One of the pressing questions on the minds of the Penn State climate scientists since Trump was elected in November is what can they expect for climate change policy and their research. Valley sat down with some of the world-leading scientists on the topic right here at Penn State, to see what they had to say about the future of climate change research.
In response to a question about his prediction for Trump’s treatment of climate change research, Todd LaJeunesse, associate professor of biology, says, “I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I do have concerns already from certain patterns of behavior.”
Global Ecosystems, Climate Change and Politics
“Corals are a special type of animal, they are photosynthetic so they get a lot of their energy from sunlight,” says LaJeunesse, who researches the evolutionary ecology and the mutually beneficial relationship between coral and the microalgae that lives on it. The reason corals get energy from the sun is because they have single-celled organisms called microalgae living in their tissues that operate similarly to plants by using photosynthesis.
Why does a biologist who researches a very specific ecosystem care about climate change policy?
“It is a global ecosystem that is found mostly in the tropics and subtropics,” says LaJeunesse. “To those countries, which, let’s face it, a lot of those countries tend to be poorer than North America or the European countries, they are incredibly valuable from the perspective of food security.”
LaJeunesse says that when coral ecosystems experience ocean temperature increases, even just by a couple degrees Celsius, the animals begin to stress and bleach. Rapid and frequent occurrences of coral bleaching causes the animal to die, which leads to entire food sources disappearing.
“The places where we see the most extremism around the planet are places where the environments have collapsed, where environmental degradation is so extreme that people have no hope for the future, so you turn to extremism. You get pretty darn pissed,” LaJeunesse says.
As the planet warms, the temperature of the oceans keeps increasing and causes the water surrounding coral reef ecosystems to become inhospitable for the microalgae that lives on and feeds the coral.
“All of this— refugee and immigrants— well you’re going to see much more of that,” says LaJeunesse, as the health of the marine food chains are threatened. “And where are all of these people going to go? It is going to lead to more extremism more strife, more human suffering, globally.”
“My feelings then is I don’t think its is going to be very good for the next four years, especially for people whose research relates to some degree to environmental research,” LaJeunesse says. While he does not consider himself an environmental biologist, his work directly relates to effects of environmental change on the planet’s ecosystems.
Climate Change and Its Real Effects On Us
Humans are not just threatened by the decrease in food sources, but by the loss of their habitats as well.
David Titley, practicing professor of meteorology and the founding director of their Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, believes that within the next few generations all of the major coastal cities will no longer be habitable.
“In 25 or 30 years, you’re going to be dealing with a world that has no ice in the arctic during the summer time,” says Titley. “You’re probably going to be dealing with a world which the seas are already 2-3 feet higher than they are right now.”
This may not seem like a substantial difference, but Titley assures that years of research and projections indicate that most, if not all of the coastal cities will be submerged, including New York City, Boston, Baltimore and all of Florida south of Orlando.
Having been the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief operating officer from 2012–2013, Titely worked on determining the dangers of weather conditions, ocean rise and the protection of resources.
Titley agrees that it is too soon to tell how the Trump administration will treat this research. “What I tell everybody is, it’s really we don’t know. There are a lot of unknowns,” says Titley.
“Its almost cliché now by this point to say President Trump is unlike any president that we’ve probably ever had, and certainly that anyone in our lifetime can remember,” says Titley.
Titley believes that Trump has more of an issue with regulations than with the research that science is doing. “Obama’s worldview on life was very much through a regulatory prism and that is the antithesis of what President Trump will see,” says Titley. “But I think it’s really more of a war on regulations, and I think that is why you see the Environmental Protection Agency in a crosshairs.”
When considering a solution to try and get people and the government concerned with the rapid rate of climate change and global warming, Titley suggests forgetting about the polar bears.
“I tell people, honestly do you really think we are going to fundamentally change the world’s energy system for a bunch of polar bears?” Titley says. “Well if we were we would have started by now and we’ve shown no signs of that so I’m pretty sure we are not. Mankind is more than capable of wiping out species and not even blinking twice.”
This is why Titley works to frame climate change as a security risk to the health and safety of human beings. He believes that framing the problem in these terms will force politicians to take notice of the issues and work to fix them.
“That’s why I try to frame this as people— maybe, not guaranteed, but maybe we will care if we realize it is about us,” says Titley.
Fixing the Issue
Richard Alley, one of the Penn State earth scientists who contributed to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore, believes that government control is not the only way to work on the issue of climate change.
“It is important to note that the problem can be addressed in ways that do not require growth of government, and might even reduce total government intervention,” says Alley.
Alley suggests the moving away from fossil fuels, which is a crutch for many industrial countries, is the best way we can combat climate change. “Moving toward a sustainable energy system is generally considered to be the most economical and valuable approach to dealing with this.”
“Recent reports from the International Monetary Fund and International Energy Agency have found that fossil fuels are strongly subsidized, and much more so than renewable energy,” says Alley. “Moving towards a more accurate pricing of fossil fuels is often cited by those working on policies as a valuable approach.”
Scientists all over the country, let alone the world, are feeling the time crunch of finding solutions to prevent the effects of global warming on humanity and the ecosystems.
On Earth Day, April 22, scientists and science supporters plan to march on Washington, D.C. on the National Mall as a “celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” according to the March For Science website.
The goal for the March For Science is to fix “the mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence.”
Regardless of what the Trump Administration actually accomplishes or doesn’t in the next four years, scientists and the scientific community are aware of the risks we face as a planet and plan on doing everything in their power to shed light on what the near future holds.