Saturday, May 16, 2015

No prospect of an end: living with an ever changing climate

In March of 2014, the UC Santa Cruz Divisions of Physical & Biological Sciences and Social Sciences hosted their second annual Climate Science & Policy conference. Entitled “No Prospect of an End: Living with an ever changing climate”, the conference brought luminary speakers on climate, energy, finance and policy to the Colleges 9/10 Multipurpose Room for two days of lectures and panels. The title of the conference references a famous quotation by James Hutton, the founder of modern geology, who said with respect to the age of the Earth “we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end."
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“if we look at the last 100,000 years, there is a lot of weirdness. And then it gets boring, and that is what we are used to.” - Dr. Richard Alley, Penn State University

The same can now be said about our changing climate. We know that different geological epochs have spanned vastly different environmental conditions. As the keynote lecture by Richard Alley, Geologists from Penn State University, highlighted, “if we look at the last 100,000 years, there is a lot of weirdness. And then it gets boring, and that is what we are used to.” This boring climatic era has lead to human civilization and development as we know it. Agriculture, urbanization, even labor specialization were tools of human ingenuity made possible by a degree of stability in our environmental conditions. As humankind further modifies the biosphere while dithering over the proper policy responses, we play a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

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The monthly average global Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentration for April 2015 surpassed 400 ppm for the first time since humans began measuring. Emissions in 2014 were stagnant, highlighting the possibility of a “decoupling” of growing fossil fuel combustion from economic growth. However, the trend is far from settled; moreover, “declining emissions” still leave a huge area under the curve, and the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to affect the climate for decades, if not centuries, to come. This climatic lag time, coupled with socio-economic inertia in fossil fueled economic growth, pose a great threat to our ability to stop the warming of the world.
There is no prospect of an end to anthropogenic climate change, but this millennium may well be defined by how effectively we respond and adapt to its causes and effects. At the second day of the Climate Science and Policy Conference, panelists addressed adaption via Coastal Resilience and the Wicked Tradeoffs between Food, Water, Energy, and Biodiversity in California and beyond (videos hyperlinked, and very interesting).  
Of particular note to coastal communities are effects of sea level rise, more intense storm surges, and what to protect versus what to let the sea take (an unwelcome and hard proposition). Across the nation, a patchwork of regulations protect coastal ecosystems in various ways; in North Carolina, the state has outlawed accelerating sea level rise from being considered in coastal development decisions. California’s adaptation to rising seas has tried to find a balance between affluent coastal developments and the long history of environmental protection. As Rob Young, panelist and coastal geologist at Western Carolina, elucidates “This is the crux of the matter: the ecosystems have to move, and they are becoming diminished by efforts to hold them in place.”
As humankind looks to the future, adaptation to climate change must be an integral part of our plan to secure and safeguard a prosperous, just and sustainable world.
Topsail Island, North Carolina (Source:

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