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Best Possible Future

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:42 AM GMT on December 29, 2013

Best Possible Future

In a couple of weeks I will be starting my climate change problem-solving course. I didn’t teach last winter as I was working on a project called the National Climate Predictions and Projections (NCPP) Platform. My participation in NCPP follows from my class, and NCPP is focused on how to improve the usability of climate change knowledge in planning and management. We recently had a publication in Eos, called the Practitioner’s Dilemma. I also worked on an adaptation plan for Isle Royale National Park. You can get a copy of the report at this link. Working on that report we came to the realization that in many cases we really cannot look to the past, look to conserve the past, but that we need to look to manage the best possible future with a warming climate and changing rain and snow.

Starting in 2011 I quit teaching about “avoiding dangerous climate change,” which was the policy statement that we might control our emissions well enough to keep the average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. I starting teaching that we needed to prepare for a world with at least 4 degrees Celsius warming. We’ve already passed 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and there is no indication that we “collectively” are going stop our rate of emissions anytime soon.

I believe that it is far more likely that we will take action to reduce our emissions if we use the current information that we have in planning. Take the Isle Royale project, for example. A unique aspect of Isle Royale is its isolated wolf-moose, predator-prey ecology. Even without the challenges of climate change, the future of this ecosystem is fragile. The Park Service faces contentious decisions about managing the wolf and moose populations. There is nothing from a warming climate that works in favor of the wolf-moose ecosystem. Isle Royale is already at the southern edge of boreal forest. Disruptions to the forest due to extreme weather events will occur, and after these events, the ecosystem will be recovering in a climate that is warmer, where snow cover is changing, surrounded by Lake Superior, which has been warming more quickly than the land. There is no reason to expect that the ecosystem will be the same after the disruptions that will surely occur. This will change the browse that the moose rely on; the ecosystem will be different. Thinking about these problems in terms of plausible scenarios makes the impact of climate change far more real.

A revelation from the Isle Royale work was the need to think more about the best possible futures rather than preserving the past. Weather has always been disruptive, and we have always behaved with the idea that the weather of the future will be, mostly, like the weather of the past. If we continue to rebuild and plan with the assumption that the future will be like the past, then we will be making mistakes that we do not have to make. In the case of Isle Royale, a small isolated ecosystem, there is little reason to believe that left to what occurs naturally that the ecosystem in 100 years will be much like the ecosystem of 100 years ago. The same is true for more human constructs, like the City of New Orleans. The challenges of keeping New Orleans and the energy infrastructure that surrounds New Orleans viable, much less vital, will become greater and more expensive.

As I have changed my class over the years, I talk less and less about national and international policy options. I read an interview of Robert Stavins in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Alumni magazine, Colloquy. ( Here is a PDF of the current issue with the interview.) Professor Stavins is a leader in environmental economics and policy. In the interview he stated optimism that the world is moving slowly towards climate policy. There were a number of reasons for guarded optimism, but he viewed that the most fundamental was that negotiators had moved away from putting “the world into two groups: the industrialized world and the other countries,” which assured that nothing would happen. Still with regard to policy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions effectively: “International climate policy development, for a whole set of scientific, economic, and political reasons, is a very gradual process.”

I have expressed optimism in previous blogs. My optimism has largely been based on my students, and their willingness to take on these problems of planning and adaptation, while dismissing the arguments of climate-change denial as disruption founded in political, emotional and financial self interest. I find that more and more cities and regional planners realize that they need to take climate change into account if they are to make the best decisions they can make for the communities and organizations they care about. They understand that their weather-related vulnerability is changing.

We may or may not be moving towards mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions. If we are moving forward in a very gradual process, this means that “dangerous climate change” is unavoidable. Dangerous climate change can be far less dangerous if we use the knowledge that we have now in our planning. The exercise of using this knowledge changes how to think about the knowledge generated by scientific research. It leads to research questions on what is important to improve the usability in real-world problems, often a far different perspective than the questions to improve our fundamental knowledge of the Earth's climate.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.