Thursday, January 31, 2008

Panel Tackles Emissions, Future of Climate Change

Panel Tackles Emissions, Future of Climate Change

By Maggie Astor

A four-person panel of environmental science experts and Nobel laureates, along with University President Lee Bollinger, explored the topic of climate change in front of a packed auditorium on Wednesday evening.

The event, titled “How the Nobel Was Won: Advances in the Science of Climate Change,” was organized largely by a group of four students as part of a national “Focus the Nation” awareness campaign. The panelists examined the global impact of climate change and brainstormed ways to both reduce the threat and adapt to what the panelists called inevitable consequences.

“The subject of climate change has moved from something only a few people had been talking about into something that has captured the attention and imagination of the world,” Bollinger said in his introduction.

Each panelist presented a different aspect of the larger issue.

“Global warming has the potential to be the perfect storm, or perfect disaster,” said Jim Hansen, astrophysicist and adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia.

Hansen discussed the dangers associated with current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and emphasized the “great inertia of systems,” or the fact that it can take years for carbon dioxide emissions to cause a measurable increase in ocean temperatures. This means that more than half of the warming that will be caused by greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere “is still in the pipeline,” Hansen said.

While “it is still technically feasible” to avoid such consequences, he said: “it’s sort of barely possible. And if we stay on business as usual for another decade, we’ll be well beyond that possibility.”

R. K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, echoed Hansen, saying that “a dangerous threshold has been crossed.”

“We have to look at it from the perspective of those who are going to be the most affected,” Pachauri said.

“Issues of global warming are ... issues of social justice,” said Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia economics professor and globalization expert, explaining that while wealthy, industrialized countries are responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide emissions, underdeveloped countries pay the highest price.

The fourth panelist, Barnard professor Cynthia Rosenzweig, was involved with IPCC’s Working Group II, which developed a report on the vulnerability of the climate system and the potential impacts of warming.

After Bollinger questioned the panelists, he opened the floor to audience questions. Attendees clapped when a student asked how universities can work to decrease carbon dioxide emissions.

After initial answers by panelists who mentioned the Manhattanville expansion, Bollinger noted that the University is trying to make the new campus environmentally healthy. He added that Columbia has professionals working on environmental initiatives specifically related to the expansion, and that buildings would comply to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver standards. Hansen retorted that these standards are not “very stringent.”

Bollinger said he and the planning committee will always be open to suggestions about
Manhattanville’s environmental impact, and made sure to close the discussion by reiterating the fact.

Across the street in Barnard’s Altschul Auditorium, Columbia Focus the Nation organizers showed a Webcast titled The Two Percent Solution, which suggests that people reduce their carbon emissions by two percent each year, with the goal of reducing them 80 percent by 2050.

The organizers—Hannah Perls, CC ’11, Alima Catellacci, BC ’11, Acadia Roher, BC ’10, and Dario Abramskiehn, CC ’10—found out about the Webcast at Power Shift, a 6,000-student
environmental conference held in Washington, D.C. over Election Day weekend last November. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, over 1,600 schools nationwide aired it in unison.

The week of action will culminate today with a climate change teach-in at 5 p.m. in 1501 International Affairs Building.

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