be asked to reduce the uncertainties with intervening in the climate: “What could be the unintended consequences? What’s the viability?

Image credit: Flooding in Fells Point, Baltimore, 2003 / Reuters