EARTH DAY EXCLUSIVE
This borrowed headline in The Guardian best sums up the hope for a change to a more sustainable world thanks to the Paris agreement of December 12, 2015. A consensus among the world’s 195 nations was an earth-shattering acknowledgement that we all need to do something—and fast.
Some WMU professors feel much the same way.
“This is a sea change,” said David Karowe, professor of biological sciences who specializes in global change ecology.
“It is the first time this variety and quantity of countries agreed that humans must slow down climate change. If they follow through on their agreement, it will be the best two weeks for the planet in the history of the planet.”
The agreement was voluntary and even China and the United States signed on to reduce CO2 emissions after many years of resistance. It has taken a long time for governments to catch up with the science and to act on their understanding, said Karowe.
“As a citizen familiar with the science of climate change, I have never seen as big of a disconnect between the strength of scientific evidence and the public’s understanding—except for evolution,” he said.
Even so, Karowe bemoaned that one major American political party still denies climate change.
|Dr. David Karowe|
“They say that the science is not convincing,” said Karowe, “even though 97.5 percent of scientists agree that the climate has noticeably changed over the last century and that the rate of change is faster than anything we’ve ever seen.”
Climate scientists have used many different models to calculate the trajectory of current warming trends and although they differ on how many degrees of warming there will be—some as high as 5-6C or 9-11F—they all agree that we will have more heat waves, droughts in the American Southwest and Great Plains as well as the Mediterranean and Central America.
“If, however, the nations of the world institute the Paris agreements, we will increase global warming by only 2C (3.6F) in 2100,” said Karowe. “If we don’t, we’ll face a 4-5C hike, which translates to 7-9F.”
Eight-five percent of America’s energy is produced by fossil fuels, he said, but the future is solar and wind, whose technology is now available to us. The switch to renewables is a matter of weaning ourselves off the oil and coal, which happen to be the most profitable industries in the world’s history. For example, in just the first decade of this century, these energy producers made $1 trillion, according to Think Progress.
“Climate change is really a scientific issue but it has been made into a political issue,” said Karowe. “It encourages politicians to deny the science. They are putting their personal interests ahead of their constituents, their country and their planet. We need to elect people who put the common good ahead of their personal interests.”
Scientists are not typically political activists, but they must start to connect their research to this issue that has become political, said Karowe. Fortunately, more and more of them are realizing they have an obligation to confront the “misinformation campaign” waged by the fossil fuel industry—like a group of WMU professors who decided to take the message of climate change to the campus and into the community.
The Climate Change Working Group, originally founded by Karowe, Dr. Ron Kramer of sociology and Dr. Paul Clements of political science, has increased opportunities for students, faculty and staff to learn about climate change on campus. Many new courses are being designed and several guest lecturers have been invited to campus. The climate change minor was instituted last fall. Karowe designed a new course titled Climate Change Biology, which teaches the basic science behind climate change and the consequences and solutions for the health of humans and ecosystems.
“WMU is one of the greenest campuses in the country,” said Karowe. “It plans to be carbon neutral by 2065. President Dunn has been a phenomenal leader for this, and the Office of Sustainability won a national award. WMU students and faculty should be very proud of the university’s record.”
The Working Group is also collaborating with several off-campus groups to educate citizens, and have given many public presentations to the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce, Phi Beta Kappa, Nature Center, Kalamazoo Wild Ones, Michigan Botanical Society and dozens of other civic and environmental groups. They have also run training workshops for middle and high school teachers and education and outreach coordinators in the local faith community.
The Working Group has created its own webpage through the WMU Center for the Humanities, which lists various activities, a speakers bureau, resources and members from disciplines across the curriculum.
Other efforts off-campus are taking place.
The Working Group, under the leadership of Denise Keele (Political Science and Environmental and Sustainability Studies), has organized a community reading and discussion at the Kalamazoo Public Library on Thursday, March 31 on the book by George Marshall's titled Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. The book explores why most of us recognize that climate change is real, and yet we do nothing to stop it..
WMU and the inter-faith community came together in 2014 to create Hope for Creation, a series of presentations about climate change and how people of faith might take meaningful action in Kalamazoo. In February, Hope for Creation presented a weekly series of conversations with area clergy to reflect on climate change and religious teachings.
“I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in a decade—probably longer,” said Karowe about the Paris agreements. “It was an incredible feat of diplomacy with John Kerry leading the way for the U.S. and China to agree on emissions reductions before the Paris conference started. It’s the first time either country agreed to cut emissions.”
Karowe also thinks Pope Francis has played an important role in advocating for the Paris agreement. Prior to the talks in Paris, the Pope said that those who are causing and benefitting from climate change (developed countries) are not the same ones who will suffer the most (poor and developing countries) and that, as a result, minimizing climate change is a moral imperative.
“It’s another reason to love this Pope,” said Karowe. “He is not concerned about the political consequences of his position but instead focuses on the ethical consequences of doing nothing about climate change.”
The more voices that join in to do something about climate change, the more likely humanity will do the right thing, said Karowe. If nothing is done, however, the prognosis for the Earth is dire.
Scientific studies have predicted that, with no action to slow climate change, by the end of the century there will be a 200-fold increase in the frequency of heat wave in 12 Midwestern cities. Chicago, for example, in 1995 lost 700 people due to extreme heat. With a 4o C rise in temperature, it is predicted that Chicago will experience 27 similar heat waves per decade. That translates to almost three heat waves per summer for Chicago and two per summer for Detroit. According to the study, implementing the Paris Agreement to keep warming to a 2o C could prevent almost 300,000 deaths heat related in 12 Midwestern cities.
Generating electricity by burning coal causes 20,000 heart attacks and 13,000 deaths in America each year, and the Monroe Power Plant in Monroe, Michigan, is consistently rated as the deadliest coal fired power plant in the United States. It was up and running in 1974, and it is the second largest plant in the United States after Plant Bowen near Cartersville, Georgia.
In January 2009, the Institute for Southern Studies ranked the 100 top polluting U.S. electric utility facilities in the United States in terms of coal combustion waste (CCW) stored in surface impoundments and the Monroe Power Plant ranked number 5 on the list, with 4,110,859 pounds (1,864,654 kg) of coal combustion waste in 2006, based on EPA data. The J.H. Freeman Plant on Lake Michigan is another high polluter and Kalamazoo is downwind from that plant.
“We should absolutely stop burning coal ASAP,” said Karowe, “and instead manufacture wind turbines in states that mine coal so that those people have work.”
However, Karowe admits that part of the problem of marshaling action to fight climate change is the difficulty of quantifying its costs, like the expense of storm damage or coastal flooding, , which is predicted to create 6 million climate change refugees per year by the middle of the century.
“Look at the disruption in the world with 1 million Syrian refugees!” he said.
Climate change could lead to water wars between India and Pakistan—both of which have nuclear bombs. Water from the Indus River flows through northern India before reaching Pakistan, where it provides 80% of the water used for irrigation . What cost would we be willing to incur to prevent war between them, asks Karowe?
Perhaps, suggests Karowe, we could more clearly see the benefits of emissions reductions if we had an ethical discussion on the value of human life, or the value of lost wages or the value of species extinction. (The Paris Agreement could save 10 to 30 percent of species on the planet.)
Meanwhile, scientists have calculated that sea level rises would affect 28,800 square miles of land on the East Coast of the United States, home today to 12.3 million people. In 2013, Ceres, a coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups dedicated to sustainable business practices, published Inaction on Climate Change: The Cost to Taxpayers. In 2014, Governing magazine reported on how cities are facing climate change. And, the State of Florida has estimated that it will spend $300 billion per year to avoid infrastructure damage and hindrances to its tourist industry due to climate change.
“When people talk about the cost of minimizing climate change, they should also talk about the benefits of doing something,” said Karowe. “They should talk about the advantages of a 2o C rather than 4o C rise in temperatures, for example.”
However, to make progress as a nation, Karowe warned that it will be necessary to remove the confusion the fossil fuel industry has largely perpetrated and to let climate policy become a voting issue so that leaders will be elected by whether or not they support policies based on sound science.
“About 20,000 people benefit enormously from continued use of fossil fuels, said Karowe. “They are CEOs from the industry and large shareholders. And, they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of 7 billion people on earth in order to make their short-term profits.”
Karowe believes the world will end up with solar and wind generating its energy. In the near future, we will shift many of our activities to electricity, including transportation.
“We can already produce wind and solar energy at 40 times more than we all currently use,” said Karowe. “Paris is the first real signal that the world is ready to try to minimize the damage it has done. But it has to be implemented by all the nations to work. Americans, too, need to tell their elected representatives that the most ethical and least expensive option for us is to implement the Paris agreement.”