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By Neila Columbo
July 11, 2012
ASPEN, CO – Global warming is not a problem of the future, it is a problem right now. The environment has already changed in ways that we will be forced to adapt to, whether this means preparing for extreme weather events or housing global warming refugees (such as migrants from the Maldives).
This year’s 5th Annual Aspen Environment Forum featured distinguished leaders who explored the most critical challenges facing humanity, as well as meaningful solutions to the new realities of global warming.
The opening session began with biologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson discussing his year-long expedition to Papua New Guinea and Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Wilson shared his thoughts on the importance of cultivating a compassion for nature in younger generations, given how drastically prior generations have already altered natural habitats.
“If we continue at the present rate of eliminating species, half of them will be gone or reduced to what we call ‘the living dead’ by the end of the century. We’re actually changing the chemistry of the sea, and we could be wiping out not just species, but entire phyla,” says Wilson.
Dennis Dimick, National Geographic magazine’s executive editor, introduced the opening plenary “Living With the New Normal,” in which panelists discussed how to adapt to the consequences of global warming: rising sea levels, droughts, melting ice caps, and floods.
Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained that changing atmospheric conditions are evolving in unforeseen ways, such as with extreme weather events.
“We keep changing the climate so there is no new normal,” asserts Trenberth.
Adaptation in all aspects of life will be necessary, notes William Chameides, dean and professor of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.
“We’re going to see climate change regardless of what we do the next few decades,” he says.
All panelists shared the concern that carbon levels in the atmosphere be addressed before it is too late. “Fifty years from now, ecosystems won’t be viable where they are now,” says Trenberth.
Atmospheric scientist Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and Dr. Heidi Cullen, a research scientist and correspondent at Climate Central, spoke about the links between rising temperatures and increasingly intense weather patterns during the session on “The New Weather.”
Emanuel discussed the continuing trend of greater intensity and frequency of hurricanes, which he explored in his August 2005 research paper published in the journal Nature, a noted correlation with rising North Atlantic and North Pacific sea surface temperatures to increasing hurricane power over the past thirty years.
Yet, public perception of changing weather patterns remains a challenge for both scientists and journalists seeking to educate the public.
“Big storms are rare, so it is difficult to convey what is actually happening to the public in a way that the public remembers,” Emanuel says.
Discussing how extreme weather events are communicated in the media, Cullen expressed concern opportunities are missed when meteorologists do not include climate context in local weather forecasts, as well as the need for compelling reporting on global climate effects.
She reflects, “How do we talk about melting ice in a way that feels relevant and visceral to people far away from Arctic?”
During the climate and conflict panel discussion, Sherri Goodman, Senior Vice-President at CNA, shared its military advisory board considers climate change as a “threat-multiplier” for instability in vulnerable areas of the world, however this does not necessarily mean it will lead to armed conflict.
“Climate change is a factor, but even more immediate [concerns] are changes in water, in food, potentially in disease and in health as well. These are the concerns I have about increased potential instability and stresses as a result of the impacts of climate change,” says Goodman.
Other sessions included discussions on global changes in weather, deforestation and current initiatives for creating community-owned forest systems, managing marine debris and prospects for water given low projected flows across western states this year, as well as how climate-induced disasters may conflict with American security interests.
For related articles, see:
Dalai Lama on Global Warming: ‘Take Care of Our Home’
Greenland Tourism: Rubbernecking Global Warming?
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