In the past year, the world has seen more heat waves, droughts, and sea level rise than before — and conditions are expected to further worsen in the near future. In a session at a conference by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., experts debated the types — and extent — of major challenges that will test the global community in coming decades.
For Molly Brown, research scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the big issue will be food security. She is examining satellite imagery, connecting climatic change to food prices. Through this analysis, NASA has found “the relationship is very complex,” but it’s clear that weather is “very important in agricultural areas.” She cautioned that “food security can become a problem in places you can’t see.” For example, a community may import produce from 50-100 miles away, so any impacts in adjacent agricultural areas will be felt in the community as well.
Edward Maibach, director, center for climate communications, George Mason University, worries that “people see climate change as a threat to the environment — penguins and polar bears — as opposed to a threat to themselves.” His group conducts annual interviews with thousands of Americans. These have shown that “people don’t understand the implications for humanity; they don’t see the coming food issues.” Among the 18,000 people last interviewed, Maibach said no one talked about the “human health implications of climate change either.” He said this was a function of people’s “mental models, our innate internal frames.”
How can scientists get through to people? “What we have learned from the public health community is that a single, clear message repeated often by trusted authorities works,” said Maibach. To date, climate change has been portrayed in the media as a “complex issue with lots of moving parts. We are not good at telling a simple story about what we know. Simplification is important.”
Maibach also voiced concern about the “culture of science,” which is to constantly “move onto the next thing.” But he also believes there is hope: “The public has learned over time that the hole in the ozone layer is bad.”
“We’re especially concerned about the connections between climate change and air quality,” said Bryan Bloomer, applied science division, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bloomer said a study by a professor at Harvard University concluded that “climate change makes air pollution worse, which means it has health impacts.” He pointed to the three billion people around the world who still use wood cook stoves every day, burning branches to make dinner. Those stoves not only increase the amount of potent black carbon in the air, but kill about 4 million people a year. These are the types of “linkages we need to quantify.”
What about the challenges for the poorest countries? Maggie Opondo, Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation, University of Nairobi, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said “disadvantaged people will be disproportionately hit by climate change.” Foremost include the one billion people who live on less than $2 per day.
Poor urban dwellers will be especially hard-hit, given “when there are environmental disasters in cities, they can’t contain the problems themselves.” As an example, she pointed to the Kibera slum in Kenya where more than one million people live without any infrastructure. In 2011, there was a heavy downpour that submerged the community. “People’s life savings, which were sometimes found in a sack, floated away. After the flood, the diseases came because there was no sanitation system.” Opondo argued that “climate change in Africa is real.” She said just look at the climate change-fueled outbreak of malaria and cholera in the late 90s in eastern Africa.
More thoughts from their discussion, which was moderated by Peter Thompson, Public Radio International:
Why Is Satellite Data So Important?
Brown said satellites can show “when the extreme events will occur,” but, equally as important, can measure the “subtle shifts over time.” She said as base temperatures rise, the maximum temperatures may not increase in a given area. If livelihoods are based on what’s happening 5-10 years ago, people will then be unprepared 5-10 years in the future, as conditions will only change ever so slightly each year. “All of the sudden people can no longer make a living; they can no longer adapt.” Brown said a whole sale shift in livelihoods will then be needed, requiring considerable support by governments.
NASA now has 30 years of data to examine. “We can look at changes in agriculture over that time, changes in the start and end of growing seasons, places where there is crop stress.” She added that ground-based observational data is needed to correlate broader shifts with cultural change on the ground. “We need 100,000 data points” based in ground observations.
She made the case for open data policies, too. While NASA makes its images freely available, some African countries actually have satellites but don’t make the data available. “In Nigeria, no one can get access to the data, not even the scientists.”
What about Communicating with the Disadvantaged?
Opondo said it’s also important to tap “indigenous knowledge,” like that of Kenya’s famed “rain makers.” Traditional agriculture communities are going to be hard-hit and they need messages tailored for them. “Farmers want to know how much rain they can expect and when they can plant.” She said not all farmers have “access to the radio or Internet,” even though more and more have mobile phones.
How Can We Combat Food Insecurity?
Brown said “we need to boost the food supply globally.” One way to do this is through new agricultural technology. Brazil, which harvests “half of the world’s soybeans,” is running their farms on U.S. technology. “We need to further boost production in Africa by introducing new information and irrigation technologies, and new seeds.” The world will need “twice as much food in 2050 as it does now,” with population growth and changing diets in developing world. Opondo thought adding all this new technology in Sub-Saharan Africa would be a challenge, given “one size doesn’t fit all.”