Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wild Center: Climate Change ‘Producing Significant Harm’

The Wild Center in Tupper Lake is holding a national climate conference [details pdf] opened today with an admonishment from conference Co-chair Carter Bales: “We know the risks from climate change are immediate and serious. We know that we have to cut emissions now to cut those risks. It is time to stop talking about what we can do, and start to do it.” Conference organizers released this note today:

The two day conference has attracted leaders from industry, science and policy organizations to the Adirondacks because its organizers promised the event would focus on solutions that would place the United States in a leadership position in a global effort to move away from carbon-based economy. But before the conference attendees started to hash out solutions two speakers took the stage to update the audience on the latest climate science.

John Holdren, a world renowned expert and director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and President of Woods Hole Research Center spoke first. Holdren warned that climate change was not a future event, but “causing significant harm now.” In graphic detail he presented statistics that showed a speeding up of changes in weather patterns around the world, including new data from China linking droughts in Asia to changes in climate. “This is not some radical group,” he said, “this is coming out of the Chinese government, and it is causing them to act.” Holdren told the gathered leaders that the odds were growing worse each day that the world temperature would reach a level not seen in 30 million years, “a time,” he said, “that crocodiles roamed in Greenland.”

Holdren was followed by Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. Lovejoy echoed Holdren’s calls for swift action. He cited global reports of major shifts in species locations, showing that “nature is already on the move everywhere.” Lovejoy said that based on current science, 20 to 30 percent of all species on Earth are likely to be extinct by 2030 as a result of traumatic system shifts caused by changes resulting from climate change. He pointed to locations all over the globe, using models that consistently predict drought in the critical Amazon region in South America and rising sea levels that would alter vast habitats and force large human migrations. Both Lovejoy and Holdren spoke about the complexity of the natural world, and the difficulty of understanding how each change would impact other parts of the system. They both agreed that the pace and scale of changes would cause, as Lovejoy put it, “ecosystems as we know them to fall apart.”

Lovejoy cited the heat wave that took 35,000 lives in Europe in 2003 as an example. The spike in temperature was then thought of as a one in a hundred year event. Lovejoy said that based on current projections that same heat wave would occur every other year by 2020, and would be considered a cool summer by 2050.

The economists and business presenters followed Lovejoy and Holdren. Dimitri Zenghelis, Chief Economist at Cisco’s climate change long-term innovation group and a special advisor to the British government on climate, who had flown in from London for the conference, reiterated that this was not “tomorrow’s story, this is happening now.”

Zenghelis said that a reduction of emissions across the globe of 6-10% every year for the next ten years would produce a 50/50 chance that global temperatures would stabilize at only 1.2 degrees hotter than today, a level that is projected to lead to severe disruptions in natural systems, including those responsible for food and water supplies.

Zenghelis ended by saying that the solutions that were available to cut emissions could result in a cost of only 1 to 2 percent of global GDP, a number he related to the 5 percent of U.S. GDP dedicated to military expenditures or the 15 percent spent on healthcare.

Ken Ostrowski, who is the head of a major climate initiative at McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s leading consulting firms, presented an outline of the McKinsey Report on greenhouse gas reductions that describes ways the U.S. could reduce emissions. The report also helped form the basis for the conference’s solution-oriented structure. In one example he said that a move to use existing energy efficient products would eliminate the need for $300 billion dollars in new power plant investment freeing up money for other uses.

Ostrowski described a series of ways that the cuts could be made in a way that benefited the economy. He used examples as simple as consumers changing to fluorescent lighting that would cut electric use, reduce overall costs for consumers and cut pollution associated with manufacturing and shipping dozens of old-style incandescent light bulbs that a single long-lasting fluorescent bulb would replace. More complex examples included the challenges posed by the need to move quickly and in an organized way across many parts of the economy.

Each attendee at the conference was supplied in advance with reports outlining options that would collectively help move the United States sharply away from carbon dependence. The eventual goal is an 80 to 90 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Conferees broke up into three groups, one to hammer out recommendations for power generation, another for forestry and land use, and the last for buildings and appliances. More than 60 leaders from each sector sat around tables and began to shape their group’s recommendation. The gatherings were closed to outside observers to allow what conference director Kate Fish said would be a completely open discussion. “What they are trying to do here could be historic,” said Fish. “We wanted everyone to feel that they could take risks, and take positions without concern that they might be quoted in something they said years from now.”

Fish said that the conference was filled to overflow, with more than 200 total attendees for an event that organizers planned for 125. All of the main presentations are being prepared for internet broadcast by the Wild Center. “We filmed all the Plenary sessions,” said Fish. “We will post the presentations and speeches as soon as possible on the conference website.” She said that the entire conference plan, and all the advance reports were already posted in the website the Wild Center created for the Conference at www.usclimateaction.org. She said that all the presentations and speeches would be available on that site within three weeks.

Attendees will reconvene Thursday to complete work for each sector, and to convene as a group to work toward a first draft of the conference’s “Message to the Nation,” which will be widely circulated once it has been completed. The conference concludes Thursday at 5:00.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.




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