Caitilyn Allen has had an early glimpse at the devastation climate change might bring.
A professor of plant pathology at the UW-Madison, Allen studies how climate change is likely to increase disease in crops and other plants. The possibilities aren’t pretty.
“Diseases likely to be worsened by the likely effects of climate change range from Stewart’s wilt, which threatens corn here in the upper Midwest, to coffee rust, which is decimating coffee plantations in Central America, thereby increasing prices and reducing availability of our favorite stimulant,” Allen says.
This is awful not just for coffee lovers, she adds. “The coffee rust epidemic has a terrible social impact in Central America,” Allen says. “UW-Madison students saw this firsthand last January when I taught a field course in Guatemala. We talked with small-scale organic coffee growers who were losing their land, and with poor itinerant coffee pickers whose kids were going hungry.”
Allen is one of several UW scientists taking her expertise and concerns to Paris for the global climate conference starting Nov. 30. The goal of this year’s summit, the 21st United Nations-sponsored event, is to ratify a new climate change agreement among nations that will put in place policies to lower global carbon emissions, not just stop their growth.
Representatives from more than 190 countries agreed last year to make commitments to limit global warming ahead of time to build momentum for the Paris meeting. UN executive Christiana Figures has called these commitments “a down payment on a new era of climate ambition from the global community.”
While none of the UW-Madison faculty and Wisconsin green business leaders in attendance will be negotiating this historic agreement, they will be part of the large body of supporting researchers, nongovernmental organizations and businesses hoping to influence the negotiations.
It’s no surprise that Dr. Jonathan Patz will be in Paris, where he will be attending meetings of both the World Health Organization and the Global Climate Health Alliance.
Starting in the mid-’90s, Patz was one of the first medical doctors to dive into the issue of climate change and public health and introduce the topic of health effects of climate change to the Environmental Protection Agency. As director of the UW’s Global Health Institute, he has been active in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 15 years, and he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with his IPCC colleagues and Al Gore.
Patz has been hard at work trying to make a case for action in Paris. His research zeroes in on how people’s health would benefit from a concerted effort to stop climate change.
“We’ve run numbers on what would happen if other countries had transportation like the Netherlands, where so many people bike and walk to work — what would that mean to overall health,” he says.
Also heading to Paris is Nathan Schulfer, who helps manage the master’s program in environmental conservation at UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Schulfer has been involved in a Central Africa initiative to help build bridges between expertise on the Madison campus and on-the-ground conservation in the Congo Basin, a critical tropical forest system that has so far escaped the development pressures now threatening forests in the Amazon and Indonesia.
“This is a rare chance to build on our current partnerships and become a part of a much larger network of organizations including private, public and nonprofit,” says Schulfer. “We want the Nelson Institute to continue and grow its collaborations working on the tremendous challenges of climate change.”
“I’m hopeful,” Schulfer adds. “One of the coolest opportunities about the Paris talks is how many diverse groups of people are coming together in one space at the same time. The solutions are going to come from these shared ideas and objectives.”
Sumudu Atapattu, a senior lecturer at UW Law School, plans to push representatives in Paris to consider how climate change will affect human rights.
She is concerned because countries that have done the most to cause the problem are not the ones that will feel the worst effects. “Particularly for these small island states,” Atapattu says, referring to several Pacific island countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands that might vanish under rising sea levels. “Their contribution is pretty minimal, but they will be losing the most.”
“We just drafted a declaration on climate change and human rights that we will be disseminating to a lot of groups in Paris,” Atapattu adds. “We are trying to contact individual negotiators and include them in a network of supporters.”
Atapattu is cautiously optimistic about the talks. “For a long time climate change was sidelined as an environmental issue, and that is one of the reasons why it did not receive the attention that it required,” she says. “People are starting to see that it’s a public health issue, it’s a security issue. It’s really huge.”
She sees momentum building for the Paris talks. “Right now there are 158 states that have made commitments,” she says. “The majority of states representing 91% of all greenhouse gas emissions have made commitments.”
The United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% in the next 10 years, which would put emissions at 28% below 2005 levels.
Since the 1990s climate scientists have been warning that it is essential to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times in order to avoid the more catastrophic effects of climate change.
The current worldwide commitments to reduce emissions won’t be enough to stay within that 2 degree threshold.
But Atapattu hopes the goal is still attainable. She compares the current attitudes to the mood after World War II when the United Nations was formed.
“It’s possible that...there will be something positive,” she says. “I’m very hopeful, but you never know with world leaders.”
An interactive panel discussion with many of the UW-Madison participants in Paris will be live-streamed to the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Moderated by Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute, the panel will include Atapattu, Patz and Schulfer, as well as Clay Nesler, vice president of global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls, headquartered in Milwaukee; and Jeffrey Thompson, executive advisor and CEO emeritus of Gundersen Health Systems, based in La Crosse.
The discussion will take place on Thursday, Dec. 3, from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Town Center of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. It’s free to the public, but registration is required. It will also be recorded for later viewing.
The Wisconsin Academy, which is sponsoring the interactive discussion, created an initiative on climate and energy in 2012 and decided to use the Paris talks to raise awareness, says Jane Elder, executive director.
“We want to highlight people in Wisconsin who are already leading the way to a cleaner, healthier Wisconsin,” Elder says. “So many global conferences seem like a group of experts doing something obscure somewhere else. But the Paris conference is very relevant to our lives right here in Wisconsin, and it could be one of the more significant agreements in history. It’s important for us to be engaged, and this will open the window.”
Editor's note: This article was edited to correct the title of Jeffrey Thompson.