BOSTON – Following an international scientific body’s grim prediction for the future of Planet Earth, Jewish scientists and researchers in the Boston area and the North Shore shared their thoughts on the dire forecast.
On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a part of the UN, released its latest findings in the Sixth Assessment Report, which stated that it is likely that global warming will increase by 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius in the coming decades. The report linked this to global warming caused by humans, principally through the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and cited already-record temperatures and extreme weather events that may become more dramatic.
“The key takeaway is that climate change isn’t something happening in the future, it’s happening now,” said Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy and chief climate scientist of the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re already seeing demonstrated threats to the Earth’s climate – rising seas, more extreme floods and droughts, more extreme heat in every section of the world, including the U.S.”
Frumhoff had participated in a previous IPCC study, the Fourth Assessment Report, which was released in 2007 and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The point of the most recent study, he said, “is that the unbelievably extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest, the floods in Europe, the wildfires that – even though they’re in the West – [we see] smoke coming over New England and affecting our air quality … we know the cause – burning fossil fuels, primarily the major driver, CO2 pollution in the atmosphere. … If we are to limit the worst consequences of climate change, we have no time to wait.”
It’s a call echoed by local advocacy organizations such as the Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN) and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), which were among the cosponsors of climate rallies in multiple locations across Massachusetts on Aug. 19.
“Our Jewish values compel us to work for environmental justice,” Cindy Rowe, executive director of JALSA, said in a statement. “We are at a tipping point, and we need our elected officials to act with urgency. All of us should be able to live in a clean and healthful environment, regardless of race, national origin or income. We must join together, before we face even more severe climate change, to protect our planet from environmental destruction.”
Meanwhile, the Clean Power Coalition is fighting a planned natural gas-fired power plant in Peabody.
Coalition director Jerry Halberstadt said of the IPCC’s findings, “I think the overwhelming evidence is that our use of fossil energy has directly and indirectly changed the conditions that affect climate and it’s pretty convincing that that is the relationship, and we basically have no time to do a full-court press to turn things around. The world’s not going to be livable for human beings or much else.”
JCAN representative Harvey Michaels attended the most recent in-person gathering of the IPCC, in Madrid in 2019. He was there presenting research he was doing at MIT, where he is a lecturer in energy and climate innovation at the university’s Sloan Sustainability Initiative.
Reflecting on the most recent findings, Michaels noted the IPCC statement that dating back to 1850 or 1900, global warming has increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said, but it’s “one of the reasons we’re now seeing extremely strange weather [of] all types all over the world.”
“The last time CO2 concentrations were this high, there were crocodiles in Greenland,” said Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s a lot hotter. It’s going to get hotter. Just with the concentrations we’re seeing today, concentrations have been going up faster in the last decade than in previous decades.”
Frumhoff said that although some CO2 escapes through photosynthesis, it will “more likely stay in the atmosphere … The blanket of gas covers the Earth and causes warming around both the oceans and land surface … with warmer water, expect sea levels to rise and glaciers to melt, land-based ice to melt.”
Jennifer Bender, aquaculture education coordinator at the School for the Environment and executive director of the Marine Studies Consortium at the University of Massachusetts Boston, noted that the chemical composition of oceans is also changing.
“As CO2 is released by human activity, the oceans absorb more of it,” she said. “CO2 unfortunately creates a more acidic ocean, less basic,” with such effects as “some of the coral bleaching, animals from plankton to shelled [species] having a hard time growing their shells.”
Of the report, Bender said, “I don’t think anything is up for debate. There’s unquestionably a human influence on the atmosphere, the oceans and land. There’s much stronger language, which is great, in my perspective.”
One scientist expressed disapproval with the IPCC’s statements – Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology at MIT, who was a lead author of the IPCC’s report in 2003.
“Let’s say CO2 is a pollutant and somebody figures out a way to cut the amount of CO2 we have now in the atmosphere,” Lindzen said. He predicted that cutting current CO2 levels in the atmosphere by a bit more than half would have dire consequences because of photosynthesis, in which plants eat CO2 to produce oxygen – “It’s how life started.” If current CO2 levels in the atmosphere are cut by a bit more than half, he said, “almost all advanced life forms on the planet would die. When plants, vegetables, fruits die, we die. When was the last time we had a pollutant that when you got rid of it, it killed you?”
Although he has drawn criticism for his positions, he noted some common ground with colleagues on climate: “If you were to ask people, what do they agree with? Man has some influence? OK. It’s more likely becoming warmer than cooler? Fine. It’s warmed since the Little Ice Age in the 18th century? I agree. Ninety-seven to 100 percent agree with these statements. It has nothing to do with the statement that climate change is an existential threat.”
For those who agree with the IPCC findings, time is of the essence.
“There are [hundreds of millions of] vehicles in the world and in the U.S.,” Schwartz said. “They’re not all going to go toward electricity right away. We’re burning gas all the time. It’s the same thing in every other country … so we have a major problem.”