News from the Columbia Climate School

Seeing the Big Picture of Climate Change

Manu Lall introduces L. Douglas James at the CWC Seminar.
Photo: Manu Lall introduces L. Douglas James at the CWC Seminar.

L. Douglas James, a former Hydrologist for the National Science Foundation (retired), is a Big Picture guy.  Concerned that scientific research and public policy are both too focused on isolated bits of the climate change issue, he had a go at inspiring attendees of a Columbia Water Center Seminar to branch out, make connections, and think bigger.

In the April 30 seminar, Mr. James said that a solution to climate change must be holistic; we can’t just engage in crisis management as problems arise.  But neither can we wait for the whole picture to become clear before we act.  The two approaches complement each other in the long run, because there will never be one single solution, it will always involve complex interactions within a dynamic system.  The necessary ‘Comprehensive Planning’ has been a nice ideal, but one that hardy anyone actually engages in.

James defined a number of questions that he sees as vital to understanding the climate crisis, which are sorely neglected.  Define the problem, he said, and then evaluate the evidence rationally.

These big questions include:

  • Is climate really changing? Closely examined scientific arguments suggest it is.
  • Will the change become irreversible and lead to catastrophic events? Some of the major issues are discussed in popular media, but we must look deeper.
  • In what ways is the climate changing? Global scale impacts are being studied, but precise local effects must be given more attention.
  • Which changes are being driven or exacerbated by human activity? We need to understand the interaction between human activity and natural processes of change.
  • Which human activities (individually or collectively) have greater short-term impacts? We must identify which of the most important factors it would be possible to mitigate by changes in human behavior – not only possible in an ideal world, but what can reasonably be expected to happen.
  • What are the time constants for quantifying the inertia in climate change on one hand and activity change on the other? Can human activities, with their geographic and social variations, be modified within the necessary time frame to stop or reverse climate change?
  • What are the uncertainties in change predictions?  To what extent can we assign realistic probabilities? We don’t know everything, but we can get to the point where our estimations are good enough to act on.
  • Can we find a practical way a) to discriminate between worthwhile and ineffective (or excessively costly) measures and b) to combine winners into an efficient program? Professionals from all disciplines should be trained to take this balancing process into account in their work.

Answers to these complex questions must take into account physical, financial, environmental, social, political, and legal feasibility.  It will, James says, come down to a system-wide balance of costs and benefits that integrates the disparate interests of human beings and natural systems.

In other words, there’s a lot of work to do, and it will require us to all be reading the same book, if not on the same page.

See the outline and summary of his complete talk here.

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Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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