The Time to Adapt is Now. Matthias Ruth and Douglas Foy Conclude Open Classroom Series on Climate Change.
Climate Change Series: Conclusion
by Douglas Foy and Matthias Ruth
As we bring our series Climate Change. Challenges. Solutions. to a close, moderators Douglas Foy and Matthias Ruth offer their reflections on the mounting challenges presented by climate change, and the depth and breadth of the solutions that will be required in the coming years.
Douglas Foy is president of Serrafix Corp. and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. As a super-secretary in Governor Mitt Romney’s cabinet, Doug oversaw transportation, housing, environment, and energy agencies, with combined annual capital budgets of $5 billion.
Twenty years ago, when I started raising the alarm about the dangers of climate change, I thought of it primarily as a legacy issue. Climate change would affect our children and grandchildren. It wasn’t fair that they would have to suffer the consequences of our greed, profligacy and shortsightedness.
Today, it’s increasingly clear that I was wrong. Yes, climate change is a legacy issue that will affect generations to come, but it is also an issue that directly threatens generationstoday. We’re already experiencing the first wave of its impacts and we can expect increasingly severe effects in the near — not distant — future.
Just in the last year, the U.S. has faced severe drought in the Midwest, brutal heat waves in the Southwest, and the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. Though coverage was trumped by the Boston Marathon bombings two weeks ago, central Indiana was inundated by up to 5 inches of rain in 24 hours, causing widespread flooding throughout the region.
Going forward, the presumption should be that any extreme weather event is caused or exacerbated by climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. The burden of proof — not mere assertion, but proof based on hard, scientific evidence — should now be on those who would deny the reality and impacts of climate change.
We need to redouble our efforts at mitigation, at rapidly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and replacing them as quickly as possible, while building a zero-emissions global economy. But even if we could magically eliminate all new greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, we still face centuries of warming temperatures, extreme weather and rising sea levels.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there’s a lot of thinking and talking about adaptation.
For example, how will coastal cities deal with future super-storms and flooding? Will Boston have to build a barrier across the Harbor Islands to protect the city and surrounding coastal and riverfront communities? If fortification is not possible, will we need to retreat to higher ground, abandoning huge tracts of low-lying land like East Boston and the Back Bay to the sea? And, what about cities that don’t have higher ground to retreat to like Miami?
That the questions are being asked is a good sign, but so far there has been little action. Coastal communities will be hammered by the effects of climate change within the next decade. The time to begin adapting is now.
Matthias Ruth is a professor at Northeastern University with appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is a founder of Ecological Economics and a founding co-editor-in-chief of the journal Urban Climate.
For too long, too much of the climate change debate has focused on silver bullet solutions when what we need are multiple solutions.
Because climate change is a global problem, there is a strong sentiment that it must be solved through a global accord (a silver bullet solution). However, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen 50 percent since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which recently expired. Monitoring and enforcement of any global accord is difficult — even more so as countries embrace trade globalization, which has its own perverse incentives that increase greenhouse gas emissions.
We’ve had endless discussions about using nuclear power to replace fossil fuels as our dominant energy source. But 60 years after the first experiments, nuclear fission faces ongoing cost and safety challenges. Current estimates suggest that the alterative, nuclear fusion, will not be commercially viable until mid-century at the earliest.
The building of dikes and other hard structures to protect against sea-level rise generates another pair of issues: Physical flood control may undermine emergency preparedness and ultimately leave populations more vulnerable when the barriers fail.
Technological leapfrogging, which would have entire continents transition to using cellphones, is another oft-cited potential solution from the telecommunications sector. But more often than not, new technology results in greater consumption, which in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions.
The fundamental reality is that many solutions are required for a problem that has many sources.
Local and regional action in support of a transition to a carbon-free society is in the best interest of the local environment, local businesses and local communities. It is perfectly consistent with the goal of stabilizing global climate. Significant local and regional actions can be taken even when global agreement is not possible.
Replacing fossil fuels requires an “all of the above” approach that makes greater use of renewable energy sources and makes efficiency a priority.
Adaptation to protect cities is more than building bigger and stronger dikes. It includes more robust emergency preparedness systems, as well as hundreds of minor infrastructure adaptations like sensor-operated lighting, pre-programmed thermostats for reduced night-time energy consumption, siding and roofing materials that serve as solar collectors, and better insulation of buildings.
In contrast to technological leapfrogging, behavioral leapfrogging is little-studied and thus, hard to accomplish. The list of potential changes in default settings and signals for behavioral change is long: Designing buildings with attractive staircases and with elevators out of immediate sight to get people walking up a few flights. Placing energy consumption monitors where, in real time, consumption, emissions and costs are displayed to building users. Certifying the energy performance of buildings much like we do for cars via MPG ratings.
We have barely begun to explore — let alone implement — the many ways that small changes in behavior can result in big changes in energy use.
Instead of waiting for the experts and the powerful to agree, we all can do something about climate change. The sooner we get started — acting where we can with the power we have — the better.
By Matt Collette | News@Northeastern | March 8, 2013
In 2009, a massive earthquake struck L’Aquila, Italy, a town two hours north of Rome where generations of families have lived for thousands of years. The quake devastated the community so much that its citizens have not been able to return; anyone crossing into the city must wear protective gear and be accompanied by emergency personnel.
“It looks like a war zone of the worst kind,” said Matthias Ruth, a professor with dual appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Matthias Ruth is a professor of public policy and engineering. Photo by Brooks Canaday.
Ruth is part of a team of about 20 researchers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that has studied the aftermath of the Italian earthquake in hopes of teaching other cities how to improve their resilience to major disasters. The research team released a report of their recommendations, “Building Resilient Regions after a National Disaster,” in Rome earlier this month.
“We need to prepare ourselves,” Ruth said. “That’s the intellectual question we have to face: When we rebuild, how do we do that considering the next disaster? Now that we are given the opportunity to rethink and rebuild, how do we do this in a smarter way?”
rePlanners, engineers, and government officials in L’Aquila have begun rebuilding the ravaged city, Ruth said. They are looking at how to balance its existing nature—a quintessentially Italian community of winding streets, sidewalk cafes, and close quarters—with the needs of a modern city to allow for both resilience against future disasters and an infrastructure that can support a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovation. Some structures will simply not be rebuilt; others may look the same but will be built using entirely new methods and materials.
Work is underway to rebuild L’Aquila, which was devastated by a 2009 earthquake. Photo by Matthias Ruth.
“The big question is, ‘How do we use technology to continue to give the feel of an old city with its own charm and recreate the social fabric and some kind of authenticity, while also incorporating modern materials, sensors, and information technology to make the city a safer place?’” Ruth said. These issues, he said, represent the key challenges facing urban resilience projects, and they align with the larger debate of designing sustainable cities that can evolve with both environmental and social changes.
Ruth said lessons learned in L’Aquila—gathered from more than 400 in-person interviews and intensive landscape surveys and assessments—can be applied to cities in places like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all of which were battered by superstorm Sandy. In a sign that Ruth’s report has had far-reaching effect, some officials have announced that destroyed waterfront structures will either not be rebuilt or, in cases like beachfront boardwalks, will be rebuilt out of concrete, not wood like the previous structures.
“This is not just about Italy,” Ruth said. “This is really a piece of the groundwork to be laid for cities all around the world.”
By Matt Collette | Northeastern News | February 20, 2013
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, and that’s a serious concern for the United States Navy, according to David W. Titley, a retired rear admiral.
“We tend to build our bases at sea level,” deadpanned Titley, who led the Navy’s first Task Force for Climate Change and built a career studying the world’s oceans. “This is something we’re going to have to deal with. We’re not the Air Force—we can’t build our bases at 6,000 feet.”
Last week, Titley was the featured speaker at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs’ Open Classroom series, which this semester focuses on the impact of climate change.
Titley said rising seas—which he predicts could increase by as much as a meter by 2100—are just one concern for the Navy and the nation’s military community. Rising tides and environmental changes could forever alter water supplies, food chains, and geography that have stayed largely the same for thousands of years.
“If you remember nothing else, know this is all about water,” he said. “There’s too much in some places, too little in others. It’s melted in some places where it’s supposed to be solid; it’s salty in places it’s supposed to be fresh. And that affects a lot, from national security to food production.”
Titley noted that while climate has been largely stable for about the last 15,000 years, it has begun to enter uncharted territory, particularly in places like the Arctic, which has seen dramatic changes in ice melt cycles in the last decade.
“For most of human history, the extremes stayed where they were; the averages were what we had come to expect,” Titley said. “But now the climates are starting to change, and we have to adapt.”
The Navy, he said, is monitoring how melting ice is opening up the long-sought Northwest Passage, a new ocean passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans north of Canada. In addition to challenges caused by melted ice, the new ocean route raises question of trade, national boundaries, and navigable routes (cartographers have had little need or opportunity to chart an ocean that until recently was almost entirely covered by ice year-round).
“For the first time in 500 years, we’re opening up a new ocean,” Titley said. “The last guy to do that was Christopher Columbus.”
Titley said the military is uniquely suited to tackle climate change issues due to a deeply ingrained tradition of long-term planning on everything from demographics to political regimes.
The Open Classroom series, which is hosted by policy school and engineering professor Matthias Ruth, interim policy school dean Joan Fitzgerald, and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation Douglas Foy, continues Wednesday evenings through April 17 in 20 West Village F. The classes run from 6–8 p.m.
This week’s session will focus on transportation—which in the United States is responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions, Ruth noted—and features Professor of Practice in Law and Public Policy Stephanie Pollack and Al Biehler, a former state transportation official in Pennsylvania and a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.
By Angela Herring | Northeastern News | February 19, 2013
To understand and overcome the complexities of climate change, scientists, engineers, social scientists, and policy makers must transcend the boundaries that have traditionally confined their work, according to Northeastern University professor Matthias Ruth. He delivered the statement on Sunday at a symposium he hosted on urban adaptation to environmental changes.
As Congress races to find a solution to impending cuts to research and other funding, communicating across disciplines and other traditional boundaries was a recurring theme at the 179th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Ruth’s session was one of hundreds aimed at highlighting the “Beauty and Benefits of Science” — the summit’s theme. An estimated 8,700 scholars from around the globe descended on Boston’s Hynes Convention Center between Feb. 14–18 to share their work at the meeting, which is billed as the world’s largest scientific conference.
Throughout the conference, Northeastern faculty led presentations highlighting their work to address real-world challenges in areas ranging from health to technology to sustainability. April Gu, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Northeastern and one of three scholars presenting in Ruth’s session, noted that our current strategies for water resources management may not stand the test of time. “Water quality regulation itself is not enough,” she said. “We need a governance way beyond that.”
David Lazer, professor of political science and computer and information science, hosted a session on Friday on the science of politics, in which he and five other scholars from around the nation argued for a more rigorous scientific approach to understanding and working with governance structures. “The question is can we come up with an objective scientific understanding of political processes,” Lazer said.
“Astronomers do not have to worry that when they point that telescope to the heavens, that the stars are going to twinkle because you’re looking at them,” said Lazer, whose work focuses on using network science to understand the spread of political memes. “But when you look at social systems that’s certainly a challenge.”
The same challenge was discussed on Saturday in a session on predicting human behavior, which was hosted by world-renowned network scientist Albert-László Barabási, Distinguished Professor of Physics with joint appointments in biology and the College of Computer and Information Science. In this session, Alessandro Vespignani, Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics, presented new research using mathematical modeling to map the spread of epidemic diseases.
“As soon as you plug in some level of awareness of the disease, you get the disease spreading slower and there’s a little less impact on the population,” said Vespignani, who holds joint appointments in the College of Science, the College of Computer and Information Science, and the Bouvé College of Health Science. Nonetheless, his work, which aims to inform disease mitigation and containment strategies, showed that travel restrictions would need to limit human mobility around the planet by a staggering 99 percent to have any meaningful impact.
Throughout the conference, it was evident that Ruth’s comment about the complexity of climate change could easily be extended to all of the major challenges facing our planet today: Disease management, just like secure and sustainable infrastructures, requires a commitment to cross-pollination by our scholars and policy makers.
But none of this will be possible without a cultural shift toward understanding and appreciating the benefits of science. Christos Zahopoulos, an associate professor of engineering and executive director of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education, spoke at the associated International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, noting that his Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations, or RE-SEED program, has been inspiring the next generation of scientists for more than two decades.
By Matt Collette | Northeastern News | December 11, 2012
Matthias Ruth, a professor with joint appointments in the College of Engineering and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, is the co-editor in chief of a new academic journal that takes an interdisciplinary look at the relationship between urban dynamics and climate change.
“We have long thought about changing the global climate problem through global accords—which have had limited success, at best—and with this journal we want to look back at what cities can do to change climate on their own,” said Ruth, who is editing the journal with Alexander Baklanov of the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Within our own environment, there is so much we can do to impact climate, which is increasingly becoming a focus for climate researchers.”
The first issue of the journal, Urban Climate, was released last month, and another issue is due before the end of the year. It will be available for free online for at least the first two years of its publication. The journal has already received more than 100 submissions that focus on a range of topics, including urban environmental health, energy use, and public transportation in cities around the globe.
“More people live in cities than anywhere else now, so there is a recognition that we need to look at climate change at an urban level,” Ruth said. “We see this as a journal that equally addresses social and environmental issues, bringing them together at the local, urban scale.”
Ruth, who joined the Northeastern faculty this fall, takes an interdisciplinary approach toward the study of climate change and sustainability. He works at the forefront of ecological economics, which focuses on developing methods that integrate insights from economics, engineering, and the life sciences.
In a letter to colleagues published in the journal’s first issue, Ruth and Baklanov described their goals, saying that the publication’s research would closely examine the relationship between climate and urban areas, aiming to shape decision-making and policy moving forward.
“Climate conditions play a particular role in this context not just because climate change poses new challenges for any large agglomeration of people, infrastructures, institutions, and ecosystems, but also because urban areas can play a lead role in humanity’s quest for a relationship with the natural environment that allows societies to prosper and flourish for a long time to come,” the two editors wrote. “Urban climate, as a topic of research and focus for decision making, subsumes many of these challenges. … Being able to assist in that knowledge sharing and knowledge generation will, no doubt, be a great opportunity to which we look forward.”