Same worries, new numbers: students and experts address climate change
“It can be very depressing to look at this and say ‘What can I as an individual do?’” Michael Chajes, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said of climate change.
In the wake of the release of the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which predicted that climate change could threaten economic and communal health across the world, the Earth, Ocean and Environment Club discussed the threat and how to best address it with a panel of three industry experts.
Wednesday’s discussion in Trabant Theater followed the club’s viewing of “High Tide in Dorchester,” a documentary which details the threat of sea level rise in Dorchester County of Maryland’s eastern shore. The film’s research predicts that Dorchester, Maryland’s fourth largest of 23 counties, will drop to its 14th largest by 2100 due to an anticipated sea level rise of about one meter, or 3.28 feet.
Rising waters threaten more than Dorchester County, as the National Climate Assessment (NCA) projects there is a 66 percent chance that between $238 billion and $507 billion of real estate will be below sea level by the same year.
Delaware’s own Sussex County could be part of this trend. Panelist Philip Barnes, an associate professor at the Institute for Public Administration and urban planning expert, said a nationwide survey revealed the county’s poor land use over the past decade. He said the survey showed that during the last ten years, Sussex County built the third most homes in areas vulnerable to sea level rise.
“Sussex County absolutely sucks at allowing development in places where development should not be happening, in areas where we know are going to be vulnerable to sea level rise,” Barnes said.
Poor building choices, like the ones in Sussex County, put Delaware coastal property at risk, according to the Delaware Geological Survey (DGS), which predicts that there is a 90 percent chance that Delaware sea levels will rise between .52 and 1.53 meters (1.71 and 5.02 feet) by 2100.
DGS’s prediction includes a 5 percent chance that the true sea level rise falls below its estimated interval, and another 5 percent chance that the level surpasses it.
“1.5 meters, we stated that it’s very easy for sea level rise to be much higher than that,” panelist John Callahan, a climatologist at the DGS, said. “[The chances of surpassing] that 95th percentile, that’s really only one in 20. If you had a chance of getting hit by a bus in one in 20, you wouldn’t take it … You don’t want that one in 20. You don’t build to 95 percent; you build to 99.9 percent, and those values are going to be much higher than 1.5 [meters].”
Chajes, who was also one of the panelists, said the anticipated sea level rise could hurt more than just private property and public infrastructure. He claimed the potential rise could overtake barrier marshes, making some areas unfarmable because of the salinity of the water that would immediately border the land.
Despite the potential threats that climate change could pose, Chaje said he believed there were some reasons to be optimistic, pointing to a bipartisan, climate-protection bill introduced in the House of Representatives the the day prior.
The bill, called The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018, would tax fossil fuel companies for their carbon dioxide emissions. Chajes said he thought the bill was unlikely to receive any serious attention from Congress until Jan. 3, when the newest House will take office, because of how little time is left in this legislative session.
While Chajes said he was pleased that Congress began making legislative efforts to combat carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, he said he believes the matter will only become a top legislative priority if the electorate pushes the issue.
“Eventually Congress will do what people want,” Chajes, who is also a lobbyist, said. “We eventually need enough people to want that. When you go to elections, you ask people ‘What are the issues you care about?’ This issue is way down, and so it’s hard to expect politicians to really venture out and do something.”
Barnes also believes empowering and informing constituents is the key to pushing politicians to enact policy to mitigate the effects of climate change.
His worry, however, stems from conservatives’ past pushback against the legitimacy of climate change.
“That is very well established that there is systematic … well-coordinated, well-funded effort to misdirect, create doubt amongst you, the public, about the reality of climate change because if we don’t believe it’s a problem, then we don’t have to do anything about it, and that is the goal,” Barnes said.
“It’s like concussions in football. Remember five, 10 years ago? The NFL didn’t want to admit that playing the game would cause long term brain damage with the players. Why? Because they realized admitting that reality would have an impact of the future viability of the business model … It’s the same thing [with climate change].”
Elizabeth Byrne, a member of the Earth, Ocean and Environment Club, shares Chajes’ hope.
“We are going to need an interdisciplinary approach to fixing climate change,” Byrne, a sophomore who studies environmental science, said. “I do think it’s a problem can solve, not to be super cliché, but I think humanity is capable of a lot, and I think this is something we can fix.”
Rachel Roday, the club’s chair of sustainability, agreed that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to address climate change, but she is less optimistic about humanity’s ability to immediately reverse the effects of climate change.
“With the way that the current administration and other developing countries are heading, it’s just so large of a problem that we can’t fix it before it gets much much worse,” Roday said. “You need to think in the term of thousands of years to bounce back from this kind of carbon dioxide, pollution and species extinction rate. I don’t think that the mindset of our our entire planet is capable of fixing this problem in short term.”
Although Roday is less optimistic about the planet’s immediate recovery potential, she still believes it is necessary to fight climate change as much as possible.
“You can’t just sit back and watch the planet fall apart,” Roday said. “You want to preserve the things that you enjoy in nature for the next generations, even if it won’t be. You have to try. You can’t just give up. Right?”