What can we do?

When we’d discussed the idea of having questions and answers from our exhibit room this summer, I was happy to act as a Google search for simpler questions about animals because curiosity is amazing, and many of these questions make me smile (“Do Fish Yawn?” Yes, Evan R. they do!!). But, I also had really hoped that this would provide an opportunity for a dialog, for engagement, and to tackle some big topics.

This week we’re tackling one of those big topics. The small piece of paper has been my desk for a while now and I have been delaying writing about it. It is a big question; a question no one really wants to think about, but one we can’t ignore.

“Can we reverse Global Warming?” – Nayana 5 ½ yo, San Franscisco

We’ve all seen graphs like the one below–where the squiggly lines start off nice and flat but then rapidly rise as the years tick by into the future. The earth as a whole is experiencing rampant warming. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that human activities, specifically the unbridled release of CO2 from burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, are driving the acceleration in those changes.

Projected changes in global annual mean surface temperature relative to 1986-2005. The red line is what will happen to global temperatures if there is a long term high energy demand and green house gas emissions in absence of climate change policies. The blue line is a projection of what will happen to global temperatures if the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases from 2010 to 2100 are reduced by 70% compared to a baseline scenario. Only under the blue line model–which still requires a 70% reduction!–are we able to cap increases in temperatures to 2-degrees C. Data from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Each country is represented by a circle. The size of the circle indicates how much the temperature has changed relative to the average temperature between 1951 and 1980. It reveals the majority of countries have warmed by at least 1°C, and all but one have warmed by at least 0.5°C. Based on Nasa GISTEMP data (Picture: Antti Lipponen)

Unusual weather events, sea level rise, sea ice loss, ocean acidification—all of these effects of climate change are already being felt by communities in Alaska, and around the world. For example, in a series of interviews in 2018, Alaska’s commercial fishers expressed their individual concerns of climate change and the need for science and education—listen to their stories here.  

Which brings us to the answer to Nayana’s question: Even if there was a light switch we could turn off and stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, the world would not likely go back to the way it was anytime soon.

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in. 

That is a heavy, awful realization to come to. Some, when faced with that realization, may freeze in inaction, until they are subconsciously living by the notion that “by the time the machines take over, I’ll be long dead”. We should probably just invest in a new planet—lookin’ at you, Mars.

Others might find comfort in the old messages. For years, the message most of us have heard about climate change, the rallying cry, has been stop DESTROYING the world. Stop doing the bad stuff—stop driving cars, give up beef, don’t use plastic straws–and everything will go back to normal.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

This strategy relies on individuals to hear the call and for momentum to build across cities, states, and countries. It may be working…but climate change is building momentum too, and in the marathon of facing this threat, people have grown tired. People have become desensitized to the image of a polar bear on an iceberg –it becomes expected instead of horrifying or quickly forgotten amidst the chaos. I know personally I’m exhausted with the thought of trying to convince my friend for the 100th time that just because it was cold today, global warming is not a joke.

If you are trying to have that conversation, I strongly recommend this short video.

So climate change is happening and we can’t reverse it any time soon….what can we do?  

Those small actions are still important, but alone they are not enough. The message needs to extend beyond individuals and to bigger movements in our communities and globally.

What if the message was to adapt? To support organizations, politicians, and companies that are serious about renewable energy innovation. Our cell phones used to be the size of bricks and now you can do everything from take photos, to submit your taxes on a device that fits into your pocket! Humans are amazing at improving and advancing technology and this is another challenge where we can apply our innovation.

The same way we have moved on from old technology in many parts of our lives, this is our opportunity to find new solutions and innovate.

What if the message was to invest? To fund grants and support organizations that empower scientists and industry to work together. The goal isn’t to place a dome over wild places and allow no one in, or to drive people out of their jobs—but to ensure that environmental science can go forward so that the best information is used in our resource management. Only then, can we ensure humans and nature can both thrive when facing an uncertain future.

Support for organizations and funding of science that integrates management, communities, and ecosystem needs will be critical for finding solutions to the effects of Climate Change. This example shows some of the areas the North Pacific Research Board funds through research grants. In particular, since 2007, NPRB has included a specific call for cooperative research with industry in its annual request for proposals.

What if the message was to train? To teach our children to think critically and explore. The goal should never be to just pass a test but to observe, think and explore! If we commit to this change of mindset, and to talking about climate change in our schools, it will mean that we have a future generation that has the tools and training to find novel solutions.

Underling all these messages is one other requirement: empathy.

Empathy to realize that this fight isn’t an issue of ‘us vs them’.

Empathy to work together, realize our mutual challenges requires us to make big choices.

Empathy to realize for some these messages are scary and that change is hard.

Empathy to ultimately help each other when we fall or have set backs.

Maybe then

–if people heard these messages we’d stop being desensitized or depressed, and instead become excited about new careers, exploration and innovation, even if it meant facing some changes.

–if people acted on these challenges– we’d still be on our path forward, but we’d be slowing down the run-away train.

–just maybe, we’ll be able to stop, and someday reverse global warming.  

Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop

2 thoughts on “What can we do?

  1. Dr. Amy, thank you for your honest and empathetic response to what is the most important question of our time. You remind me that an important quality for scientists is to be BRAVE!

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