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Change in the Forecast: Why Melting Ice is A Hot Topic

May 12, 2009

Heat waves and cold fronts are duking it out across the globe, but more than temperatures are at stake.

By Franci Rogers

Climage change 2Hybrid cars, reusable cloth shopping bags, backyard composting and compact fluorescent light bulbs are everywhere you look. Even Kermit the Frog must admit that today, more than ever, it's easy to be green.

The nation's attention is beginning to focus on climate change: why it's happening, how to slow it and what can be done to adapt. Once known as "global warming," scientists now prefer the term "climate change" to help convey the message that rising temperatures are just part of a larger change in the planet.

Nearly every department within Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences has reacted to climate change in some way -- some by leading research of geological evidence in the earth, others by studying how cultures are adapting to the changes.

Dr. Steven Driese, chair and professor of Geology, is doing his part to help understand climate change by discovering how the earth has been changing since its beginning.

"Our concept of time is very different than the general public's," says Driese. "From a geologist's perspective, 100 years or 1,000 years is the blink of an eye. We most often talk in terms of tens of thousands to millions of years."

By studying fossil soils (known as paleosols) and fossil plants and animals in ancient river, lake and sand dune deposits, Driese and other scientists at Baylor are able to determine trends of warming and drying of the earth.

"We know the earth's climate has warmed and cooled in the past," says Driese. "So the question becomes, 'Is the change the result of humans pumping greenhouse gasses into the air, or is it part of a natural earth cycle?'"

One such cycle, he says, occurred during the Paleozoic Era, which began about 540 million years ago. In that time, when no humans existed, the amount of carbon dioxide on earth was 15-20 times higher than today. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased dramatically, then decreased over a period of about 300 million years to below present atmospheric levels.

climate change 4"But how can we ignore the fact that we have doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in the last 200 years?" Driese asks. "Over hundreds of millions of years, the earth can assimilate the extra carbon, but probably not anthropogenic doubling in 200 years."

Dr. Joseph White, associate professor of Biology, has spent years studying ecosystems' response to climate change and agrees with Driese that human involvement has been the leading cause of our current climate crisis.

"If you have any doubts about the existence of climate change, just ask someone who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska," he says. "They can see climate change. People generally don't experience climate; they experience weather. But in the polar regions, you can actually see where the glaciers used to be, just a few years ago. They've receded. In some places there are still signposts marking the glaciers, but the glaciers are now a mile away."

The question, says White, becomes not whether climate change is happening, but what are we going to do about it. And while people living in colder climates may be the first to see the effects of the earth's warming, those near the equator have been the first to feel it.

"Climate change will affect humans. Those living in equatorial regions - which are the most populated and have the most poverty - are most at risk of suffering," he says.

White believes health conditions will worsen in developing countries as temperatures rise.

"Diseases are mostly born in the tropics. As temperatures increase, so will the places where these diseases can exist," he says. "And these people have no place to go."

Infectious diseases, especially those spread by mosquitoes and other insects, are expected to increase. Malaria, yellow fever and encephalitis are likely to spread more frequently to areas as their climates become more tropical.

Increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns could prolong disease transmission seasons. Ticks carrying Lyme Disease, for example, could find favorable conditions to spread their territory and increase their lifespans, creating more outbreaks of the disease.

White also believes that climate change will continue to create political and social unrest in countries such as Rwanda, where changes in land use and availability are a cause of strife.

"We have to be smarter with development and economics," White says. "We need to help developing countries to buffer the impact of disease and impoverishment. And we need to think about the greenhouse gasses we put into the air."

And for White, the response is also spiritual.

"Changing the way we're doing things is just a good land ethic, for us and our kids and grandkids," he says. "It's having clean air and clean water and keeping species around. Are we not called to do anything less?"

The author of three books on Christianity and environmental ethics, Dr. Susan Bratton, professor and chair of Environmental Science (formerly Environmental Studies) also believes the response to climate change has spiritual foundations.

"These are very mainstream Christian ethics issues," says Bratton. "It's our response to future generations, social justice, the wealthy creating problems for the poor; its health concerns. All of these have an appropriate Christian response that should form our personal decision-making."

Bratton believes people are beginning to make more sound decisions about the environment.

"It's an old issue, but I think the reality of it is becoming clearer," she says. "Climate has always fluctuated with warmer and cooler periods, but people are becoming aware that we are going to have trouble adapting to a rapid, major change. We have very pragmatic concerns when we see changes in architecture, air conditioning bills, public health. It's easier to understand when you think about tropical diseases appearing on the Texas coast because of a warmer, wetter climate."

As an environmental anthropologist, Dr. Sara Alexander studies the human response to environmental changes. She sees "going green" as a trend, but one with a potentially positive outcome.

"Being green is now cool," says Alexander, associate professor of Applied Anthropology and chair of Anthropology, Forensic Science and Archaeology. "Cameron Diaz drives a hybrid because it's the cool thing to do, and that's great. As demand goes up, the prices will drop and more people will be able to purchase them."

Alexander sees the growing awareness about climate change and a downturn in the economy as doubling the impact on society.

"In the U.S., we live in a largely reactive society," she says. "Right now, we're reacting to the trend of being more environmentally aware, and we're reacting to monetary pressures. If you put a monetary amount on something, society responds."

The increased use of public transportation and alternative energy sources are not as much responses to the stress of the changing environment, Alexander believes, as to the stress of the paycheck.

"Look at solar energy, for example. It's been around for years, and the South and Southwest would be prime locations for solar energy use," she says. "It's been around for a long time, but we haven't had to tap into it, so we haven't. We haven't felt an imminent need to do so. Now, with the price of gasoline going up, we're suddenly talking about solar cars. We've had the technologies, and they've been around for years."

Recycling is another trend Alexander has been watching, and she says many areas of the U.S. have been more proactive than others.

"There are some places in this country where you can be fined if you don't recycle," she says. "There's a monetary incentive."

In some European countries, she says, monetary incentives to recycle have been tremendous.

"In the U.S. we probably recycle less than 20 percent of our waste," Alexander says. "In Germany, they recycle more than 75 percent. They have the incentive."

Dr. Jennifer Good, assistant professor of German, says the success of the German recycling program is largely based on the marketplace.

climate change 5The Der Grüne Punkt, or Green Dot, system was introduced in Germany in the early 1990s. Manufacturers and producers of any product must pay a fee to use the Green Dot symbol on their packaging. The cost of the use of the Green Dot is based on how much material is used in its packaging, how much of it is recyclable and how easy it is to recycle the packaging material. The more packaging, the more the company pays for the use of the symbol. The result is much less packaging and much less waste.

And, Good says, having the Green Dot is a must for consumers.

"Germans only buy products with that symbol," she says. "In the beginning, the things Germans really value got the symbol. It came to represent the very best, highest-quality product, and now it's just a part of how Germans shop."

Good believes that the program is also successful because it is market-driven rather than government mandated.

"There's less packaging, more things are biodegradable and people know nearly everything can be recycled," she says. "If you buy a CD here, is the plastic wrapping recyclable? It is in Germany, and consumers know that."

German citizens are also more willing to recycle, Good says, even though their system is a bit complex.

"Separating recycling is not compulsory for private citizens," she says, "but a recent survey showed that 90 percent don't mind sorting in their own homes. It's just a way of life. And it could become that way in the U.S. as well. We just have to make it part of our lifestyles."

Making informed, compassionate lifestyle choices is something everyone at Baylor who studies climate change hopes to promote. And with so many departments within the College of Arts of Sciences working on their area of specialty, Driese sees another potential outcome.

"Research and innovation in climate change is something that is just a natural part of Baylor's 2012 initiative. It's about stewardship," he says. "Individual departments may not be able to do the same type of research projects as larger institutions, but working together, we have identified a niche. Baylor has the potential to become nationally and internationally known as the experts in climate change."