Walter Munk and Martin Rees at The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City, © 2014 Nalls

On the last of four long days, two old friends joyfully greeted each other during a brief coffee break. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences were convening for the workshop, “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility” Among the many presentations by eminent thinkers on threats to the human race by unprecedented and rapidly accelerating climate change was American physical oceanographer Walter Munk (96) and British astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees (71), two of the most highly anticipated by their peers. Both robustly addressed questions regarding the future of humanity in the 21st century and the costs of not mediating the risks.

Walter Munk, the Secretary of the Navy Chair in Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, summarized our current predicament, “The temperature of the planet is subject to a very sensitive balance between incoming and outgoing radiation. Disturbing the balance by just a few watts per square meter significantly changes the climate.” As such, “Human transgressions have now resulted in the uncontrolled release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, upsetting the critical radiation balance.”

The majority of us understand this. Human production of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and black carbon is causing the climate to change. The problem continues to be moving the world to the scale of action necessary to mitigate the magnitude of the destruction and to develop the adaptive strategies that each region requires. In this regard, Munk says, “Climate change and associated side effects are not smooth monotonic processes; their high variability makes it difficult to persuade society to take them seriously as they must be taken.”

Scientists are not quiet about this fact. They long believed their role in society was to speak the scientific truth to politicians and leaders. Peter Wadhams reported on massive changes in the Arctic sea ice cover. Anil Kulkarni impeccably detailed the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. Munk described Australian oceanographer John A. Church’s insightful scientific research proving that global sea level rise is indeed real due to warming of the oceans, melting glaciers and continental ice sheets. Yet, in the face of this research and more irrefutable proof, what is being done? Scientists are learning that their empirical assessments need to be communicated widely to the public. Climate change must be made to matter. The urgency is real and we must act now.

The reason for a joint workshop with the social sciences at “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility” was to help figure out how to motivate the masses. A priority for the scientists was that it is crucial for people to comprehend the scientific evidence and appreciate the importance of the threat. It is equally important to identify the key environment, infrastructure and social vulnerabilities, and to develop plans to successfully intercede. There were reports of how some parts of the world have already begun such actions.

Munk felt he spoke for the majority of experts who study Global Warming when he proposed immediate “international collaboration on an unprecedented scale” to transition in one generation “from fossil energy to clean energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear)” and to “restore global annual emissions levels.” This will require local, national, and global initiatives, private sector partnerships, and new governing policy to implement resource allocation.

Is it not rational to think that if we act now and rapidly cut greenhouse gases, it would support human survival, helping our children and future generations? Other than the crazy short-term mindset of presidential elections, why would humans resist the ethics of intergenerational responsibility? Evolution has programmed us to replicate our genes and endowed us with the strategy of kin selection. To those ends we will popularize ideas, or memes, that maximize the chances of human survival and to avoid extinction. Across the United States we have been experiencing change to the climatic environment: increasing temperatures, altered precipitation patterns and more extreme events. Our motivating meme is that we have the ability to adapt to the ever-changing normal and put it into global action.

Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science, contributed to a plan of action focusing on the coastal zone where forty percent of the global population lives. She said, “This is the fraction of humanity at risk if sea level should rise dramatically from hurricanes, storm surges, and other climate-related phenomena.” Reinforced by the third National Climate Assessment report, she called for plans to address an orderly retreat from the coastline to protect valuable and critical infrastructure, and to restore natural processes.

Opening with an update on Earth’s history, Martin Rees said, “Humans now utilize forty percent of the world’s biomass; we are collectively affecting the world’s climate and ravaging the biosphere. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands. We’re deep into Paul Crutzen’s ‘anthropocene era.’” The conference primarily focused on threats to the biosphere by the actions of an ever-increasing human population, but Rees decided to address the other manmade threats in addition to “steadily-rising CO2.” Besides nuclear destruction and bioterror, our increasingly powerful and networked technologies are vulnerable to a plethora of scenarios from “accidental malfunctions” to “sabotage,” which if triggered, would prove to be catastrophic for all humankind. He spoke on serious existential risks to humanity’s survival. In his view, the developed world mistakenly feels largely secure and spends too much time sweating the small risk stuff of our daily lives, when a focus should be on building resilience to these massive networked infrastructures.

The danger signs have been posted. We know climate threat is a reality because we are living it. Recent history has presented us with serial, natural catastrophes on the daily news. We watch as our raw emotions are laid bare in the aftermath. But a perspective has emerged.  We also see that humans have evolved to survive, that we are hard-wired, and now, networked for global social activity. With the right mental attitude we know we can further motivate human behaviour and maximize our potential to manage this situation. My own observations of collective behaviour tell me that our brains are already engaged with what could be thought of as the resilience meme. We know we are the generation that must act and it seems survival is contagious.

Martin Rees closed his presentation by quoting biologist Peter Medawar with a statement that echoed the abiding resolution of the conference, “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility”:

“The bells that toll for mankind are ... like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”

For more information on climate change and actions, please visit the following sites:

The President’s Climate Action Plan
Progress Report 

Fact Sheet: 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report

2014 U.S. Climate Action Report to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

 Follow Gayil Nalls, PhD on Twitter @olfacticinkblot

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