President's lecture takes the temperature of climate change

schrag.preview Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, delivered the President's Lecture at Clark University

As climate change occurs, scientists continue to struggle with questions of how the human race must prepare, adapt, and meet its challenges.

Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, dived into some of these critical issues in his lecture, “The Anthropocene and Its Discontents: Climate Change and the Future of the Earth System,” held Feb. 4 in Tilton Hall at Clark University.

The event was co-sponsored by Clark University's Office of the President, as part of the President’s Lecture Series, and the Higgins School of Humanities.

In its 4.5 billion-year history the earth has gone through periods where it has been warmer than it is today, Schrag said. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with a warmer world, what matters most is the rate at which the climate changes and how quickly the human race and surrounding ecosystem will be forced to adapt.

Scientists have determined that in the last 650,000 years the earth’s atmosphere did not exceed 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide, Schrag said. That proportion is now 400 parts per million and is expected to reach 500 parts per million by mid-century. It’s the equivalent of conducting “an experiment that has not been done in a very long time,” he said.

The known effects of dramatic climate change — crippling droughts, intense storms, and catastrophic flooding — are being seen now, but “there will be surprises,” he said. Often overlooked is the ice melt in the mountains, which creates natural reservoirs that supply water to low-lying agricultural areas in the summer. As the melting intensifies and starts occurring in the spring, it creates disruptions for farmers, he said.

Sea ice, too, is dissipating at an astounding rate, according to Schrag, illustrated by the fact that tourist cruises are now being offered through the Northeast Passage off the Siberian coast and will likely be available through the once ice-blocked Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean.

Pointing to Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into the East Coast in October 2013, he said two scientific hypotheses may explain both the storm’s intensity and the track it took. The warmer ocean waters helped power the storm, and conditions created by the decline in sea ice may have helped steer the storm inland rather than out to sea, which would have been the more typical route.

One curious component of climate change is how quickly such dramatic episodes are seemingly forgotten by the public, Schrag said. Our collective memory of such disasters “resides in the arts,” he said, pointing to the Dust Bowl, whose history is kept alive in the photography of Dorothea Lang, the songs of Woody Guthrie and in John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Sustaining interest in climate change, and in particular moving forward on strategies to mitigate its effects, is difficult, he reasoned. People are not typically willing to bear the costs today of improvements that will only be realized by future generations. “It’s kind of a tough sell, asking people to pay up front for benefits they won’t see,” he said.

Schrag noted that the motivation for moving to an alternative energy source is typically grounded in matters of cost, efficiency and availability. Such was the case in the mid-1800s when oil was unearthed in Pennsylvania and quickly replaced whale blubber as the dominant energy source in the Northeast.

Addressing climate change will require a combination of energy efficiency/conservation, non-fossil-fuel energy and carbon capture and storage, as well as immensely favorable economic and political conditions, Schrag explained. But everything comes with a cost. Tapping shale gas reserves, or fracking, has shown tremendous benefit and helped bring the nation back from recession, he said, yet has generated environmental concerns. The United States, he noted, needs to build a massive electrical infrastructure, though the estimated cost is $10 trillion, maybe more.

Schrag ended his presentation by asserting that climate change has become a moral issue, just as slavery evolved into a question of morality centuries earlier.

“Climate change is the great challenge of my generation, your generation, and the generations beyond you,” he said.

The Feb. 4 lecture also launched the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, a year-long conversation among thirteen distinguished women on the implications of climate change. Following the lecture, Schrag engaged in a discussion about climate change with Council members, nature writer Gretel Ehrlich, philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, and biologist Beth Sawin. Climate scientist Susanne Moser, Ph.D. ’97, facilitated the conversation.

The Council is a project of the Northeast Cluster of the Humanities for the Environment initiative of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI). It is based at the Higgins School of Humanities and is sponsored by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

-        Jim Keogh, Assistant Vice President of News and Editorial Services