Avoiding Unmanageable Climate Change and Managing Unavoidable Changes
Presented by Ralph J. Cicerone
President, National Academy of Sciences
at the Science and Technology in Society Forum
October 4, 2009
I am grateful to Mr. Koji Omi for the opportunity to participate in the 2009 Science and Technology in Society Forum here in Kyoto. Mr. Deputy Prime Minister Kan and leaders of science, business and governments from around the world, the founding principles of the STS Forum recognize that science is a major enterprise of humans and that it will continue to progress (providing light) and that science and technology are enabling the growing human population, now 6.4 billion people, to enjoy a higher standard of living. But there are also unforeseen or inadvertent problems that can accompany this progress. Not only do science and technology create light, there are also shadows ~ as Mr. Omi has said.
Global climate change caused by humans illustrates all of the dimensions of the STS Forum. S&T provide energy for human consumption for electricity, for transportation, mining, agriculture, heating… and worldwide, over 80% of energy used is from burning of fossil fuels: coal, gas and petroleum. Consequently, humans are causing the atmospheric concentration of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, to increase worldwide. Further, land clearing, mostly in the tropics for agriculture, also releases significant amounts of CO2.
Other important and effective greenhouse gases and climate-forcing agents are building up in our air. CH4 arises from expanded rice agriculture, the growing populations of cattle for meat and milk, and from coal mining, national gas distribution and from wastes discarded from cities and from animals. Atmospheric N2O amounts are rising due to increased applications of N fertilizers (+ nylon manufacture), as are the atmospheric concentrations of various volatile fluorinated chemicals from air conditioners and refrigerators, dielectric fluids, from electronics manufacturing and aluminum refining. And black carbon (soot particles) although short-lived, can be influential from incomplete combustion of low-quality fuels.
Science has allowed us to determine that over Earth’s history, there have been previous large shifts in regional and global climate. Now, science is enabling us to measure and monitor climate variables as they change. We are observing temperatures rising in air and water, along with ice losses in Greenland, Antarctica and continental glaciers, and sea level rise in all ocean basins. Precipitation events are becoming more intense. Summer sea ice is decreasing rapidly in the Arctic Ocean. We can foresee and detect human-caused climate change.
Scientific research must also advance to allow us to predict future changes more reliably and for specific locations. Also we must learn about destabilizing changes like rapid sea-level rise, methane release from warming, thawing permafrost, shifting ecosystems and further loses of biodiversity and sensitivity of agriculture to climate change and water supplies.
Responding to climate change requires that leaders of governments, businesses, science and experts in communication talk with and work with each other in research, mitigation and adaptation. Nations must share information and must stimulate each other to improve our performance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to advance science of climate, to adopt better technologies. Of course, vast improvements are needed in education worldwide.
Our mutual shared challenges are to avoid unmanageable changes by limiting or mitigating climate change and to manage the unavoidable changes, by minimizing the harm to humans and all of life of the climate change that does occur.
To see what is coming, to avoid unmanageable changes and to manage unavoidable changes are challenges that match the goals and principles of the STS Forum.