Thursday: Does Our Climate Problem Call for Triage?

By Hugh Powell
August 7, 2008
Stanford’s Terry Root gives a talk on climate change. Stanford’s Terry Root gives a talk on climate change.

11:00 a.m. At today’s plenary talk, Stanford’s Terry Root tackled a subject that bleeds into the margins of nearly every talk and poster that’s been given so far: the problem of global climate change.

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Although there’s a lingering sense of controversy in the wider world, you’ll find no doubts among the 1,000 assembled scientists here about whether – or why – the globe is warming. So Root condensed the evidence in her talk to a few key examples*** and concentrated on the ominous problem of what we can do about it.

Because of uncertainty in how much warming is in the works, the world could see rises in temperature of less than a degree Celsius to about 5 degrees Celsius (1 Celsius degree = 1.9 Fahrenheit degrees) this century. What happens partly depends on how much more carbon – in the form of oil and coal – we dig out of the ground and pump into the sky (currently, that’s about 7 billion tons per year).

But changing what we use for energy takes time, and meanwhile the temperature is rising. Many species face extinction as warming outpaces their ability to adapt or to move – particularly for species that butt up against a geographic limit, such as at the poles or high on mountains. Pikas – small, rabbit-like animals that live alongside rosy-finches in high-elevation boulder fields – have no place left to go; they are essentially already extinct, Root said. Some conservationists and zoos are beginning to contemplate taking species such as these into captivity, or in a present-day Noah’s Ark approach, moving them to suitable places farther north that they could not reach on their own.

Root suggested that conservation scientists should begin to think in terms of triage. It’s a concept she says she first grasped as she watched her husband undergo treatment for cancer. “I realized I’m an oncologist for the world,” she said. “I realized that for some species it’s already too late. And that some species are going to take herbal remedies and get fine on their own. And then there are species who, like my husband, we can work to save. And part of what we have to do is this horribly, horribly difficult process of figuring out what we can save.”

(p.s. thanks to Lab science editor Laura Erickson for the moral support in Comments – here’s a tody for you (from Root’s talk). It was about 15 feet tall on the projection screen.)

***Root did show pictures with specks of glaciers in the far distance, next to a shot of the same glacier early in the century, spilling into the foreground. And she pointed out the acceleration we can already see: over the past 150 years the climate warmed, on average, 0.05 degrees Celsius per decade. But like a Corvette leaving a stop light, that rate has been growing: in the past 25 years warming was more than three times as fast: 0.18 degrees C per decade.

Root didn’t try to provide complete evidence. For more details, see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which Root is a member, or RealClimate for a lively blog discussion by some of the world’s experts.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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