Posted by: sioglac | May 13, 2014

Vatican Day 2b: Andddd we’re back

Sincere apologies about that one. I’m back in the office in San Diego now, but I can pretend like it’s a week ago and I’m still at the Vatican, right? So let’s hop in the time machine and go back to the second day of the Vatican’s Workshop on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature. I highlighted some of my favorite quotes from the second day, but never really gave a round up of what “went down”. I’m not sure the best way to do this because each presentation is 20 minutes of dense information followed by 20 minutes of inspired discussion. For today, I’ll give you a list of the speakers with a sentence or two summary of the important stuff. I hope this summary begins to give you an idea of how wide-ranging the topics of the workshop were.

As a programming note, I’ll round up the third and fourth days later on this week and then write a short bit hopefully early next week giving my general impressions about the whole experience (spoiler: I’m simultaneously discouraged about the state of the world and inspired that we just maybe might be able to salvage the situation). I also have about a million pictures of the workshop and general wandering around the Vatican. I’ll get those up somewhere on the internet ASAP.

Anyway, here’s some of what we talked about over a wonderful Saturday inside Casina Pio IV

  • Hans Schellnhuber, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: Climate change has caused problems, is causing problems, and will cause even more problems. Dr. Schellnhuber rattled through an impressive/scary list of the current impacts during his 20 minutes: 5x more extreme events, synchronicity of extreme events about the jet stream, vanishing sea ice, melting ice sheets, mass extinctions, etc. “It’s not a computer with an undo button.”
  • Walter Munk, Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Dr. Munk started with a story—when he showed up to Scripps as a graduate student in 1939, folks used to joke about adding CO2 to the atmosphere to maintain their beach front property (because if the world dove into another ice age, the sea level would drop and waves would no longer crash at the base of our offices at Scripps). It seems humanity went a little overboard on that one. After a history of sea level measurements, he demonstrated with a quick “back-of-the-envelope” calculation that the timescale needed for the ocean to reduce the atmospheric CO2 level to a “safe” value is on the order of 1000s of years. That’s if we don’t add more. Pretty scary stuff. In the following discussion, someone asked the obvious follow up question: so how do we start scrubbing the atmosphere of CO2 if ocean processes work too slowly? Dr. Schellnhuber popped in for the answer: given the current cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere ($1000 per ton of CO2), it would take about half of the world’s GDP to make humanity annually CO2 neutral. Yikes.
  • Nancy Knowlton, Coral Reef Biology, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History: Oh man! Some optimism finally. Dr. Knowlton highlighted a handful of success stories in the world of ocean remediation because, as I quoted before, “Scary messages without solutions do not motivate people.” All of the success stories, interestingly enough, were local (i.e. micro) solutions, and she concluded with the African proverb, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.” The discussion that followed highlighted methods and difficulties of taking micro-scale solutions into the macro-scale environment. The key, according to Dr. Knowlton, is making these small-scale solutions “go viral.” I hope that’s as easy as it is to make a cat video go viral
  • Jeff Vincent, Environmental Economics, Duke University: Dr. Vincent tackled the problem of assigning an economic value to a highly heterogenous, difficult-to-measure part of the natural system: forests. There are two issues in the sustainability of forests, deforestation (turning forested land into non-forested land, like a farm) and degredation (reducing the capacity of a forest to perform ecosystem services). Deforestation is a relatively easy problem to investigate compared to degredation, where studies tend to be local and very specific. With such a heterogeneous problem, striving to understand the “average” does not necessarily represent the scope of the issue, an idea that has resonated through a variety of talks on the day (like the importance of extreme weather events over mean temperatures; local sea level issues [e.g., Venice and NOLA] vs. global sea level).
  • Janice Perlman, Founder, MegaCities Project: By 2020, 60% of the global population will reside in cities, representing 75% of the global GDP on only 2.7% of the world’s land; the role of cities in the sustainability of the future cannot be ignored. Megacities (>10 million people) are home to millions of people “off-the-grid” and will continue the current trend of growing fastest in the developing world. Ensuring the sustainability of megacities is tantamount to ensuring the sustainability of humanity.
  • Anil Kulkarni, Glaciology, Indian Institute of Science: Himalayan glaciers and snowfall account for about 50% of the runoff in the Indus River basin and the irrigation network in this basin accounts for 96% and 26% of the food production in Pakistan and India, respectively.  As a glaciologist, the fact that the Himalayan glaciers are losing mass (at 6-7 gigatons per year) is not big news to me, nor is that this negative mass balance will lead to a freshwater availability issue. I, however, had never heard it couched in terms of the massive food security issue the disappearing Himalayan glaciers will cause. The discussion also brought up that the timing of peak melt is changing, impacting farms in the area and highlighting again that the problems cannot merely be quantified by the bottom line number (overall mass balance, average temperature, atmospheric CO2 level, mean sea level rise).
  • Peter Wadhams, Polar Ocean Physics, University of Cambridge: Whelp, the state of the Arctic sea ice is pretty depressing, and the newest IPCC report likely sugar-coated the situation. While the IPCC said the first ice free summer will occur around 2050, Dr. Wadhams thinks it could happen as soon as 2015. He also mentioned that there are measured temperatures (like with a thermometer) in the Arctic Ocean of… 7°C. Whoa. There’s also the story of methane release from thawing permafrost, which could be a significant contributor to global warming as methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.
  • Robert Scholes, Systems Ecologist, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research:  Africa is developing quicker than another other place in the world. The big questions is whether the development path in Africa will be like everywhere in the world (as in “consume consume consume!”) or whether we can nudge the development trajectory onto a more sustainable path. This “nudge” will be especially difficult because Africa is already hot and dry. A changing climate will likely only make it hotter and drier and more inhospitable. Sustainable development of African nations will require a global effort to ensure Africa’s plentiful natural capital is converted to manufactured and social capital efficiently and effectively.
  • Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief, Science: Dr. McNutt’s presentation about the stability of coastal zones can be summarized by one of the first facts she presented: Hurricane Katrina resulted in the largest migration of Americans since the Civil War. Our coastal zones are in imminent danger and that means a huge proportion of the population is in direct danger due to sea level rise (the entire global population will incur indirect costs of sea level rise and climate change). We need to come to terms with this issue and have contingency plans in place for different types of coastal zones in a changing environment.
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