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June 24, 2012
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Aspen Environment Forum: Living in the new abnormal

ASPEN - Living in a world where the population is topping 7 billion and temperatures are rising is going to be anything but normal.

A panel Saturday morning at the opening session of the Aspen Environment Forum painted an often bleak picture of how climate change is altering the world and how humans are dealing with the challenges.

The annual conference, presented by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic, is titled "Living in the New Normal" this year. The opening discussion carried the same name, but it soon became evident that there is no new normal.

"We're living in a new abnormal, perhaps," said Dennis Dimick, National Geographic magazine's executive editor for the environment. He showed detailed graphic displays that demonstrate how global temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s. Projections indicate that summers in 2040 to 2060 will be "warmer than the warmest on record," he said.

Go ahead and throw weather records out the window, agreed Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The atmospheric conditions are changing to the point where "every weather event is different than it would have been," Trenberth said. "We keep changing the climate so there is no new normal."

Moderator and National Geographic magazine senior environment editor Rob Kunzig called Trenberth "the go-to guy" for journalists writing about extreme weather events. While scientists, by and large, don't attribute individual weather events to climate change, Trenberth says that's exactly what is happening. The warming atmosphere holds more moisture so we are witnessing more violent thunderstorms and torrential rains, Trenberth said. In other areas, the warmer temperatures are drying the earth out faster than before and creating severe drought conditions like those plaguing Colorado, parts of the Plains and Texas, he said.

He said another scientist aptly named the phenomena "weather on steroids." Weather events are enhanced by a warming climate.

Panelist William Chameides, dean and professor of the environment at Duke University, said adaptation is necessary in every phase of life to deal with the changes we have wrought. Changes are necessary from local land-use decisions - such as allowing or prohibiting new coastal development in areas threatened by rising water - to how we generate power.

"We're going to see climate change regardless of what we do the next few decades," Chameides said.

He gave a sobering assessment that humans are headed toward "bad times." It might parallel the period when the plague wiped out a third of the world's population, he said.

Trenberth provided a glimmer of hope by noting that the inevitable changes "might not be that bad" if they happen slowly enough. Climate change, he noted, "happened before."

The rate of change is highly dependent on the rate of carbon production. Right now, it continues to grow. Humans across the planet burn a million years' worth of "ancient plant goo" in the form of fossil fuels every year, Dimick said.

If the carbon production grows unchecked, that spells trouble for the planet. By the time the general public realizes that something must be done because of direct consequences on the way they live, it will be "too late," Trenberth said. "Fifty years from now, ecosystems won't be viable where they are now."

David Orr, chairman of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, said, "We're talking about the end of what we love and value," yet too few people grasp it. The problems revolving around climate change won't be dealt with until people start waking up at 2 a.m. and realities are slapping them in the face, he said.

Orr said he doesn't view the dire forecasts as doom and gloom. It's simply reality for him

He isn't waiting to try to find solutions. He helped launch the Oberlin Project, which is trying to provide a blueprint for how communities can cope with climate change. The project is trying to convert Oberlin, Ohio, into one of the first climate-positive cities in America. The city and college are shifting to renewable energy sources, improving efficiency and curbing carbon emissions.

Another goal is to use 20,000 acres of green space to develop a local-foods economy to meet 70 percent of the area's consumption. Those efforts, Orr said, can help transform the Oberlin-area economy into something more sustainable.

That model will have an impact on battling climate change only if it is replicated in other cities and towns around the globe - and quickly, Orr said. He remains hopeful that it will catch on. It's amazing how ideologies can be put aside, he said, when basic questions about the future of a town are raised: Do we want clean air? Do we want to avoid higher temperatures in summer?

Everyone is on the same page. He sees the potential to create a "green tea party movement."

More on the effort is available online at www.oberlinproject.org/.

The Aspen Environment Forum continues at Aspen Meadows through Monday.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jun 24, 2012 08:52AM Published Jun 24, 2012 12:17AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.