Friday, February 11, 2011

Global Wisdom

How often do you get to meet a person who was one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people and who was directly responsible for an organization’s winning of the Nobel Prize? If you were on the Cook Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick last night, chances were pretty good.

Susan Solomon is a scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and spoke to a room full of scientists, students, faculty, and the general public about global climate change.

Like most scientists (as opposed to some activists), Solomon is not an alarmist, but nevertheless presented quite a bit of scientific information, boiled down to a level understandable by a layman, that makes some predictions that need to be taken seriously by our elected officials.

Her PowerPoint punctuated presentation, entitled “A World of Change: Climate Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”, was full of charts summarizing years (and in some cases centuries) worth of scientific measurements from all over the world. Her remarks were long on data and short on opinion or advocacy.

Solomon presented evidence compiled by multiple scientific groups from around the world that the world’s oceans are warming - approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century. There was actually a dip in global temperatures in the ‘60s and ‘70s due to widespread global pollution partially blocking natural sunlight from the earth’s surface. But as we made our air healthier to breathe, this temporary cooling effect went away. This phenomenon is similar to dips in the planet’s temperature when there are major volcanic eruptions and ash is spewed into the atmosphere. Despite these ephemeral variations, the overall long-term trend is unambiguously increased temperatures.

She also presented evidence of glacial melting over the last century and described her scientific adventures in Antarctica where she and colleagues investigated historical evidence of CO2 in the ice caps. Atmospheric CO2 is a major factor in increasing global temperatures and the concentration of that gas in the atmosphere is higher than it has been in the last half-million years.

So the big question is whether or not the recent warming trends are man-made or are just part of the normal cycle of variations in the dynamics of the earth’s climate. Solomon points out that the scientific evidence shows that most global warming over the past 50 years is man-made. And while the bulk of the CO2 comes from the developed nations that burn fossil fuel, as other nations improve their economies, more and more people will be contributing to this world-wide problem. (The United States is the third worst in this area, sending twenty tons of CO2 per capita into the atmosphere, about twice the rate of Europe.)

She noted that the noticeable impact of higher concentrations of CO2 will be wider variations in rainfall (and snowfall), and while some people may contend we are experiencing that now, the effects will be much more pronounced by the end of this century. Some regions of the earth will face severe drought while others will experience flooding. But there are other impacts as well. For example, for every degree of global warming, America’s ability to grow corn is reduced by 10%.

Solomon was also involved with studies of the impact of the depletion of the ozone layer. She feels this is an example of where nations can come together in their common interest. The Montreal protocol, which came into effect in 1989, phased out the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere, and significantly alleviated the problems they were causing. But, as Solomon pointed out, this was easy to do, citing the switch from spray to roller deodorants as a prime example. The problem with CO2 is much more difficult due to our dependence on fossil fuels in our lives and economies.

This world-renowned scientist pointed out that New Jersey’s Rutgers University is playing a key role in the never-ending quest for knowledge and solutions to this world-wide problem. Her presentation was based on scientific evidence, and where there was no conclusive evidence, she said so. And although she was careful to let the audience know that she was not advocating any particular choice, she said “there is a climate middle ground” and changes to reduce CO2 need to be made. It’s not too late to take action. The question is, do we have the will to heed the wisdom of Solomon?

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