‘Don’t give up hope’: Iowa State climate scientist finds optimism in latest global report he helped author – Ames Tribune
The future of life everywhere is full of uncertainty — because what that future will look like will largely depend on humanity’s choices in the years ahead — but an Iowa State University climate scientist has faith that people can solve the problems at hand.
Other people in the community are turning to performance art spur action on climate change.
“I don’t want to discount the creativity that people have in making things work,” said William “Bill” Gutowski, a geological and atmospheric sciences professor at Iowa State who was one of the 15 lead authors of a chapter in the latest report, released in August, of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Key takeaways of the latest IPCC report:
The IPCC report projected that decades of unavoidable, human-driven global warming will bring worsened extreme weather events everywhere — and some damage already done could take hundreds or thousands of years to reverse.
However, the report also noted that humanity still has a chance to quickly and drastically reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases enough to avoid crossing a warming threshold beyond which extreme heat would more often exceed what crops and people’s bodies can handle.
What’s been projected for the future of Ames and Iowa?
The chapter of the report Gutowski co-authored focused on regional effects of climate change.
For the central part of North America that includes the Midwest, the report projected it’s “very likely” that the region will continue to see more extreme precipitation events that could lead to floods, while there’s “high confidence” of more drought coming, especially the warmer the world gets. There’s also “medium confidence” that there would be more precipitation in the winter in the northern parts of the Midwest.
Gutowski said likelihood and confidence are on two different scales. Likelihood reflects probability, and confidence reflects the level of certainty based on the available evidence.
Separately, last year, Ames published a climate vulnerability assessment, prepared by the Minnesota-based climate change and sustainability consultant paleBLUEdot LLC.
The assessment projected Iowa’s winter climate by the end of this century would be more like that of present-day Kentucky or Tennessee, and summer would be more like what it is in present-day Texas.
The city’s assessment found the greatest risks to the people of Ames from climate change — risks determined by their likelihood and impact — were flooding, extreme heat and decreased air quality. Low-income individuals, people of color and adults 65 and older were determined to be the groups most vulnerable.
Roads and other transportation systems were the infrastructure identified as facing the highest risk, such as from taking more wear and tear because of weather or being damaged by floods.
“There clearly will be stresses put on things that could end up influencing the supply chain,” Gutowski said.
Those stresses may not be constant, but he pointed to the wildfires now burning in the West and their impact on tourism — on top of the hit to the industry from the COVID-19 pandemic — as an example of economic disruption.
Ames’ assessment also cited a 2017 study from the University of California at Berkeley that projected agricultural yields in Story County would decline more than 24% through 2100 because of increased surface temperatures and changes in precipitation — and that would not be as severe as what was projected for other parts of the Midwest, especially Missouri, southern Illinois and eastern Nebraska and Kansas.
Gutowski said erosion of croplands from heavier rains could also become a serious problem, especially in the spring, before row crops have had a chance to emerge. Pests or mold that maybe weren’t a problem before could become challenges.
So why have hope, and what kind of action is needed to realize it?
Gutowski said there’s a balance between being clear about climate change and responding to it, and making things seem so hopeless that people disengage and don’t think they can do anything to prevent it.
He said it’s not an either/or as to whether it’s enough that everyone take action as consumers to the greatest extent possible or that political actions lead to systemic changes. Both are needed.
“There are some major changes that have to occur in terms of how we consume energy, how we produce it. … There’s a lot of policy that has to be done,” he said.
Policy involves the political realm, he said.
“It’s not simply a matter of putting in new regulations. It’s what kind of incentives are going to be offered, things that you might view as investments in our future, especially the future for our children,” he added. “How do you bring the private sector into this in a really meaningful and supportive way?”
Beyond giving priorities to politicians, Gutowski said, “we want things set up in a way that we can actually bring about change and get the creativity of the whole country involved, not just people telling us we’ve got to do something.”
For subscribers, Iowa farmers’ thoughts on climate change, responses to it:
He was happy the IPCC’s latest report included the chapter on regional climate change impacts that stakeholders can work with — something that had not really been in previous reports — and pleasantly surprised that the report incorporated discussions about social science and values.
Gutowski said he got involved in climate research because, even though he majored in astronomy and physics in college: “I wanted to do something that really had more of an impact on human society.”
He advised aspiring climate scientists: “It’s going to be more than just the physical science.”
That’s important, but it’s also vital to have effective community interactions, Gutowski said.
“That means that there’s huge opportunity here for people who have varied interests to come together,” he said.
“Don’t give up hope. As the report said, there’s time and opportunity to do things.”
Other reactions to the IPCC report, upcoming performances and discussions about climate change
Tanner Gordon, a junior and president of Iowa State’s Environmental Science Club, still has hope — despite being disheartened by the projected climate estimations.
“As climate science continues to advance and we continue to acknowledge our impact that we are having on the planet,” he said, future generations will grow up with that knowledge and continue to strive for a healthier world.
Meanwhile, Iowa State’s music and theatre department is partnering with the university’s MFA program in creative writing and environment, the EcoTheatre Lab and the International Climate Change Theatre Action Initiative to put on free and public performances this fall.
Those performances “will bring community members together to imagine — and plan — a more hopeful and sustainable future,” according to the department’s website for “Climate Change Theatre Action.”
Vivian Cook, the community engagement director for Iowa State’s 2021 Climate Change Theatre Action events, said performances are scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Sept. 23 on the Parks Library’s south lawn on campus and 3 p.m. Oct. 3 outside of Ames Public Library.
Cook said “snippets of the performances” are also scheduled for:
- Noon Sept. 20, ISU Monday Monologues, at the steps of Parks Library
- 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Sept. 25, at the Ames Farmers’ Market
- Sept. 25, at Play Ames: Imagine your City community engagement festival
- Sept. 26, at the Octagon Art Festival
- 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at Ames Farmers’ Market
- 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at Ames Farmers’ Market
Cook said that, with the latest IPCC report and recent climate-related disasters, “There’s definitely fear, sadness and even anger, but also a sense of urgency in wielding whatever tools we have — which, in our case, are art and storytelling — to raise awareness and encourage conversation and action.”
It’s important to recognize grief, but Cook added, “Despite the grief and fear, I do still have hope for the future, I think especially as I see my peers and young people in the generation after me pushing for climate action and justice.”
Charissa Menefee, director of Iowa State’s Climate Change Theatre Action, said: “In our performances, we work to translate and communicate scientific information into understandable, relatable and actionable concepts.”
Menefee added the hope is that people will take away “a greater understanding of climate change and how it is already affecting the local and global communities, and a desire to invest more fully in our community and local climate action planning.”
Ames is in the process of drafting a climate action plan.
Thursday’s first lecture program in Iowa State’s series for the year will feature a panel of ISU experts in psychology, engineering, political science and energy policy discussing the effects of climate change and what can be done about them.
The free and public “The Uninhabitable Earth? Climate Change and Your Future” will be at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Memorial Union Great Hall and will be livestreamed. More information is available at news.iastate.edu/news/2021/08/26/climate-change-panel.
More on Iowa State’s roles in energy study, emissions reductions:
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.