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.
Climate Change Series: Adapting To A New Reality
Mon, Apr 08, 2013 | Cognoscenti | by Brian Helmuth, Larry Atkinson & Pablo Suarez
Even if we drastically cut carbon emissions, we still have to face the realities of a changing climate. So, while we have to think about reducing greenhouse gasses, now and in the future, we also have to begin implementing strategies to adapt to this new world of increasingly extreme and, to some extent, unknowable weather and climactic conditions. We need to adapt our cities, our farms and our way of life. We also need to understand how climate change will impact the plants and animals our ecosystems depend on.
Brian Helmuth, Larry Atkinson and Pablo Suarez discuss ways human society is already adapting to climate change, and some of the challenges ahead.
Brian Helmuth is a professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Science and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, and directs the university’s Sustainability Science and Policy Initiative.
Climate change produces winners and losers, globally and locally, and science can help to predict which is which. Often the winners are invasive species, disease-causing organisms and pests with broad tolerances to environmental changes. To help save the species we care about — whether for sentimental reasons or because we depend on them for food and shelter — we’ll need detailed physiological and ecological knowledge of those species, their habitats and how they react to changing conditions. With that knowledge, we’ll hopefully be able to make better decisions about where and how to allocate scarce resources to preserve and protect some of the many plants and animals threatened with extinction.
Humans sweat or shiver to control our body temperature, and a change of only a few degrees in our body temperatures can be catastrophic. The vast majority of organisms however, are ectothermic — they have no metabolic source of heat — so their body temperature changes with their ambient environment. In some habitats, such as the intertidal region of the worlds’ coastlines, animal temperatures can change as much as 25 degrees C (45 degrees F) in a few hours. If local air or water temperatures rise even slightly, the resulting changes in body temperature can result in mass mortality or significant declines in growth. While temperature change undeniably has direct impacts on human health, it is literally a matter of life or death for species that can’t control their environment or body temperature as easily as we can.
Work in my lab focuses on forecasting the impacts of climate change on nonhuman organisms in coastal environments. Since 1999, I’ve led a team of researchers designing, deploying and monitoring “biomimetic sensors” — tiny robots built to match the size, color and thermal characteristics of live animals — so we can collect real world data on how climate change affects populations of shellfish and other coastal invertebrates. One focus has been on mussels — animals that are commercially important and form the basis of many intertidal ecosystems. Continuously recording temperatures every 10 minutes, we have deployed “robo-mussels” at 40 sites worldwide and they have provided us with a unique view of how environmental change is affecting the world’s coastlines.
What we find is that patterns in nature are often far more complex than what might be anticipated from simple measurements of the environment based, for example, on air temperature. Along the west coast of the U.S. we’ve found that instead of a simple increase in stress as one moves south, we see a complex “thermal mosaic” where some sites in the north are as stressful as southern sites.
What’s true for shellfish that thrive in the intertidal zone is likely true for most other forms of plant and animal life. Climate change is a worldwide phenomenon, but most organisms experience only their hyper-local environment. For many plants and invertebrates, “the world” is no bigger than a few centimeters, and the local characteristics of their environment can play a key role in determining how they will likely respond to climate change. Moreover, the details of their physiology determine whether they can contend with changing conditions.
Scientists can play a key role in helping society prepare for a warmer world, but only if we get away from the “loading dock” phenomenon of collecting a lot of data, putting it on a website or in peer-reviewed journals, and then whining when nobody uses it. We can begin by waking up to the notion of collaborating with the end users of our research (e.g., shellfish growers, policy makers) before starting research projects, developing effective “indicators” of environmental change that are both scientifically accurate and relevant to business and policy. We’ve got to start working with people whose lives and livelihoods are already being affected by climate change, and who face even greater challenges in the years to come.
View slides from Brian Helmuth’s presentation here.
Larry Atkinson is the Samuel L. and Fay M. Slover Professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University and director of ODU’s Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative.
We live on the edge of a restless ocean. With the accelerating effects of global climate change, the ocean is warming up, moving around, and absorbing large quantities of melting ice. Yet, because the amount and pace of sea level rise varies around the globe, it is a local issue.
Three separate studies published in a five month period last year all indicate an acceleration of sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic coast. As the Gulf Stream slows down and moves further offshore, our local coastal sea level rises — as much as 3-4 times faster than global average sea level rise.
As Superstorm Sandy dramatically demonstrated last fall, coastal storms are changing. Because of climate change there’s more heat in the ocean and more moisture in the atmosphere coming from the Gulf of Mexico. The combination may not affect the frequency of major storms, but it does magnify their size and intensity.
Climate scientists use a boxing metaphor to explain the connection between long-term climate change and short-term weather events: “Climate is the coach, but the weather is the punch.” We can expect storms like Sandy to land many more “punches” up and down the east coast in the coming years as the climate continues to “coach” the weather.
In 2003, Virginia was hit by Hurricane Isabel and the dry dock where Northrop Grumman builds aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy flooded. You don’t have to know much about shipbuilding to know that water flowing into a dry dock is a very bad situation. In the aftermath, Northrup Grumman asked their engineers to assess how frequent Isabel-like flooding would be in the future. The engineers concluded that by 2060 flooding that once happened every 80 years would happen every two years.
Adaptation engineering solutions — building floodwalls, tide gates, pump stations, reinforcing or moving roads, buildings and other infrastructure — are relatively straightforward.
The hard part is making the social and political decisions about what to protect and what to move. It’s not as simple as saying people should stop building beachfront vacation homes. (Though they should. As FEMA’s director has said publicly, we’ve got to stop providing subsidies and incentives for people to build and rebuild in areas we know will be inundated regularly.)
It’s one thing to move a house; it’s another to move a shipyard or a college campus. At Old Dominion University where I teach, we’ve made the decision not to move, but the first two floors of all our new and refurbished buildings may now be reserved for parking so that the inevitable floods of the future don’t completely destroy our infrastructure and ability to carry out our mission.
But how long does it take to move an airport? And to where? Except for Dulles and Hartsfield-Jackson, virtually all major East Coast airports are built on the coast.
These are not easy questions, but we cannot escape the reality of climate change. The sooner we start making decisions, the better. If we don’t, eventually the restless, rising sea will make them for us.
View slides from Larry Atkinson’s presentation here.
Pablo Suarez is associate director for Research and Innovation, Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre
Of all the challenges presented to humanity by climate change, one of the greatest is this: the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, and other threats to people’s lives and livelihoods are becoming more frequent, severe and even bizarre in terms of their location and timing, often far beyond what vulnerable communities have experienced.
In our humanitarian work around the world, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centreand partners have already confronted a sharp increase in workload involving weather-related disasters. We collectively need to better manage the rising risks associated with extreme events. The challenge is to link information, decisions, and consequences.
Science-based forecasts at different time scales can help people — especially those already on the edge of survival. But we live in a complex system with feedbacks, delays, thresholds and trade-offs that are hard to convey. How can we communicate this complexity, so that people and organizations can make smarter decisions that move us from early warning to early action?
We’ve learned that PowerPoint doesn’t always work. Presentations can be too unidirectional, putting audiences in a passive mode. When I first started explaining climate science to humanitarian workers and communities at risk, almost a decade ago, I was very successful at putting people to sleep. It wasn’t easy to get people engaged using spoken words and slides; there was no interaction. Now my professional life communicating climate risk management is both more effective and more fun — serious fun. Now I design and play games.
Participatory games are very rich ways to incarnate complex system dynamics through a few simple rules. As in the real world, in a game you have limited information with which to make decisions. The outcomes depend not just on what you do, but also on what other players do, and on things outside your control — like the random rains.
In playful activity, we “inhabit” the complexity of climate risks, and of making decisions based on imperfect information and with limited time, resources and control over our environment. By playing games designed to reflect real-life challenges, we’re able to make decisions that result in better outcomes when real-life disaster strikes.
At the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, we and our partners have designed over 25 participatory games to help people deal with specific challenges presented by climate change. In more than 100 game sessions involving over 3,000 participants in 35 countries, we have supported fishing villages planning for coastal storms, helped farmers see how gender inequities impact farming, brought the experience of hurricane preparedness to the White House, and inspired global donors to accelerate disbursement of funds for disaster preparedness measures.
Gameplay beats PowerPoint. It’s active learning with lots of “Aha!” moments and peer-to-peer learning. It’s serious and fun — which means people learn more because their emotions are engaged. Everyone, from subsistence farmers to humanitarian workers, academics, business executives and elected officials, can engage in this innovative approach to learning and dialogue.
Throughout human history, games have helped us understand the world and survive within it. Adapting to a changing climate requires more than charts, graphs, slides and lectures. We are thrilled by the success of our approach: Games for a New Climate. We look forward to working with partners to link knowledge with action.
View slides from Pablo Suarez’s presentation here.
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 Todd Feathers | The Huntington News | September 20, 2012
Of the hundreds of classes held at Northeastern each semester, only one attracts nationally renowned professors, economists, politicians and chief executives on a weekly basis.
Held in the basement of West Village F every Wednesday night, this semester’s open classroom series, entitled Policy Advice to the President, has a schedule of speakers that include Michael Dukakis, former Democratic nominee for president and professor of political science at Northeastern; Greg Mankiw, economic policy adviser to Mitt Romney; Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and many more.
The open classroom, designed as a graduate-level class in the school of Public Policy and Urban affairs, is unusual in two ways: It’s open to anyone who wants to attend, and it’s free.
“I really think the university should use its resources, the facilities and the people to benefit the community,” Barry Bluestone, Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and co-moderator of the class, said.
The open classroom series began in 2008 when Bluestone began teaching a graduate course that attracted so few students he decided to open it to the public. The topic changes every year, and the attendance has been steadily growing.
“It’s gotten to the point, and we’ve received such popularity, that we can really attract some star speakers,” Bluestone said. Attendance has jumped from around 30 people the first year to nearly 150 last year, he said.
“I’ve been to every session so far,” Grace Healey, 69, who has no affiliation to the university, said. “I drive 25 miles to get here. I’m just interested in the issues that are being discussed. Certainly Larry Summers [former U.S. secretary of the treasury] and Glen Mankiw [Romney’s economic adviser] were very impressive. The subject matter is what you come for.”
This year’s session focuses on economic, foreign and social policy advice for whoever the next president is.
“We are at a critical juncture right now in our country,” Setti Warren, Mayor of Newton and co-moderator of the class, said. “The discussions that are being had in this election will have an impact here and around the country.”
Bluestone said he and the other moderators tried to assemble a group of speakers that would present a wide variety of opinions on a range of different issues.
“We have a spectrum of views because we want our students to understand a wide variety of opinions,” Bluestone said. “The major theme is to try and explore a variety of public policy options that the president, whoever he may be in November, could pursue.”
The wide assortment of different opinions is also reflected in the class’ audience, who spend the second half of the two hour class questioning the speakers and each other.
“More often than not it’s more of the middle-aged group who ask the questions,” Jeff Newton, a sophomore philosophy major, said. “But last week there was a high school student who asked a pretty good question about health care and a bunch of students speak out too.”
Bluestone said in the 40 years he has been teaching, he’s never enjoyed a class more than the open classroom series, primarily because of the mix of students it attracts.
“We have people as guest students who work for the mayor, work for businesses and we also have people who come from the public housing homes down the street,” he said.
By Matt Collette | news @ Northeastern | September 14, 2012
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are rarely in the same place, either physically or politically. But on Wednesday, economic experts who have advised both men shared the stage to discuss the faltering global economy and the role of federal policy in addressing the crisis.
“At just about any point since the Second World War, the question was always quite clear and you knew what the problems was,” said former Harvard University president Larry Summers, an economist who headed the U.S. Treasury from 1999 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton and served as economic adviser for President Obama until 2010. “What stands out at this moment is that you can listen to a discussion of something like the deficit and there are two major cross-cutting themes.”
Summers and Romney’s economic adviser, Greg Mankiw, the former chair of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, discussed the economy on Wednesday evening as part of the Open Classroom series sponsored by the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. The lecture series — The 2012 Election: Policy Advice to the President — will be held every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. in 20 West Village F throughout the semester and is open to the public.
Speaking to hundreds of attendees, Mankiw described the 2008 partisan debate over how to address the economic crisis. “The big question that plagued both parties was whether to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes or increasing spending,” he said.
Obama’s approach focused on government spending, Mankiw explained, while Republicans argued for tax cuts. The Republican approach, he said, would leave citizens with more money to spend, bolstering the economy from within.
Summers, on the other hand, argued that it’s more important for the government to spend money than address the deficit over the short term because the private sector has been “some combination of unwilling and unable to spend and lend.”
Government spending, he added, is the only way to stimulate enough demand to address the challenges of “a deeply depressed stuck economy.”
Mankiw and Summers agreed that a solution rooted entirely in either spending or in tax cuts would be neither beneficial nor sustainable. Any attempt to address the nation’s economic woes, they said, must be multifaceted.
Mankiw explained that fiscal policy should aim to “broaden the base and lower rates,” a standard conservative approach. But he also advocated for raising the retirement age, which he said would reduce the burden on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
“That’s something that polls much better among economists than the general public,” joked Mankiw. Earlier in the evening, he noted that while he is a Romney adviser, “at times I think it will be clear that I’m expressing an opinion that only a tenured professor could.”
Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and current Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern, moderated Wednesday’s event.
He said it was a privilege to have both Mankiw and Summers on campus. “It’s a great opportunity to have both these men address what is clearly the most important issue of the campaigns,” Dukakis said.
Summers advised his 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis noted, but then joked, “He was a very good economic adviser — that’s not why I lost.”