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For tens of millions of people around the world, climate calamity has already arrived. To help understand climate change — and what it means to the people living through it — GlobalPost's award-winning team of correspondents and videographers spent much of 2013 investigating this global phenomenon.
Scientist Paul Mayewski talks about the immense climate changes we're already seeing and how we have to adapt.
BROOKLYN, New York — According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Earth's climate system is a "complex, interactive system consisting of the atmosphere, land surface, snow and ice, oceans and other bodies of water and living things."
And, yes, the scientific community pores over all kinds of data related to this system every day.
But how should ordinary people think about the science of what's happening right now to the planet? And where do we go from here?
To find out, we turned to climate expert Paul Mayewski, the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and the science adviser for GlobalPost's yearlong investigation Calamity Calling.
For the past four decades, Mayewski has studied how the climate works and documented how it’s changing.
In a wide-ranging interview with GlobalPost, he explains how scientific research into the past can help us understand the dramatic changes we’re seeing now, and how it just might help us find new ways to cope with inevitable warming.
GP: Were you ever a climate change skeptic?
Mayewski: As recently as 20 plus years ago, scientists thought that the climate system operated very, very slowly. We thought it was such a big, powerful system that it could literally absorb anything that we small humans had ever done. So we’ve obviously changed our opinion greatly.
So when was the moment when you suddenly thought, "Wow, there’s no denying this anymore?"
There were a bunch of moments. When we realized the Antarctic glaciers along the coasts were changing their size faster than ever. When we realized it was getting harder and harder to collect un-melted records of ice cores. When we started traveling to remote places and realizing that the air quality and the noise quality and the visual quality were completely different than the places we lived and we could prove how much humans had impacted climate using our ice core records.
What do you say to skeptics now?
I used to say to the skeptics, "Thank you for questioning what we do and for making us think more about the science because it’s a healthy process."
As of three or four years ago I gave up saying that, because now the skeptics are trying to blur the facts. They are trying to provide misinformation, take information out of context, make it a political issue, which it is not. They’re not basing their arguments at all on the science.
Where are the places we’re already seeing evidence of climate change?
In parts of the Arctic in the last five years we have experienced temperature changes as great as 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s unbelievably big in five years. We've also seen drought impacts, in places like Australia, large portions of West Africa including Mali, the Midwest and Western United States. And all of these changes are related to changes in how often moisture-bearing winds come in and the direction that they come in from. And that’s directly related to warming.
What coming changes scare you the most?
The health implications. The idea that you can be in a place that either has a tremendous amount of pollution or that has an emerging level of pollution. The fact that disease can be migrating into your area because of an emerging level of warming. The fact that you can be living on the edge of a desert that could very well expand. These are all in my opinion health and welfare risks.
We all live on the edge of climate health risks. And that’s why this is a global security issue.
The latest report from the IPCC says the amount of greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere already will cause a certain amount worldwide warming. So there’s no stopping this shift?
It is absolutely inevitable. So while mitigation is still a powerful and important tool, people are talking much more about adaptation. And this has all changed in basically five years, the belief that we could stop all of this to suddenly realizing, yeah, we need to adapt to it.
You really think we can adapt?
We have no choice.
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