I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 2:03 AM GMT on January 18, 2013
The Role of Short Timers
The previous entry described how I start to think about time and addressing the challenges of climate change. My focus was on generational time; that is, the amount of time it takes for one generation to replace the last generation. My message from that was not, “just wait,” but it is important to recognize that the fundamental changes in our behavior and energy systems will require some time.
This entry I will describe the issues that make climate change a problem in the here and now. In the following figure I highlight several items that are important in the short term. For the purpose of this article the short term is less than 10 years.
Figure 1: Thinking about time and climate change: What is important in the short-term?
1) Accumulation of Carbon Dioxide: From a climate scientist’s perspective the traditional short time issue is the “stabilization” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is, after we get all of this figured out, what is the amount of carbon dioxide that we have in the atmosphere? I refer back to several blogs I have written on stabilization. The basic idea is that the carbon dioxide we release from fossil fuels stays with us for a very long time; it does not really go away. A number that I quote in one of those blogs is that every year we emit like we are emitting now, we will be encumbered with about nine additional parts per million of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective, prior to the industrial revolution we had about 280 parts per million and now we have about 400 parts per million. Therefore, actions we take now have consequences on lengths of times that we more commonly associate with geology.
2) Impacts of Extreme Events: We live in a climate that is warming rapidly. The weather is changing in some basic measures, such as, extreme precipitation, the speed at which storms move, the size of storms, the paths they follow, etc. At the same time that the weather changes, sea level is rising; snow and ice are melting. Therefore, we see larger impacts of storms like Superstorm Sandy. (see Cynthia Rosenzweig Interview) In Alaska, we see enormous erosion as shores that were protected by sea ice are left unprotected as the ice melts. We need to anticipate these changes in the impacts of extreme events that come from the fact that the weather is working in a world where many things are changing. This makes sense for preparedness, and it provides us case studies to help us think about the future.
3. Fast Ecosystem Changes: I sat in a meeting this week where people were thinking about how a warming climate and changing weather patterns would impact forests. Extreme events have huge impacts on forests through drought, flooding, fire, and salt-water storm surges. We used to imagine these forests “coming back” in the same climate. But now we have to think about the forests coming back with warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and with new characteristics of extreme weather, for example, an extremely warm spring. Aside from changes to these basic environmental parameters, there are new opportunities for invasive species and disease. The forests might not even come back as forests. For example, with forests currently at the boundary of the prairie, like in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the forest is likely to return as savanna. (see the amazing work of Lee Frelich, for example Climate Change, Invasive, Species and Forests). I don’t say this in the spirit that we will avoid this if we do something now, but that we need to plan now – to borrow a phrase, to plan for the best savanna possible, rather than a scrub land of invasive species.
4. Election Time Scales: In the United States at the federal level, this is two, four, and six years – thereby, effectively two years. Through policy shifts we see expression of issues of energy security and economy. We see amplification of the political interests that are backed by dollars. We see the impact of tax arguments and tax policy – the impact of research and development budgets to promote and to inhibit technology development. At the city and state level, we see, often, the more stable policy development that reflect local and regional values. The decisions we make on these two-year cycles have enormous consequences for how we deal with global, long-term problems. (See arcane note at the end.)
The decisions that we make each and every day influence our long-term response to climate change. The impact varies from how warm it will ultimately be, to how we anticipate and respond to the disruptions of weather and climate, to how we invest in the technologies and opportunities that would allow us to address, more quickly, climate change. My goal is recognize the role of all of these different factors that work at different spans of time, and how do we change the world so that things converge in an accelerated way to address climate change and sustainability.
Rood Interview: Saga of Climate Change
Arcane Note: I grew up in the South in a family that was more politically interested than most. I saw the emergence and growth of, for example, Regent University. I remember at the time hearing of Pat Robertson’s vision of training what now has become their motto of “Christian Leadership to Change the World.” I listened to the idea of training journalists, lawyers, educated citizens who would get elected to town councils, school boards, mayors, state legislatures, governors, and ultimately, populating the federal government in both elected and appointed positions. I remember as a much younger man thinking, “That’s a really good strategy.” My personal opinion is that this has one of the most consequential movements in U.S. politics in my life. To add a little substance to my experience here are some articles you might find interesting:
Student Body Right, 2005, C. Hayes
Who’s the Boss, 2007, D. Lithwick
Pat, Bob and Regent University, 2009
My point: With a little organization, consideration of the short-term, and a generation of time, we can make changes that are more consequential than just letting things happen.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.