When it comes to climate change, humanity has to think marathon, not sprint.
“Expectations have to be set over the long-term,” said federal Fisheries and Oceans scientist Edward Carmack, who was lecturing in Fairbanks in February.
“It’s like raising a child.”
And right now, most citizens are bad parents.
“We live in a democracy,” said Carmack. “Every citizen has a responsibility to learn as much as they can about climate change, the factors that cause it, and make wise decisions.”
Carmack has been watching the oceans for decades, charting changes in Arctic currents and circulation.
And in 1989 he saw massive warming take place.
This changed atmospheric patterns in the northern Arctic, as gulf-stream water continued to warm.
“This warm water is now off the Yukon’s coast,” he said.
The rising sea level because of melting ice caps is only part of the problem.
The ice cover reflects the sunlight, said Carmack.
As the ice melts, the oceans absorb added heat from the sun, and continue to warm. This causes more ice to melt.
In turn, changing ocean currents affect air, moisture and rainfall.
“Climate is complicated,” said Carmack.
“And it’s non-linear — there are lots of surprises.”
Throw in overpopulation, plague, disease and war, and there might be catastrophes, said Carmack.
“But huge sectors of the population have suffered catastrophes before and Homo sapiens have rebounded.”
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the breadth of the problems, but that’s a copout, he said.
“There’s too much at stake to give up hope.”
And a good place to start is with the planet’s plumbing, said Carmack.
“Water is going to be the killer,” he said.
“It’s the central problem of global warming and we should worry about conserving it as much as petroleum.”
According to climate-change process models, warming temperatures will affect rainfall patterns and cause severe periods of drought.
The water table is already dropping, said Carmack.
“And we should be thinking about how we can capture, distribute and store liquid, fresh water.”
Canada, with only .5 per cent of the world’s population, controls more than nine per cent of its fresh water supply.
And much of it is wasted.
“We flush our toilets with purified water, and we use it to water golf courses,” said Carmack.
“And in Las Vegas they use it to water lawns.”
Fixing the plumbing involves everything from repairing leaky pipes to saving the Colorado River system, said Carmacks.
And it includes a certain level of awareness.
As rainfall patterns change, food-growing areas like southern California and the Prairies could enter into extensive periods of drought.
“When trucks suddenly aren’t bringing fresh veggies to grocery stores, and oil shortages damage the whole shipping industry, do we have the resilience to deal with it?” said Carmacks.
“We need to start preparing for change.”
The trouble is, in the absence of new information, decisions are based on the notion that things won’t change.
“That’s how we do business today — but we need to be adaptable,” said Carmack, remembering the Anasazi.
These ancient hunter-gatherers of New Mexico used to move as the climate changed, growing food in one area when it was cool and moist, then moving to another during warmer, dry periods.
Things went smoothly, until they started to build.
The Anasazi constructed these elaborate cliff dwellings, said Carmack.
Then the people disappeared.
“They lost their ability to move and adapt,” he said.
And modern civilization is on a similar course.
To prepare for the coming changes, climate scientists need to predict what the future will bring, so society can ready itself for change, said Carmack.
“And they need to be objective, rational and realistic, so those that set policy and spend the money will accept the predicted changes.”
To do this, scientists need to back up their climate models, rather than just “drinking beer and talking about it,” he said.
But even solid scientific studies often conflict with current policy.
“Scientific information is not getting to the policymakers,” said Carmack.
“And research often takes at least five years, while policymakers work with two-week timeframes — they just don’t match.”
Scientists need to better explain their research and speak their minds without becoming advocates, he said.
And politicians need to change their approach to decision making.
“But people only do things if there’s a pay-off,” said Carmack.
“If there’s no payoff to stretch their time horizon, when it comes to policymaking, they’re not going to do it.”
This is where the general populace comes in.
“Politicians want to keep their jobs,” said Carmack.
“And concerned citizenry can insist that the institutions that surround them are working properly, and demand change it they’re not.”