Natural History on the Big Screen – Feedback Loops: Atmosphere
Aired August 11, 2021
And welcome to today's conversation centered around the film Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops, Atmosphere presented by this Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. My name is Laura Donnelly-Smith. I'm an exhibit writer and editor here at the museum, and I'll be moderating today's discussion. Today's program is the fourth and final installment of the four part Feedback Loops series we've hosted this summer. These short films explore the various climate feedback loops we've hosted across our forest, oceans, and atmosphere.
We're using them as launching points for conversations with leading climate scientists who will share their work and solutions for the future. For those who joined the previous Feedback Loops programs, welcome back. If you've missed the previous sessions about forest, ice sheets, and permafrost, you can find all the recordings on our live video archive page. We hope you were able to watch the short film Atmosphere before tonight's discussion, but if not, we'll be sure to email you the link to the film afterward. We encourage you to watch all the short films and discussions and share these important resources with your networks. It's truly vital to have these conversations.
Before we get started, just a few housekeeping notes. This discussion offers closed captioning. You can turn the captions on or off via the live transcript or the CC button, which should be located at the bottom of your Zoom interface. Tonight's program will begin with a moderated conversation and then follow with a chance to answer audience questions. As you have questions, please go ahead and submit them to the Q&A box. Although you can't see all the questions coming in, we can, and we'll try to sort through as many as possible.
Speaking of the Q&A, this is where you'll be able to ask your questions to the panelists during the program, and where we'll share any relevant links mentioned during the conversation. Your Q&A box is located at the bottom center of your Zoom interface. Please go ahead and locate it now if you're not already familiar with it. And also, please let us know who your question is directed to. It could be just to one of the panelists or to the entire group.
Another note, I'm in Washington, D.C., where we currently have a massive thunderstorm. So if I flick in or out based on my power, please hold tight. The webinar will continue. We have behind the scenes help who will continue the conversation. Now, let's get started. I'd like to go ahead and introduce our panelists and invite them all on screen.
Hello. I'm going to introduce the panelists. First is Dr. Jennifer Francis. She's a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. During the previous 24 years, she was a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers university. Dr. Francis received her Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington. She's world renowned for her research on Arctic climate change impacts and the resulting effect on weather in other regions of the world, particularly extreme weather events.
Next, we have Dr. Nichola Minott. She holds a Ph.D. from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Currently, Dr. Minott is a professor in the International Studies Program at Boston College, where she teaches courses on international environmental science and policy, global climate politics, disasters and conflicts, and conflicts and natural resources. Her research and teaching focus on the nexus between climate conflict and natural resources, environmental justice, and global climate politics. Her additional research interests include examining approaches to race and justice and environmental agreements.
And finally, we have Dr. Deepti Singh, an assistant professor in the School of the Environment at Washington State University, Vancouver. Dr. Singh received her Ph.D. in environmental earth system science from Stanford University in 2015. And the same year, she was recognized as a Kavli Frontiers of Science fellow by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Following that, she was a postdoc at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She's a climate scientist motivated by the potential for climate studies to inform our choices as a society and minimize climate related disaster risk to vulnerable communities.
Towards this goal, her research explores physical drivers of compounding and cascading climate extremes and their consequences for agriculture, water resources and human health. She's particularly interested in studying extremes such as intense rainfall, droughts, and heat waves in monsoonal climates that affect billions of people with relatively poor adaptive capacity. Dr. Singh uses is she/her pronouns.
So thank you all so much for taking the time to join us this evening for what we know will be a very interesting and critical conversation. The three of you hold impressive resumes. And before we dive into the science, I wanted to ask a question on a more personal level. What drew you into the work you do now and why? What moved you to think or care about climate change? Dr. Francis, would you like to start?
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
Sure. Thank you, Laura. And thank you all for being here this evening. Yeah. So I was interested in science my whole life, even as a kid, whether it was catching frogs in the stream in the back of our house, or looking at comets as they would once in a while come through our skies. But I decided when I went to college to actually pursue dentistry. So I started off going to college and learning about physiology and anatomy and all that sort of stuff in a premed sort of a program. But I'm also a very avid sailor. And I was very fortunate to do a lot of ocean sailing as a part of my growing up really in my early 20s. So I left school for a while, went off with my husband, did a lot of sailing that included going up to the Arctic. And during that time period, I decided that dentistry really wasn't my thing. And that meteorology was.
And so at that point, when we came back from that trip and went to continue our education, I went into a meteorology undergraduate program. I spent some time during that period doing research with a wonderful person at NASA Ames, who convinced me that research is really the way to go, not going into forecasting. And so I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Washington and focusing on the Arctic, because while we were up there sailing, at the time, weather information was very difficult to come by and it was pretty useless. And so I figured that was somewhere where I could focus and maybe make a difference.
So that got me off on that track. And as I was in grad school, climate change back then, which was in the early '90s, really wasn't being studied. We didn't have classes in it. But it became clear very quickly that the Arctic was changing very fast. And I wanted to understand why. And ultimately, what happens when the Arctic changes really fast and how that affects weather patterns elsewhere, which is what I study now.
Thank you. That's fascinating. Dr. Minott, would you please go next?
Dr. Nichola Minott:
Yes. I am originally from Jamaica, West Indies. And when my family moved to the United States, I grew up in The Bronx. And through that experience, I also served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay. And I think throughout my life, I've always experienced, been a part of, or observed living in communities that were impacted by limited resources or economic precariousness. And so my interest in international relations and learning about all of these different communities grew from that experience.
And then when I was living in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, it was my first... I was originally there as an early childhood education volunteer and health sector volunteer. But my experiences there first from observing the rampant deforestation where you would see trucks just driving out of the forest with these massive trunks that were being cleared from the nearby forest and there was no regulation of these activities. So I remember feeling a sense of sadness watching all of this happen.
And then secondly, observing members of my community growing up, but also members within the community I was living in, in Paraguay, their ability to thrive and prosper were so closely linked to resource availability and specifically linked to the land, whether or not they had a good harvest, whether or not it rained or rained too much. And even the slightest variation could send a family in crisis. So I think from that, or those experiences, I developed, or my intellectual observation evolved into a more personal and emotional response.
So when I decided I wanted to go to grad school, I had originally planned on going into economic development. But I was fortunate, while I was at Fletcher, to take a class with a professor, Bill Moomaw, who's also, he's a climate scientist. And through his class, it sparked something that was already there and redirected my focus, not just from economic development, but from what I viewed at that time to be more pressing and more vital, which is environment and how environment relates to development and all the different threads that are pulled just from how we use or misuse our natural resources. And in particular, how we have caused, responded to or ignored what's happening to our climate.
So that spurred my passions towards that, and then linked it up with the fact that I am from a developing country, I have been a member of a marginalized community, and I have lived overseas with other community members who were also marginalized. So it just created that mix, that suit that has led me to where I am today.
Thank you. And Dr. Singh, would you please share your background and how you ended up as a climate scientist?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Sure. Yeah. My trajectory is connected with some of the inspirations that Dr. Francis and Dr. Nichola had. So my roots are in India. I was an Air Force brat. And so I actually was in a trajectory to become an aeronautics engineer, because I was fascinated with planes. But growing up in different parts of India, I had family ties with the agricultural community and the experience, the impacts almost every year from some sort of weather related disaster and it affects their livelihood. And so that's where I started to originally think about this.
But then I lived in Mumbai around the time when the region experienced one of its heaviest rainfall events that had lasting impacts for months after that. So there was the immediate loss of lives and disruption to infrastructure, but also diseases that spread and affected communities within that region for multiple months following that event. And that's what really made me think about our relationship with the environment. I mean we are affected by our environment. We depend on it for everything, from food, to water, to the air we breathe.
And even these small variations within the climate, even to date, can have such impacts on communities. And when these impacts happen, they tend to affect the most vulnerable communities. They're the ones that are most affected. And these are already communities that are living in poverty. And so it made me think about how climate variations are affecting different aspects of our society, our economy, affecting wars, affecting inequality. And so that's why I was inspired to start thinking about this. I didn't have a formal education in it.
As I mentioned, I was studying engineering, aeronautics engineering at the time, but I started to read about these things and to read about climate change. And the programs for climate science was starting to develop around then. And that's what inspired me to think about it. And I decided I wanted to shift from studying engineering to dedicating my career to helping communities such as the ones that I have ties to, but also vulnerable communities around the world to become more resilient to climate variations and climate change.
Thank you. So for our first question, let's pivot back to the film and to the science. I'd like to start talking about feedback loops, specifically the cloud feedback loop and the water vapor feedback loops that were explored in the short film. And Jennifer, you were one of the scientists featured in that film. So could you summarize for our audience members what these two feedback loops are and why understanding them is so important in conversations about climate change?
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
Sure. Well, I think first of all, it would be good to just explain what a feedback loop is, any feedback loop. And there are positive feedback loops that we call them positive and then there are negative ones. And positive doesn't mean it's good. It means that it's a vicious cycle. So the idea is that if you make a change of some sort in the system that affects something else, that other thing that gets affected feeds back to the original change and makes it bigger. So that's what we call a positive feedback loop. But the opposite can happen. So if you have a change that affects something else, but that other change then makes the first thing less bad or less strong, then that would be a negative feedback loop. And there are both kinds of these in the climate system.
But most of the feedbacks that we talk about in the film are actually the bad kind, the positive kind. And the water vapor feedback loop, which I'll start with, is actually quite simple. So the idea is that we are warming the atmosphere because we're putting all of these heat trapping gases into the air, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, there's a big long list of them. And those heat trapping gases are causing the earth to warm the land and the ocean. And as we warm the air and the ocean, we're seeing more evaporation from both, the ocean and the land, putting more water vapor into the air. Water vapor is just the gaseous form of water. You can't see it, you really can't feel it directly. Although you know when there's a lot of moisture in the air on a humid day.
And turns out water vapor is also one of these heat trapping gases. So by warming the atmosphere, warming the oceans, creating more evaporation, putting more water vapor in the air, it's trapping even more heat. So it's adding to the warming of the planet. So that feedback loop is actually connected to the one that involves clouds, because as we also put more water vapor into the atmosphere, we're also providing more moisture for cloud formation. And the cloud feedback loop is interesting because it has both, a positive and a negative side to it. The positive side, the bad side, is that clouds, when they form, tend to trap heat just like the greenhouse gases do. So you know that on a cloudy night, it tends to be warmer than on a nice clear night. That's because those clouds trap more heat by the surface.
So that's the positive feedback loop, that's adding to the warming of the globe. But clouds are also bright white. And so they reflect some of the sun's energy that hits them and sends it right back to outer space so it doesn't enter the climate system and warm it. So they have this offsetting effect. They have a cooling effect and they have this warming effect. And it looks like based on the most recent research that the warming effect is winning on a global average scale. So the changes to clouds because of warming the planet look like they're adding to the problem, they're making the planet even warmer.
Thank you. Deepti, I'd like to direct the next question at you. Your work relates to Jennifer's in that you study the aftermath of these water vapor and cloud feedback loops, the relationship between climate and extreme weather, especially in South Asia. What are you seeing there and what changes have taken place over time?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Yeah. Thank you, Dr. Francis for the really nice explanation of feedback loops. So I don't have to do that. I'll specifically touch on the water vapor feedback, because that affects a lot of the events I study. I'll talk about two of them. So the first one is just how it affects rainfall. We have seen that because of more moisture being available in the atmosphere when it rains, there's more water falling out. And that's something that's been observed, not just in South Asia, it's been observed in a lot of places around the world. But my research has identified how the monsoons have intensified, heavy rain events have become more frequent and more intense.
And that has consequences for the communities there. We often hear about flooding in those regions that, again, affect infrastructure, affect people's homes, and affects agriculture that a lot of people depend on for their primary source of livelihood. And that's something that's been observed, not just for monsoons, it's been observed for other types of rain producing weather systems. So tropical cyclones, hurricanes tend to produce more rain when they do occur because now they're forming an environment where there is more moisture. And so when we talk about attributing individual extreme events to climate change, to human cause climate change, that is an effect we understand really well, that when it does rain, climate warming is making heavy rain events heavier.
The second part that interacts with my work is this heat and humidity. So heat, as we know, is something that really affects us very directly. Heat can have impacts on our physical health, mental health, our infrastructure, pretty much everything that we depend on. And heat and humidity is a dangerous combination. In South Asia, we're seeing parts of the region experiencing a combination of heat and humidity that is dangerous for human survivability. Right? That sounds really scary. And it is, given just how many people there are exposed to these conditions for various reasons, including socioeconomic factors and the nature of their work.
And we're seeing an increase in what we call humid heat, and reaching temperatures that are basically, if you're exposed to those temperatures for a long time, it can be lethal because those temperatures, the combination of heat and humidity prevents the natural system in our body to cool. And so there's that effect. But also we're seeing temperatures that affect human health, human performance, labor activity, et cetera. So we've seen the effect of this water vapor feed feedback play out, both in terms of heat stress as well as in terms of rainfall extremes. And they're only likely to get worse.
Thank you. This next question is for Nichola. When we spoke before the program, we talked about climate change and equity, and you mentioned the phrase, "Looking where the power lies." Can you tell us more about that concept when we talk about climate change and the folks who were more disproportionately impacted by the results of these feedback loops?
Dr. Nichola Minott:
Yeah. Well, when I talk about power and climate change and vulnerable communities, I'm thinking about in terms of the people and groups that are most severely impacted by climate change. We are talking about the poor. We are talking about disproportionately people of color. We're also talking about groups that are, as Deepti said, dependent on the predictability and variability of rain cycles and growing seasons.
And many of these marginalized people live in precarious areas on the planet, whether it be coastlines that are in danger of being inundated, nutrient depleted geographic areas, such as desert environments that are barely sustainable that are now compounded by feedback loops, and depending on forest goods and services, which are now in danger of being clear-cut due to unsustainable harvesting practices. And we're not even talking about wildfires and other issues that come up with feedback loops. Also communities that are living in areas of high desertification or resource scarcities are more prone to conflict, too limited or due to limited resources or access to clean water or fertile land.
Now, the affluent, and people and groups and societies that have the resources or the capacity to adapt or change don't face these problems because they're removed from that level of dependence due to their economic, their geographical and/or their political power. And clearly, these types of climate changes impacts these two groups very differently. So what does that look like? Well, when you talk about these groups and who's affected, you can't have the conversation without talking about resiliency, and how groups, societies, are able to use or adapt or change in the face of what's coming and in the face of these feedback loops and severe climate change.
So when I talk about who has the power, I'm not talking about marginalized people, because they clearly don't. What do I mean by this? It means that adaptation is built from a starting point in the notion of resilience. So it encompasses adaptation as a process of sociopolitical transition and transformation. And power lies at the heart of this conceptualization of adaptation and resilience. So for whom, where, and when the impacts of climate change are felt as well as the scope of recovery? So the power held by an actor within a particular social system translates to what stake do they have in upholding the status quo. And it also plays a great role in shaping that particular actor's support or resistance towards adaptation and resilience.
And especially when these implications for change are related to social, economic, cultural, or political relations, or in ways that natural assets are viewed and used. So essentially, looking at it from that perspective, you have to look at where the power lies, who has the power and what are the stakes that they imbue particular issues such as climate change and the impacts it has on whether or not it positively or negatively impacts their power.
Thank you. I think that's a really great segue into talking about a very important news item that many of our visitors have seen this week. And that's the new United Nations report about our future. It concluded that a hotter future is virtually certain right now, but that there's also a short window of time in which we can prevent the most harrowing consequences of a warming atmosphere. And to keep the worst effects from happening, there needs to be global collaboration to make sure that the results are not felt unequally more than they need to be.
So this is a question for everyone here. And please feel free to go back and forth. But we would like to talk about the report and also about some of these solutions that might be feasible to keep the limits of climate change within manageable, as opposed to absolutely catastrophic.
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
Well, I could get us started just pointing out the fact that there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there has been in the last 800,000 years. And we know that the last time the amount of carbon dioxide was as high as it is now, sea levels were about 20 feet higher. So this is the trajectory that we're on as we continue to put these greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide methane, et cetera, into the atmosphere. And really the single biggest target that we should be thinking about is how do we reduce that amount of especially carbon dioxide and methane that we're putting into the atmosphere, because that is the single most driver, the underlying disease, if you will, of this warming planet of ours.
And this is all coming about because we're burning so many fossil fuels, that is the main source of these greenhouse gases or heat trapping gases in addition to cutting down forests, especially in tropical regions where the trees do two things for us that help counteract this problem. The first thing is that they actually extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They're the only real natural way that we can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But they're also a battery, if you will. They store carbon in their trunks, in their branches, in their leaves. And so by cutting down a forest, you're taking that storage of carbon and basically putting it into the atmosphere, because as it decomposes, that's where it goes.
So really the single most important thing we have to do is drastically and rapidly cut down how much carbon dioxide and methane we are putting into the atmosphere. It's as simple as that. And not burning fossil fuels is the single most important thing that we have to do in addition to stop cutting down forests.
Thank you. Would the other panelists like to jump in?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Sure. I can add to that. I think one of the key messages from this IPCC report is that we're actually experiencing the effects of climate change right now. Anywhere you live on our planet, you're affected by climate change, whether it's heat waves, rainfall, thunderstorms, droughts, wildfires. The science is at a point where we can attribute aspects of these extreme events to human caused climate change. So I think, compared to previous reports, that is one of the key messages that this report has helped put forward.
And it's an important message because, again, it's not something that's going to affect us 20 years from now, it's something that is already affecting the resources we depend on, our health, and our natural environment today. And I think that, to me, the fact that we understand climate change, we understand what's causing it, is something that we should feel empowered by, that we're not resigned to this hotter, more volatile climate. Right? We have the power to change the way we live, and that can help reduce some of the impacts and give us a better environment to live in.
So I think that is, for me, were important takeaways from this report. In terms of solutions, yes, reducing the burning of fossil fuels is key. And I think that it requires a variety of solutions because the source of these greenhouse gases, there're various sources of that. Right? There's agriculture, there's transportation, electricity production, all of those things. And so some of those systems are things that individuals cannot affect. I mean, well, we can through voting and supporting people that support that change, but there are also individual choices that can affect the greenhouse gases.
So I think one of the easiest solutions... Easy is a relative word, but one of the solutions I think is transitioning away from coal and fossil fuel based energy sources to renewable energy sources. And that actually, I want to talk here briefly about co-benefits. So we may not see... The IPCC report shows us that irrespective of what we do today, we're going to warm a little bit. We're going to continue to warm for the next couple of decades. So that shouldn't be a reason for us not to act, because transitioning to these cleaner sources of energy, even though it may not have immediate benefits on the climate system, it has immediate co-benefits on air quality. That is something that affects many people. It is a health hazard.
And so that's something, I think, is important to consider. I think that's one change we can make as a society. And there's enough evidence that we have the technology to do that. And then secondly, I think, as individuals, we should think about our actions and think about living consciously and how our actions and our way of life is contributing to this problem. If we have the capacity to do it, we should. Not everybody does, but if you are in a position to change something about the way you live, something as simple as changing your diet, that is something that can at least help contribute reducing this problem.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
I think, just to jump in there, one of the things that I've observed just from looking at it from a justice and a person of color perspective, a lot of ... Just in terms of some of the things you see online, and it's like, "Oh, it's deforestation." They show pictures of people in poor areas chopping down wood for firewood and things like that. And quite frankly, that's a false equivalency. Because the real issue here, and if there's one thing that the IPCC report has stated is that it's a problem of scale. And it's easy for us to say individual choices, but one of the things I teach in my class, yes, individual choice is important. The type of car we drive. When we buy a house, looking at how it's built. Is it energy efficient? The type of appliances we use, our diet, things like that. Those are all important.
But in order to really push and actually have meaningful change, you're going to have to bump up the scale of things. So we're talking about industry, we're talking about how do we transition our heavily petroleum, coal base? Well, not so much coal now since coal is thankfully turning more into an obsolete energy source. But still, in some parts of the world, it's a primary ... China, for example, that's one of their major energy sources. But transitioning away from these heavy fossil fuel type industries in terms of how we and where we grab our power and how we light our houses and how we operate our air conditioning and things like that.
Especially in the industrialized part of the world, it's easy for us to say, "Oh, I have a hybrid car. So I'm doing my part." Yes, you are doing your part, but that's just a tiny teardrop in the ocean. We have to think about things in a larger, grander scale in order to really have a meaningful impact. And as Dr. Francis and Dr. Singh also pointed out, we have to look at the energy, where we are getting our inputs from, as well as what the developed country and the developing world is doing to help mitigate this. Because right now, we're not doing a whole lot.
Yes, there's a lot of news articles and publicity around this report. But as I was saying before, we got online, whether or not this publicity actually turns into meaningful change and action, that's where I think the key is. Because even if we were to cut all of our carbon emissions today, it's still going to be decades, possibly a century before it actually starts having an impact because of how much carbon dioxide is currently in the air.
So I think that in order for us to really address and maybe translate what the report is saying into meaningful action, I think we're going to need to look at how the people that are representing us, how they're looking at it, the industries that we support, the cars we drive. It's not just something where we change our diet. We're literally going to have to start looking at how we live our lives, not just from one little, "Oh, I recycle, and I cut down on plastic." But if I'm upgrading or buying a home, what does that look like? How is that going to contribute to reducing my carbon footprint?
So I think the conundrum here is that we are looking at it, we're talking about it, but at the same time, we're still expecting groups that have less ability to change to gather and carry the burden more than people who actually do have the ability to have an impact. But because it's inconvenient and because it's hard and because life is comfortable now for how we are living, myself included, that there is not a lot of incentive to really make these meaningful and tough calls in terms of how we decide to move forward and live our lives in a way that's going to help to create a sustainable system going forward.
Thank you. I'm just going to take a quick moment here to remind our audience members that we would love to take your questions. So, as you're thinking of questions, please go ahead, submit those in the Q&A box, and we will try to answer them. We actually have an audience question here. And this is from Ernie for Dr. Francis. And Ernie says, "Here in Maine, we recently explored adding solar panels to our garage, but learned that we would have to cut down a number of large trees to eliminate the shading that would otherwise make the solar cells much less efficient. How does one calculate the offset between the benefits of adding solar to decrease fossil fuel usage for heating versus the loss of future carbon capture by cutting down large conifers and deciduous trees?"
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
Right. Well, thank you for that great question. And I know there's a lot of people, especially in the Northeast where there are a lot of big trees, who would love to put solar on their roofs and finding out that it's really just not very efficient unless they cut down some big, beautiful trees. I don't have the formula in front of me that would be able to tell you how to calculate the pluses and minuses of those two activities. But I can tell you that if you do decide to cut down those trees so that you can get a more efficient solar array on your roof, that nothing is stopping you from planting trees elsewhere, and potentially even trees that are better adapted to your location, native species.
There's a lot of trees that are in New England now that really don't belong here. And so they don't have the same function in the ecosystem that some of the native species would. So you could actually consider cutting down those trees. That's not what we want to do ultimately, but you would gain a lot of energy that instead would be replacing probably a lot of energy up in Maine. I think Maine still relies a lot on fossil fuels to generate a lot of their electricity. So you'd be offsetting some fossil fuel burning with that. But then go ahead and plant some new trees, maybe even more trees than you're cutting down. And I think that would help offset and maybe even have other benefits to the ecosystem in your neighborhood as well.
Did anyone else want to jump in on that question?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Dr. Deepti Singh:
I guess, I can share a couple thoughts. So I think a solution that might be effective in one place may not be the most effective in another place. Like deserts, for example, are great places for solar and a lot of solar power plants are put in those places. I think maybe just thinking about the type of renewable resources you can get in a place where you live can be helpful in thinking about whether or not you should implement a particular solution. So if it doesn't seem reasonable to have a solar panel there, there are other solutions, there's wind energy. Here, I live in Portland, and we have a really nice installation of wind turbines on the bridges here that show us just how much power can be harnessed from that. So, yeah.
Thank you. A phrase that's come up a few times in our discussion today is climate resiliency, and how we can help people and communities prepare for and face the changes that are already happening today. So even if we cut all of our carbon emissions, there's that baked in warming that we're already experiencing. And I would like to hear more on this topic. I wondered if we could start with Dr. Minott and then the other panelists come in after that about talk about climate resiliency as a concept.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
Okay. Well, as I touched on in the previous question, or my previous comment, resiliency is linked to many different areas. It's linked to adaptive capacity. And adaptive capacity refers to the ability of humans to deal with change in their environment by observation, learning or altering their interactions. And resilience refers to, the dictionary version is, an ecosystem stability and capability of tolerating disturbance and restoring itself. So there are many areas where human activity impacts upon, but it's also dependent up upon the resilience of terrestrial, aquatic or marine ecosystems. And just off the top of my head, we're talking about agriculture, deforestation, pollution, mining, recreation, overfishing, dumping waste in the sea, and climate change.
So when we're talking about communities and marginalized countries that are being asked to be resilient without the resources of help, the long answer rather is that a resilient social system can create opportunities for doing new things for innovation and for development. And with the resilience perspective, there needs to be a shift to managing the capacity of a social ecological system and its ability to cope, adapt, and shape change. And for communities that are in particularly vulnerable or countries that are particularly vulnerable, the goal essentially is to reduce these types of social vulnerabilities, whether it's through an extension and consolidation of social networks, both locally, nationally, regionally, or international scales.
And actions to adapt and maintain resilience in the face of climate change requires governments to adjust and set up the foundation for individuals acting as citizens or through market exchange or through civil society to promote and grow collective action. Because individuals and communities that are presently responding to climate change are not responding to it in the same way, because they've dealt with climate variability in different ways throughout history. However, the capacity to respond to changes and to the environmental conditions that result within each of these communities have been successful or fail to vary degrees.
And in the case of poor marginalized communities and countries, that means that they are the ones that are the first to see these changes and the damage and the shifts in the climate, but they don't have the appropriate institutions to really promote resiliency. So you're placing the burden primarily on communities that are not feasible or logically able to address it. So again, it links back to my original statements of it depends on the scale. So is there a blueprint for what's happening and for communities and for us as a whole to be resilient? No, there isn't a blueprint for future agenda on climate changes, climate investment or relief funding. So it's important to acknowledge that the ability to adapt to an uncertain future in climate change is not a set one solution fits all.
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
I could speak to a particular community, the one that I live in. And this also goes to the question of what can I do personally about this, meaning the loyal eye, each of us. I live in a very small town that's very susceptible to coastal flooding, storm surges. And more recently, we've also been dealing with droughts and the heavy precipitation events that Deepti mentioned. And so when we moved back to this small town, which is where I grew up actually, I realized that our town had made literally no preparations for the kinds of changes that my research and all of your research, all of the climate change researchers have been telling us about.
And so, one person can get involved in your own community. And we initiated an investigation into the town's infrastructure, what's vulnerable, what can we do to prepare better for the next big hurricane, for example, or for our future with more severe droughts? And we discovered, for example, that all of the pumping stations for all of the sewage from around town to get it up to the sewage treatment plant were all in the flood zone. In fact, they're even worse. They're in the velocity zone, which means that's where the big waves are going to come through if a hurricane were to occur. And they have occurred before and it will occur again.
So identifying some of these really important vulnerabilities in our infrastructure has been an eye opening experience for all of our committees in the town, our town administrators. And we're addressing those. And hopefully, in time, to prepare us for not just sea level rise, which is a more gradual thing, but the next big storm that comes along that's riding on top of that higher sea level. We're also looking into identifying additional areas where we can drill wells for the town's fresh water supply, so that as these droughts get longer and more severe, we will be able to keep the water flowing literally.
So I think there's a lot a single person can do in your own community, which then builds into other communities, other towns nearby see, "Oh, you did this. And yeah, we need to look at that too." And so it builds up in scale almost on its own. So it's been a very rewarding part of one of the hats that I wear, and I really enjoy helping my community in this way.
It's fantastic. Thank you. We have an audience question for all the panelists from Lois. Lois asks, "How does increasing population need to be considered in the equation as we look to our future in a warmer climate."
Dr. Deepti Singh:
I can share.
Do you want to start, Deepti?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Sure. Yeah. I come from a place where there close to a sixth of the global population lives. So the way I think about it is that population is not the main problem here. It's the consumption of resources by a much smaller group of people, that's the problem. The standard of living in a lot of places around the world in the most densely populated places is much, much lower. The consumption of resources is a lot lower than it is here in the U.S.
And if we think about who has contributed most to the climate change, we have experienced so far, it is not the people living in Asia and Africa. Most of the climate change we have experienced to date is because of greenhouse gases that were emitted by the Western world. And so, yes, I think we should think about population because ultimately, the places that are currently densely populated are areas where exposure to climate hazards is really high and the vulnerability is really high. But I don't think we should think of those regions as being the source of climate change.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
I would add to that, however, that yes, I 100 percent agree with Deepti's assessment of it. However, the problem that comes with population is that much of the developing world and much of these populated regions are aspiring to be at the level of the global North and the smaller the populations that are using the most and extracting most of our resources. And the ultimate goal in our entire economic structure is based, or the stated goal is to bring people out of poverty and improve their quality of life. And what that translates to basically is mimicking the same projections and growth models of the global north and the wealthier nations, which are responsible for this.
So I think, last time, I taught a class on this. I think it said that you need six or seven planets in order to ... If everybody in the world lived at the same level as the industrialized countries, you would need six planets of resources just to support the population. So even though, currently, the quality and the level of consumption and the damage that's being done is directly as a result of a small segment of the population, you still have the issue that, with population growth, comes more people using limited resources. And at the same time, at the economic structure, that's attempting to, or trying to create a system where everyone has what the wealthy is perceived and what they actually do have and exploiting.
So how do you break that cycle and how do you address it? And that's where I think the issue of population becomes a dire concern.
Thank you. We're almost out of time. So for a final question, I wanted to touch on how we can all continue the conversation after this session ends. I know all of you do research and also public outreach. What are some effective ways you've found to talk about climate topics with other people? Would you like to start, Deepti?
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I try to talk about it with everybody, whether it's someone I meet at the grocery store or at parties, or probably unpopular parties. But I think it's important to have these conversations in our day to day lives because we're experiencing so much of the effects of climate change and there's so much we know about it and it's in the media all the time. So I think more and more I find people being engaged on the issue. Social media is great for that. And I think, just in general, engaging with it as much as you can and showing just how much climate change is affecting every aspect of our lives today.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
Yeah. And I think we're also in a unique situation as academics. Because I think where I get my greatest fulfillment and where the message gets out is in a college and classroom setting where I have students who take my class through word of mouth or they've heard some things about it. And I'm extremely enthusiastic about it. I'm much too that they probably think I'm geeky or nerdy about it. But yeah. So I think transmitting this information in a classroom setting and making it engaging and making it imperative, I think, is one of the ways I feel I'm having the most impact.
But also, just like Deepti says, my friend circle and my neighborhood, they know my position. I'll give people dirty looks for throwing something away and not putting it in the recycle bin. But that's just me. I think that's important. But I think, for me, disseminating the information to as wider audience as possible, and I do that through the classroom.
Dr. Jennifer Francis:
And I'll just add. My experience has been that there is a lot of interest now, especially in the fact that we're seeing all these extreme weather events. Getting back to Deepti's work and my work and connecting how climate change is making them worse and is going to make them even more worse. Yeah, more worse. And I think one of our challenges is really figuring out how to reach those audiences that don't want to listen, that are averse to talking about this thing. And actually, my career has really transitioned in the last decade or so to really investing a lot of my time in science communication, writing articles for broad public audiences like Scientific American, the Old Farmer's Almanac, for example. I mean, a lot of people read that.
And so, looking for ways to reach these audiences with some very simple, basic information that we know to be true in how the climate is affecting, especially these extreme weather events. Because extreme weather, everybody loves to talk about. People love to talk about the weather. So if you can start with something that people really love to talk about, and then you can inject a little bit of climate change in there to explain why this is happening more often, it's not your imagination, this is what the science is telling us, you're absolutely right, and it's happening in your backyard. And as Deepti said earlier, it's happening now and climate change is affecting all of us right now.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
And I think one of the things-
Dr. Nichola Minott:
I'm sorry. One of the things-
No, go ahead.
Dr. Nichola Minott:
... that I think I got that has really had an impact on me, I had one of my students said to me, "The reason I'm taking this class is because I want to be able to talk to my parents and grandparents who don't believe that climate change is real. And I need to have the tools to share that information."
Thank you. I'd like to thank everyone.
Dr. Deepti Singh:
Can I add one quick thing? Would you mind if I add one quick thing?
I think they may cut us off at six.
Dr. Deepti Singh:
So I want to make sure we thank everyone behind the scenes, our volunteers, our donors, viewers like you and the team behind the scenes who help sort through all your questions, and finally to all of our partners who helped us reach, educate and empower millions of people around the world. Thank you today and every day.
Please be sure to visit our video archive page to access the past recordings in the series. And for those who haven't already done so, I'd like to encourage you to watch the short films online, share them with the people you care about, and start a conversation about climate topics. These conversations are critical as our panelists said. And in particular, we've heard from viewers that the atmosphere segment contains the most clear explanation they've seen of the jet stream and how it's affected by climate change.
After the webinar ends in a minute, you'll see a popup survey asking for feedback. So please take a moment to respond as we're very curious to know what topics you might be interested in seeing for future programs. We really appreciate your input. Thank you again to all of our panelists tonight. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and to have your audience participation. Thanks for your questions. This concludes tonight's virtual programs. Thanks again and goodnight.