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Most of us, by now, have gotten the message.
Three years after Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, explained in jarring detail how heat-trapping greenhouse gases were wreaking havoc on the atmosphere and destroying the world's fragile ecosystems, the scientific community continues to hammer home the point: Ma Earth is in serious trouble.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, Susan Solomon, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., noted that not only are the effects of global warming already being felt, but most of the carbon we've released will linger in the atmosphere for another 1,000 years.
"You have to think of it as being like a dial that can only turn one way," said Solomon, one of the lead authors of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned that the Earth's temperatures will rise to levels far higher than previously predicted. "We've cranked up the dial, and we don't get to crank it back."
That same week, Time weighed in with a story arguing that the only way to avoid catastrophe is if the United States and China - who together are responsible for more than 50% of the world's annual emissions of greenhouse gases - can set aside their differences and form a partnership to confront the problem.
Sounds pretty grim. Almost sort of hopeless. But it's not the whole story.
Amid the warnings and lamentations, some global warming experts remain optimistic, believing we still have time to turn this around. Among them is Tracey Holloway, an assistant (soon to be associate) professor at the UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and director of the UW's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE).
"Building public understanding that global warming is real has required some harsh messages - ice caps melting, sea levels rising, global disease risk increasing," says Holloway. "Now, people get it - we have a problem. Moving forward, we need to build greater emphasis on solutions, and the good news is, there are solutions all around us."
Holloway, 35, who has a Ph.D. in atmospheric and oceanic sciences from Princeton, is elated that environmentalists and the scientific community have succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans that global warming is real - which, she notes, was no small feat.
Yes, a few skeptics remain. (A Gallup poll last month showed that while 57% of Americans believe the threat is real, 41% think it's been exaggerated.)
"But you're never going to convince 100% of the people about anything," Holloway says. Even among scientists "there are points of uncertainty associated with global climate processes," she adds. "But those uncertainties do not undermine the big-picture fact that CO2 warms the atmosphere, that CO2 is increasing and, yes, that it's human driven."
Now that there's agreement on these points, Holloway thinks it's a good idea for the scientific community to temper its message, away from nonstop doom and gloom.
For one thing, she says, there are signs that it's creating a backlash. Even more worrisome, the sounding of an environmental alarm past the point where the public is paying attention risks scaring the bejabbers out of the public - most tragically, young people - leaving them to conclude the situation is hopeless.
Instead, they should be taught to see themselves as part of the solution. "The next generation," says Holloway, "is full of innovators ready to tackle the energy challenge."
Tracy Holloway is not delusional or Pollyannaish. She understands the problem of global climate change as well as anyone, and doesn't want to sugarcoat what lies ahead.
"I mean, Susan Solomon is right," she says in a recent interview at her office in the UW's Enzyme Institute. "The carbon that's been released can't be sucked back out of the atmosphere. So there will be more changes as the world continues to heat up. There's no getting around it."
There is plenty of empirical evidence that proves climatic changes are occurring. The polar ice caps are melting, global weather patterns are changing. Even Wisconsin is already experiencing longer, hotter, stormier summers and warmer, snowier winters.
But Holloway finds the silver lining: Hunting and fishing groups are now among those pressuring Congress to take tough action and set a clear national goal for reducing greenhouse gas pollution. "And that's not really surprising," she says, "because they're out there seeing when the waters are thawing and the birds are migrating and all these other things."
Finding solutions to climate change, Holloway believes, represents an "exciting challenge" for a nation that has long embraced challenges. She notes the example of the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who launched the environmental movement with the first Earth Day 39 years ago.
Moreover, Holloway is delighted that our new president has made combating climate change a top priority. And it's not just talk, she says, noting that Barack Obama's stimulus bill contains $80 billion for regulating greenhouse gases from vehicles and power plants, and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy. He's also proposed $150 billion in new clean energy funding in his budget for fiscal 2010.
"And that's very welcome news for those of us who are working on climate and environmental impacts," Holloway says, remembering that the Clinton and Bush administrations both refused to sign the decade-old Kyoto protocol for reducing greenhouse gases that expires in 2012.
Now, Holloway believes, we can start deploying an array of options - everything from a renewed emphasis on energy conservation to solar and wind technologies - to at least help stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
"Will any of these be the silver bullet? No," says Holloway. "But taken together, we have the tools at our disposal to start attacking this problem."
Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist at the UW-Madison's Center for Climatic Research, is also "heartened" that much of the American public grasps the urgency of the problem. And while he's hesitant to express optimism about limiting the effects of global warming, he agrees there are reasons to be encouraged.
For instance, he believes Obama will, in fact, carry through on his campaign pledge to make the U.S. a global leader on this very complex and potentially divisive issue. And there are signs that biological systems - including humans - may be more resilient to climate change than previously thought. One of the best examples of this is the heat-wave mitigation strategies developed by the city of Milwaukee.
In 1995, 91 people died and another 95 received medical treatment due to a heat wave there. Determined that it wouldn't happen again, Milwaukee officials and local medical experts created an "extreme heat conditions" plan that included opening air-conditioned public buildings to at-risk populations and having people check on elderly individuals during long, hot stretches.
It worked, Vavrus says. When Milwaukee experienced a similar blistering heat wave in 1999, the number of deaths dropped to 11, while the number of people treated for heat-related incidents fell to 28.
"Now obviously these kinds of strategies don't have any impact on reducing greenhouse gases," he says. "But they can go a long way toward reducing the human health impacts of climate change."
Strategies for success
If that's not enough to make you start dancing, Vavrus sees a very strong possibility that major technological breakthroughs in the next decade will make us far less dependent on fossil fuels.
"I'm talking about something massive," he says, "like the discovery of computers in the 1940s that changed the world in ways that weren't foreseen."
Vavrus says there are tens of thousands of engineers and scientists throughout the world "who are hungry to find solutions to these problems." Perhaps, he muses, someone will even discover a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
He agrees it's crucial to explore ways to get young people fired up about confronting these problems. After all, they're the ones who have the most to gain - and lose - by how we respond.
"And it's a fine line, because you want to be honest with them that this is serious stuff," he says. "But you don't want them to think the problem is insurmountable and there's nothing humans can do about it, so why even try."
Holloway acknowledges that some of the alternative energy options available today, such as solar power, are expensive; and that options like nuclear power present other objections. But all options that reduce the amount of carbon emissions need to be on the table.
Even coal. "It's a myth to think coal will ever be perfectly clean," she says, riffing off a series of ads that ridicule the notion of clean coal. "But it can be cleaner than it is today."
Eager to tap into the $3.4 billion in the stimulus bill for clean coal methods, for example, Duke Energy Corp. has begun building what it hopes will be the nation's first environment-friendly coal-fired power plant in Indiana. The goal is to capture the carbon dioxide produced by using coal and store it underground, so it can't enter the atmosphere.
Whatever options we choose, Holloway finds it comforting to think we can respond to the climate crisis without diminishing our quality of life. Indeed, she notes, many European countries are already doing it.
The most striking example is Denmark, which has cut carbon emissions by 13% from 1990 levels. The nation has become a world model in energy efficiency and now gets almost 20% of its electricity from wind turbines (compared to less than 2% in the U.S.)
And Wisconsin, Holloway maintains, is perfectly situated to benefit from an expansion of new jobs associated with the switch to low-carbon technologies.
"We don't have any domestic fossil-fuel sources - no coal, no natural gas, no oil," she notes. "So we're in a great position to be investing in renewable energy sources, energy efficiency technologies, agriculture-based biofuels."
Holloway's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment is doing its part by conducting its first Climate Leadership Challenge. This campus-wide competition offers a $20,000 first prize for the person or team that comes up with the best new idea for combating climate change. The winner(s) will be announced on Earth Day, April 22.
"There's been a lot of excitement about it," Holloway says of the contest, which is funded by the nonprofit Global Stewards Society. "The idea is to get students engaged in solving this problem with a future-oriented approach."
Holloway credits Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle with "taking a leadership role" in the search for climate-change solutions. The challenge is to find ways to not only reduce the state's carbon footprint but, over time, provide a boost to its economy. Asked what would be her top priorities in this area if she were governor, Holloway smiles and pauses for a long while before responding.
"Understand this is just off the top of my head," she says finally. Then she delivers an impressive list:
1. Launch an ambitious statewide educational campaign promoting the benefits of energy efficiency, "not only in our homes, but in all commercial, industrial and government buildings." She'd also consider handing out awards to businesses that significantly cut their carbon emissions.
2. Improve the state's transportation infrastructure and dramatically expand mass-transit options. (Holloway and her husband, Paul Schilling, a software developer for a biotech company, carpool to work from the Spring Harbor neighborhood in their secondhand Toyota Prius.) She's delighted that the Obama administration is pushing for expanded passenger rail service and that a high-speed line between Milwaukee and Madison may soon become a reality.
3. Make a massive investment in wind and solar energy and biomass fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. As part of that investment, she says, Wisconsin should explore partnering with its windier neighbors, North Dakota and Minnesota, to develop wind storage systems similar to those in Europe "so that even when the air is still we could turn on our lights."
Beyond that, Holloway sees a need to reshape the climate-change message for young people "so they're excited about the fact that they're going to do things a lot different than our generation has or the generation before us did."
An excellent example, Holloway says, is a program still in the planning stages at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (see sidebar) to provide children with a deeper understanding of climate change.
"That's exactly the idea," Holloway says. "Developing educational programs for kids that introduce these kinds of heavy, complicated topics in a way that inspires and empowers but doesn't overwhelm them."
Nobody denies, she says, that the challenges we face are daunting - even a little frightening. And kids need to understand that. "But," she adds, "there's a lot of gee-whiz coolness to this issue, too."
Teach your children well
The Monona-based Aldo Leopold Nature Center has a dream - to inspire and broaden children's knowledge of what it calls "the most pressing environmental issue of our time." It's developing a climate-change education initiative aimed at students of all ages.
Kathe Crowley Conn, the center's president and executive director, says funds are still being raised for the project. But its goal is "to build strong and positive connections with nature before asking children to tackle the complex scientific, technical and cultural aspects of climate change."
The project will be guided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's Model for Curriculum and Environmental Behavior. It will offer a sequence of locally based field trips - one for students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, another for middle-schoolers and older - that will encourage students to become citizen-scientists.
In addition, the center plans to create a climate-change classroom and laboratory for student instruction, innovation and experimentation. Says Conn, "We can create a generation that loves the land before being asked to heal its wounds."