Last night, Dr. David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany spoke at Norwich University’s Plumley Armory with a talk titled “The Effects of Climate Change on Human Health: What We Must Do To Save Our World”. As the title suggests, the focus of the night was on the changing global climate and what the impact of such changes would be on human civilization. We’re in for a number of problems, should the problem continue unmitigated. The issue, however, comes in a number of forms, and helps to resist to any needed changes.
Simply put, the planet is slowly warming up, with average temperatures rising by a degree over the last decade. However, as Dr. Carpenter noted, the term Global Warming, while accurate in some places, is more of a misnomer that doesn’t describe the phenomenon properly: this isn’t a gradual, steady change that’s consistent: in some places around the world, it’s gotten colder. In the United States, other changes have been seen, with the Northeast and south seeing more precipitation, while the South West has seen far more dry weather than on record. Such changes happen all around the world.
The changes can be attributed to human behavior and carbon dioxide emissions. We primarily get our energy by burning and consuming fossil fuels, with significant amounts coming from energy production to agriculture to transportation, with very little of that offset by renewable energies, and with further offsets by the destruction of forests and other resources.
The warming has other affects on the planet’s ecosystems. Habitats change, and plant and animal life struggles to catch up and adapt. Carpenter cited estimates up upwards of 30% of known species going extinct as a result in the relatively near future. The story is a very familiar one, and most of the well known points were covered in a fair amount of detail.
I was disappointed by the presentation for a couple of reasons. While the information was good, it was a lot of stuff that has largely been seen before and discussed widely in the media, science publications and elsewhere, essentially acting as a primer for what the state of the planet is and where we might be going.
One of the main issues that I’ve often found with climate change science is how the results come up against the general public. The problems are far-reaching and cover many parts of the world and people’s lives, and as a result, there is a lot of complexity to how the problems can be approached. Furthermore, I’ve yet to see a convincing examination of climate change that links the science to practical human impact.
Personally, I don’t care all that much for the plight of the Polar Bears, or the ice caps: there’s very little direct impact to my day, and without ice caps melting in the first place, I wouldn’t be able to live in Vermont. However, the impact that global climate change has and will have on human lives is immense, and I think that there were some major opportunities here to plug that gap.
In 2003, Carpenter noted that a massive heat wave in Europe killed thousands of Parisians, something I didn’t believe at first, and looked up on the spot. It’s true: 40,000 people in Europe were killed as a direct result of the heat wave during that year, a major impact if I ever saw one. Further elements that he talked about was the impact of disease carried by mosquitoes migrating as a result of warmer temperatures in areas unaccustomed to them, and how plant life might shift as a result. The impact will be greater in third world countries, where there are closer links to the land (as opposed to first world countries which have more extensive infrastructure and resources available).
The talk was interesting, and through provoking, but it’s a message that’s been heard many times before, and one that’s not as convincing as it once was. Still, he presents a scary future, one that suggests radical changes, and notes a message that shouldn’t be too far from one’s mind: how will we solve the problem?