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Assessment and Commencement
May 13, 2014 - 3:56pm

The US Global Change Research Program released its 2014 National Climate Assessment last week.  It's 827 pages long (I think), but the good news is that pretty much nobody has to read the whole thing.  You can download and peruse treatment of just the economic sectors, just the geographic regions, or just the response strategies in which you happen to be interested.  The text strikes me as being written at a ninth-grade reading level.  There are lots of pictures, charts, maps, diagrams.  All in all, it's not a challenging read once you get past the maximum potential "thud factor".

And yet, I wonder what percentage of Greenback's (or any other university's) current graduating class is equipped to understand what the assessment is telling them.  Not just what each word or sentence means, but what the big picture is, what the major parts are, how (even at a conceptual level) they fit together.  The story the assessment tells is one that, unless they were already attuned to it before they arrived on campus, probably doesn't make sense to most of those folks wearing caps and gowns on Saturday.

Let me try to illustrate my concerns by looking at what's arguably the smallest slice of the assessment that might be relevant to a Greenback grad.  Of those 827 pages, we'll look at only the overview (pp. 7-17) and the section addressing the northeast USA where Greenback U happens to be located (pp 372-384).  I've left out the notes and references and other stuff no student is likely to read.  We're left, then, with 24 pages of relatively accessible text -- pretty much the smallest, simplest, most direct yet comprehensive presentation of the local climate situation.

So what does the assessment say, and why might our grads not be equipped to understand it?

A few salient points from the overview:

  • Climatic changes have affected and will continue to affect human health, water supply, agriculture, transportation, energy, coastal areas, and many other sectors of society, with increasingly adverse impacts on the American economy and quality of life.
  • Carbon dioxide interacts with ocean water to form carbonic acid, increasing the ocean's acidity. . . Ocean acidification makes water more corrosive, reducing the capacity of marine organisms . . . to survive, grow and reproduce, which in turn will affect the marine food chain.
  • Longer growing seasons, along with higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, can increase pollen production, intensifying and lengthening the allergy season.
  • Extreme weather events that produce sudden increases in water flow, often carrying debris and pollutants, can decrease the natural capacity of ecosystems to cleanse contaminants.
  • Water quality is also diminishing in many areas, particularly due to sediment and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours.  Sea level rise, storms and storm surges, and changes in surface and groundwater use patterns are expected to compromise the sustainability of coastal freshwater aquifers and wetlands. . . . Rising sea surface temperatures have been linked with increasing levels and ranges of diseases.
  • The climate change impacts being felt in . . . the United States are affected by global trends and economic decisions.  In an increasingly interconnected world, U.S. vulnerability is linked to impacts in other nations.

And, from the section addressing the northeastern USA specifically:

  • Northeastern cities, with their abundance of concrete and asphalt and relative lack of vegetation, tend to have higher temperatures than surrounding regions. . . increas[ing] heat-related death among those less able to recover from the heat of the day. . . . The combination of heat stress and poor air quality can pose a major health risk to vulnerable groups: young children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions. . . key infrastructure, including electricity for potentially life-saving air conditioning, is more likely to fail precisely when it is most needed.
  • Socioeconomic factors that tend to increase vulnerability to such hazards include race and ethnicity, . . . age, . . . gender, . . . socioeconomic status, . . . and education . . . The condition of human settlements . . . and the built environment . . . influence potential economic losses, injuries, and mortality.  Increased health-related impacts and costs due to even modest increases in heat are predicted in the Northeast's urban centers.
  • Changing distributions of temperature, precipitation and carbon dioxide could affect the potency of plant allergens, . . . there has been an observed increase of 13 to 27 days of the ragweed pollen season . . .
  • Several studies in the Northeast have linked tick activity and Lyme disease incidence to climate.
  • Many Northeast cities . . . are served by combined sewer systems that collect and treat both stormwater and municipal wastewater.  During heavy rain events, combined systems can be overwhelmed and untreated water may be released into local water bodies. . . . Studies have found associations between diarrheal illness among children and sewage discharge . . .
  • Historical settlement patterns and ongoing investment in coastal areas and along major rivers combine to increase the vulnerability of people in the Northeast to sea level rise and coastal storms.
  • Disruptions to services provided by public and private infrastructure in the Northeast both interrupt commerce and threaten public health and safety . . . Port facilities . . . also have flooding impact. . . . Many of the region's key highways . . .  and rail systems . . . span areas that are prone to coastal flooding . . . Storm surge flooding can severely undermine or disable critical infrastructure along coasts, including subway systems, wastewater treatment plants, and electrical substations.
  • Farmers in the Northeast are already experiencing . . . delay[ed] planting for grain and vegetables . . . delay[ed] harvest dates and reduce[d] yields.  . . . The risk of frost and freeze damage [is] exacerbated for perennial crops in years with variable winter temperatures. . . . Many of the most aggressive weeds . . . benefit more than crop plants from higher atmospheric carbon dioxide, and become more resistant to herbicide control.
  • Northeast cities have employed a variety of mechanisms to respond to climate change, . . . [but] local governments still face limitations of legal authority, geographic jurisdiction, and resource constraints. . . . The key, with respect to infrastructure, is to link adaptation strategies with capital improvement cycles and adjustment of plans to incorporate emerging climate protections. 
  • Research and outreach efforts are underway in the region to help farmers find ways to cope with a rapidly changing climate, . . . but unequal access to capital and information for strategic adaptation and mitigation remain a challenge.

Not a single statement is difficult to understand, given even a passing familiarity with the subject  under discussion.  But look at the range of subjects/disciplines:

  • Public health
  • Water supply and treatment
  • Agriculture
  • Transportation
  • Geography (particularly coastal and riparian)
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Urban planning and architecture
  • Sociology
  • Economics
  • Civil engineering
  • Agronomy
  • Public administration
  • Public finance
  • Communication (and, by extension, education)
  • and more

And the impacts of climate change exert themselves as much in the interactions and interdependencies among those disciplines as within any of them.  Take just one obvious example:  if the Northeast suffers a climate-related food shortage due to (1) densely populated cities, surrounded by (2) insufficient and overworked farmland, a delayed growing season with less reliable precipitation, and increased pressure from both pests and weeds, so that (3) an ever-increasing share of food is sourced overseas in locations subject to their own (likely similar) climatic impacts, while (4) the ability to transport that food to a starving populace is inhibited by port, railway and highway flooding, which specific set of technologists can we expect to solve the problem?  And political/governance issues make implementing already challenging solutions even more difficult.

Sure, we're going to need specialists -- experts in each of these disciplines and more.  But if we hope for even a chance for society to survive the changes already underway, we need those specialists to operate in a milieu richly populated with well-informed generalists.  And it's in this latter challenge that Greenback, as most other universities of which I'm aware, is currently failing.  Miserably.

 

 

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