The Office of Sustainability hosted the first installment of the Greenbag Lunch Series on Monday Sept. 24 in the Stern Ballroom, which focused on exploring the predicted effects of climate change in the Lowcountry. The discussion was led by Mitchell Colgan from the geology department, Seth Prichard from the biology department and Ned Hettinger from the philosophy department.
The discussion’s goal was to help people better understand climate change and its consequences, as well as to find solutions for creating a sustainable future.
Colgan, along with most other scientists, believes that the acceleration of natural processes that results in warming temperatures is human-caused. “We see the fingerprints of humans in that we started burning fossil fuels,” he said, which release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than would naturally be present.
The current rate of climate change represents a reversal of natural trends, resulting in unsustainable warming and historically high temperatures during the past 10 to 20 years. If this warming trend continues, scientists worry that the Earth will reach a tipping point, a hypothetically massive problem to which there is currently no solution.
Environmental changes due to warming are immediately present in the Charleston area through the loss of Lowcountry salt marshes, which play a vital role in the local eco-system by catching harmful chemicals from fertilizer run-off and protecting people and property from storm surges and tidal action.
Prichard warned of the effects that rising temperatures have on the marshes. He said, “As the sea level rises…we could be dealing with 40 to 50 percent of our marshes basically disappearing,” with a very low chance of ever recovering.
Additional research regarding climate change has proven difficult due to the government’s lack of monetary support. Prichard spoke of recent budget cuts to a research project he was involved in. He said, “We need the government to stop pulling the rug out from under us so we can know what’s going on in terms of research efforts.”
Unless politicians quickly find a way to address climate change as a partisan issue, scientists worry that solutions will not be found before the warming trend becomes irreversible. Colgan expressed the scientific community’s frustration with the current political environment and lack of constructive conversation. He said, “Once a subject becomes politicized, the science doesn’t matter…You don’t fight it on fact; it becomes emotional.”
Scientists are attempting to change this political environment through grass-roots efforts, focusing on communicating issues associated with climate change to the public and helping people understand their individual roles in curbing carbon emissions. In general, scientists are refraining from the term “climate change,” considering it a political buzzword, and are instead focusing on concrete problems and solutions. Colgan said, “It becomes our responsibility to understand the moment of change and its factors and try to depoliticize it just a little bit so we can have a real conversation.”
Hettinger addressed the humanitarian importance of finding solutions, explaining the disparity of energy use between the rich and the poor. Ideally, he believes that there should be “equal per capita greenhouse gas emissions for all the world’s people.”
However, in a growing world this is not always easy. Colgan expressed the challenge to finding a solution as well as the proliferating effects of global climate change as a whole. He said, “We’re living in an incredibly complex world and we’re tinkering around with things that we don’t know the consequences of.”