Aspen Environment Forum panel says life as we know it already is changing
by Scott Condon
Living in a world where the population is topping 7 billion and temperatures are rising is going to be anything but normal.
A panel Saturday morning at the opening session of the Aspen Environment Forum painted an often bleak picture of how climate change is altering the world and how humans are dealing with the challenges.
The annual conference, presented by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic, is titled “Living in the New Normal” this year. The opening discussion carried the same name, but it soon became evident that there is no new normal.
“We're living in a new abnormal, perhaps,” said Dennis Dimick, National Geographic magazine's executive editor for the environment. He showed detailed graphic displays that demonstrate how global temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s. Projections indicate that summers in 2040 to 2060 will be “warmer than the warmest on record,” he said.
Go ahead andthrow weather records out the window, agreed Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The atmospheric conditions are changing to the point where “every weather event is different than it would have been,” Trenberth said. “We keep changing the climate so there is no new normal.”
Moderator and National Geographic magazine senior environment editor Rob Kunzig called Trenberth “the go-to guy” for journalists writing about extreme weather events. While scientists, by and large, don't attribute individual weather events to climate change, Trenberth says that's exactly what is happening. The warming atmosphere holds more moisture so we are witnessing more violent thunderstorms and torrential rains, Trenberth said. In other areas, the warmer temperatures are drying the earth out faster than before and creating severe drought conditions like those plaguing Colorado, parts of the Plains and Texas, he said.
He said another scientist aptly named the phenomena “weather on steroids.” Weather events are enhanced by a warming climate.
Panelist William Chameides, dean and professor of the environment at Duke University, said adaptation is necessary in every phase of life to deal with the changes we have wrought. Changes are necessary from local land-use decisions — such as allowing or prohibiting new coastal development in areas threatened by rising water — to how we generate power.
“We're going to see climate change regardless of what we do the next few decades,” Chameides said.
He gave a sobering assessment that humans are headed toward “bad times.” It might parallel the period when the plague wiped out a third of the world's population, he said.