Questioning Authority: Al Werner on Climate Change
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a report that concludes for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal” and that humans “very likely” have caused most of the rise in temperatures since 1950. We asked Al Werner, professor of geology, for his thoughts on the issue.
QA: What is most significant about the report's findings?
AW: The most important difference between the recent report and earlier reports is that a strong case is made that the observed--and anticipated--climate change is largely due to human activity, and it lays to rest (finally) that much (most) of the observed climate change is simply natural variability of the climate system. Human activity is changing the climate, and these changes are complicated, far-reaching, and wide-ranging.
QA: What do you think is the most important climate change issue?
AW: Tough question, because climate change will impact different regions in very different ways. Those living near sea level will be concerned with the effects on coastal erosion, flooding, and water supplies. Mid-continent wheat growers will worry about local climates and growing conditions. Native peoples living in the polar regions may have their very way of life threatened. I think we are going to hear a lot in the next decade about the demise of Arctic Ocean sea ice. Replacing highly reflective snow and ice with dark ocean will drastically change the amount of heat absorbed in the high latitudes--bad for indigenous cultures, the permafrost, and the polar bear...but we will finally secure the elusive Northwest Passage!
QA: What can we, as citizens, do to help prevent climate change?
AW: Climate change needs to be embraced as a significant global issue that threatens the sustainability and quality of life on the planet not just for our species but for all species. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do not know or respect political boundaries. We need to use fewer fossil fuels for transportation, for heating and cooling, and in industry. We need to develop new sustainable energy sources and improve existing sources. On a personal level, we can buy Energy Star appliances and fuel efficient cars, use energy efficient light bulbs, increase the insulation in our attics, and replace old windows, heating systems, etc. Most important, we can support politicians (at all levels) who make climate change a central part of their political platform.
QA: If climate change is inevitable, why should we do anything?
AW: Although climate change appears likely, we can influence the amount humans contribute to the change and, more important, we can influence the rate of change. Slowing the rate of change will buy us more time to adapt and more time to develop alternative energy sources and technologies.