Hadly Lab blog

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Elizabeth A. Hadly (@LizHadly)
Paul S. & Billie Achilles Chair of Environmental Biology, Stanford University

Close encounters are wake-up calls.  The recent near-miss of a 130,000-ton asteroid, hard on the heels of a 10,000-ton asteroid in Russia that caused injury to 1200 people, precipitated demands for international scientific and engineering solutions to avoid future calamity.  

It’s easy for us to envision a comet-caused catastrophe because the fossil record tells us it has happened in the past, with disastrous results.  But what about the slow-motion catastrophe that is global climate change?  There is no doubt about this catastrophe’s impact either.

As a paleobiologist who studies survival and extinction in the fossil record, I have handled bones of animals long extinct and I’ve seen how animal communities change over millennia.  What I study has shown me what is at stake.  It has convinced me that we’ve created our own asteroid, and one that will not just fly by.  Our climate is warming; our oceans are acidifying; our forests are disappearing; and our population is growing.  Where is the public outcry?  We must compel our scientists, our engineers, our businesses, our policy makers, our leaders—indeed, each other—to confront and plan for our future.

This is not a hypothetical disaster.  This is real.  The number of humans on Earth has more than doubled in my lifetime and it is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050.  Temperatures then will be warmer than our species, Homo sapiens, has ever experienced.  Sea-level rise endangers our beachfront properties and major ports; warmth-fostered beetle expansions have killed millions of acres of conifer forests; and drought strains our crops.

These changes are facts, witnessed every day.  Our military is planning for them.  Our insurance companies are dealing with them.  And many of us are feeling the impacts of too many extreme events like this year’s fires and superstorms.  Yet our policy makers have consistently failed to make environmental policy a priority.  Of 932 bills now before the 113th Congress, only 11 even mention climate; only 5 mention fossil-fuel emissions—and of those, 3 bills oppose emissions regulation.

While climate change is an international problem, solutions begin at home.  The US has an international commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 2020, but unless we enact legislation to cut power plant emissions, eliminate hydrofluorocarbons used in automobile air conditioners and elsewhere, and increase energy efficiency, we will not fulfill our promise.   

For regulations and incentives to curb our energy use and dependence on fossil fuels, requirements need to become true political priorities, not just ideology.  But this will only happen if everyday citizens and voters begin to adjust their own priorities—and the way they view the world.  Compelling as the statistics may be, they pale in comparison to the power of individual attention.

In my own work and lifetime, I’ve seen changes due to climatic warming around the world.  At the top of Africa, I walked to the edge of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, now smaller than anytime in recorded history, and melting by the day along with the ice records of thousands of years.  In Rwanda I sat among some of the last 700 remaining mountain gorillas, most bearing some scar documenting their encounter with humans—severed hands, runny noses, and fragmented families.  In our own national backyard, I have watched drought evaporate our frog ponds.  Beholding these changes with my own eyes has increased my sense of urgency and responsibility.  I believe every one of us has a duty to take note of the world’s transformation.  Indeed this is the only way to orchestrate political action.

The size of this metaphorical climate comet overwhelms us, but Americans have solved seemingly insurmountable problems before.  We abolished slavery.  We landed a man on the moon.  Now we drill into Martian rock, see the edge of the universe, and calculate asteroid near-misses.  We can conquer great obstacles and overcome enormous technical challenges—but not as bystanders.

Environmental events of the past year are our wake-up call.  Drafting a blueprint to forestall and adapt to climatic change starts with a more careful, honest and widespread view of our changing planet.  Lend your voice to our leaders’.  Ask policy makers and your neighbors to make limiting emissions a priority.  And just as important, bear witness yourself.  As we pay attention to the small, incremental things around us—not just the violent cataclysm of an asteroid collision—we may find the keys to living with our own dramatic impact on the planet.