The Climate Discussion at the 2012 State of the Planet Conference

Photo by Nadav Gazit

By Aditi Thapar, Climate and Society ’13

On October 11, the Earth Institute hosted the State of the Planet Conference with speakers from Columbia, the United Nations, and humanitarian communities. The conference focused on sustainable development, and a big piece of that was the topic of climate variability and change. To get to the heart of the issue, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) discussed the reality of a changing planet.

Hansen laid out the myriad impacts of climate change we’re already seeing, citing the loss of 75 percent of Arctic sea ice; rising sea levels, which have increased by a foot across much of the Earth in the last century; and the increasing incidence of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. If we continue down the unsustainable greenhouse gas-emitting path we are currently following, he suggested there would be serious and continued negative impacts on the climate.

While Hansen focused on the impacts of climate change, Goddard brought in the concept of climate variability. That’s because not every shift we see in climate patterns is due to human-induced climate change.

One prime example is the drought that occurred in East Africa last year. Somalia, Goddard noted, faced drought where the region received barely 5% of their average rainfall for two years, which led to widespread crop failure and as a result, famine. According to Goddard, the drought in Somalia could not easily be attributed as an effect of climate change because the region did not exhibit any trends over the 20th century. Instead, natural fluctuations in the climate system indicated the region might be shifting into a dry phase as well as a La Niña event in 2010 were more likely contributing factors.

Regardless of the cause, communities in the developing world face bigger challenges due to climate factors. That’s because a lack of infrastructure, support, and knowledge tend to lead to conservative decisions. While acting conservatively can help individuals and governments avoid the impacts associated with disruptive climate events such as droughts or hurricanes, it also means they can’t take full advantage of fortuitous climate events such as a good rainy season.

That’s why focusing climate and international development efforts on present variability and change can have immediate impacts. The IRI, Goddard said, promotes these kinds of efforts, working with scientists in developing countries in order to co-creates appropriate decision systems using seasonal and other climate forecasts. IRI’s efforts to train scientists on how to develop and disseminate good climate information has helped create climate-resilient systems ranging agriculture to water management to public health.

In the U.S., these types of systems are equally important. However, as Hansen made clear, to avert the worst effects of climate change, developing sound policy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and their attendant ill effects is key.

He argued that the U.S. government should no longer subsidize the cost of the “cheapest energy” (i.e. fossil fuels) and should instead levy a tax on carbon. In his view, a carbon tax would help set regulations in place for vehicle efficiency and the revenue it raised could also be used to help spur the technology development required to develop efficient alternative energy sources.

The panel showcased both the challenges society faces (and has created) when dealing with climate and also avenues for dealing with those challenges. With the recent reelection of Barack Obama, it remains to be seen whether the US will step up to those challenges.


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