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by Jennifer Ching, staff writer

 

“It was the best of times…” and it could easily become the worst of times, unless we act in response to the global warming of our planet. That’s the basic message of one of the world’s leading climate change scientist, Dr. Susan Solomon, who spoke March 2, 2009 at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa about “A Tale of Environmental Change: Something for Everyone about Climate Change and Climate Gridlock.”
A senior research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, “Solomon is best known for pioneering the theory explaining why the ozone hole occurs in Antarctica and making some of the first chemical measurements establishing man-made chlorofluoro-carbons as its cause,” according to documents distributed by the UH International Pacific Research Center (IPRC). Among numerous honors and accomplishments, Solomon served as co-chair of Working Group 1 on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2002–2008 and was a major contributor to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, a “Summary for Policymakers.”
Her lecture, sponsored by the UH’s IPRC, was free and open to the public, and Kevin Hamilton, interim director of IPRC, hopes it will be the first in an annual series of lectures given by world-leading environmental scientists.
More than 60 people—students, faculty, and general public attended Solomon’s lecture to hear her describe how the climate is changing and what can be done about it.
Noting that she was not speaking on behalf of NOAA or IPCC, but for herself as an individual, Solomon began by showing the audience charts and graphs displaying how the climate has gotten warmer during the past three decades.
“ The motivating factor behind our interest in climate change,” Solomon said, “is the remarkable record of climate that’s available from observations worldwide. There is just no doubt that the world is warmer than it used to be,” Solomon said, adding that “so many different kinds of measurements [are] all telling you the same thing.” Some of the measurements, she explained, included increased water vapor in the air, rising atmospheric temperatures, and glaciers retreating on a worldwide scale.
Paradoxically, Solomon explained, pollution in the air over American and European industrial centers in the 1950s and ‘60s actually slowed global warming and produced a slight cooling of the atmosphere. “At that time,” Solomon explained, “that haze was reflecting a lot of energy back out to space and that slowed down the warming for a while.”
“ Since we’ve cleaned up our act,” Solomon added, “very strong warming has occurred in about the last 30 years.”
She also explained that short-term variations, such as those caused by volcanoes, El Niño’s, and La Niña’s, don’t change the big picture of global warming, and weather fronts simply move warm or cold air from one place to another, so particularly warm or cold summers or winters have nothing to do with climate change, which is actually a result of human activity.
“ We have changed our climate in a remarkable way,” she said, “and it’s due to burning fossil fuels.” She further demonstrated that carbon dioxide is causing the bulk of the climate change and used the analogy of filling a bathtub with liquid faster than the liquid can drain out of it. Like an overflowing bathtub, if emissions continue being released into the environment faster than they are removed, the climate will continue warming, dry areas will become drier, and wet areas wetter.
“ The disturbing thing about this,” she explained, “a 20 percent change in rainfall [in certain areas]…would be comparable to the ‘Dust Bowl’ era. The ‘Dust Bowl’ era was a 10 percent reduction in rainfall that lasted about 10-15 years. In this case, we’re talking about up to 20 percent and it would last for many hundreds of years. So we’re really talking about the potential to…drastically change the environment.”
So what can we do to respond to the climate change facing us?
“ There is no simple answer,” she said. “Never before has there been a greater need for a joint and well-informed social choice,” a choice, she added, “well-informed by science.”
She ended by giving examples of how we can approach stabilizing carbon emissions with the “Seven Wedge” model developed by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University. “A wedge is something that, in 50 years time, reduces emissions by a gigaton,” she explained. “We can do it with renewable energy. We can do it by reducing deforestation. More wind…and solar could give us a wedge. More nuclear fission, and more energy-efficient cars.”
“ I think this is an enormous challenge,” she concluded. “It’s enormous because it challenges us to think, not only beyond our own backyards, but even beyond our own generation.”


 

 

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