CHICAGO – During an environmental event held on January 30 at the DePaul Art Museum, professors discussed the impacts of climate change. They focused on its implications, how the public perceives it, and the attempt by conservatives to deny its very existence.
“Increasing CO2 levels are just the first part of the problem,” said Mark Potosnak, assistant professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. “The loss of Arctic sea ice is the scariest, because it’s opening up the Northwest Passage for shipping and for oil exploration,” which will further contribute to the problem. “It’s also causing the collapse of the Amazonian rainforest.” And that, he suggested, is just the beginning.
The event was organized by Laura Fatemi, assistant director at the museum, and was part of a larger exhibition called “Climate of Uncertainty,” which seeks to shed light on the threat of global warming and educate the public through science, art, and active discussion. The atmosphere at this event was animated and full of people ranging from students to journalists to concerned activists.
Potosnak’s research deals largely with how plants’ impacts on the environment will change in the future, according to Fatemi. He gave a broad presentation on climate issues, however, and started by backtracking to 1989, when “scientists were fairly convinced that the world was heating up. They made very solid predictions from that point forward.
“But how do scientists tell you what the climate is going to be like in 2100?” It’s not as simple, he explained, as merely making predictions, because various social and economic positions factor into it. It becomes “a question of policy,” he said, “because it’s about the choices that political leaders are making. How much CO2 will we release in that time frame? What will federal regulations on it be, if any?” If this weren’t complex enough, he added that, although we are suffering the effects of drought in the U.S., including lost crops, “we do have an agricultural surplus right now. We have a cushion. But many other developing nations do not. That makes climate change a social issue.”
Global warming is also having a very negative impact on the rainforests. “Rainforests recycle a lot of rain,” he explained. “It gets evaporated and comes back down again, and it’s a very important system. But that cycle is [being] broken by reductions in rain. There were record droughts in these regions in 2005 and 2010.”
“Arctic sea ice,” he continued, “is way below the median average.” This also makes climate change an issue of animal welfare: “Polar bears feed with the benefit of that sea ice. With that there, they can get their meal of seal meat. But when the ice gets farther away, it becomes a real problem for them. And what is shocking is just how quickly the melting occurred.”
Barbara Willard, associate professor in the College of Communication, talked more about climate change’s relationship with today’s society, revealing some worrying facts. When it comes to this issue, she said, there is a “severe disconnect with the U.S. public. Even the majority that believes it’s human-caused still sees it as a distant threat. The American population doesn’t feel a sense of urgency. Other countries, however, don’t have that perception.”
Based on a March 2012 study by Yale/George Mason University, she demonstrated, “29 percent of Americans are cautious in regard to climate change, 26 percent are concerned, 15 percent are doubtful it’s happening, 13 percent are outright alarmed, 10 percent are utterly dismissive of it, and six percent are disengaged from the issue altogether.”
The citizens who are doubtful or confused unknowingly create a window for right-wing climate change deniers to have their say. “FOX News,” she said, touts the idea of “fair and balanced journalism.” And they go so far as to stretch that theory to the point where climate change itself ought to be regarded as subject to opinion.
“With the help of political strategists, Republicans play on scientific debate still being open, stressing that this equates to uncertainty on the issue.” But with science, there is constant debate, “and if you wait until you have all the facts, it’s too late” for our planet.
This is all made harder when the Republican Party tries to execute their agenda under the guise of concern for American values. “Many environmental messages,” Willard admitted, “do fail to connect with American values, because they criticize our very lifestyle. And that’s not going to get people on board. Calling for altruism is the wrong direction.” The answer is getting people to compromise, and to simply do their part. That, she concluded, might be “the best kind of language to use in climate change discourse.”
Photo: An ice fjord that leads to the mouth of the Jakobshaven Glacier, which is rapidly retreating into the Arctic Ocean due to global warming. June 27, 2008. Photo by Chicago photographer Terry Evans.