by Diane W. Husic
The first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1990)1 led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The 195 countries that signed this 1992 treaty, including the U.S., are obligated to “act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty.”1 Since then, that uncertainty, at least within the scientific community, has declined dramatically; in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, released in fall 2013, experts raised the confidence level that climate change is human-caused to 95%. Nevertheless, climate negotiations are mired in politics, and the U.S. is seen as a major obstructionist.
Why should we in the Lehigh Valley care? Pennsylvania emits 1% of the total global greenhouse gases that interfere with our climate system. If we were a country, we would rank #26 in carbon emissions, not far behind coal-dependent Poland, which hosted the 19th conference of the UNFCCC in 2013. Dealing with climate change is, in part, our responsibility. The treaty acknowledges the vulnerability of all countries to the impacts of climate change. Thus we, like the rest of the world, must also learn to adapt to these consequences.
Unfortunately, despite all of the scientific evidence and technical reports from the IPCC, the World Bank, and the best research institutions in the world, many in this country still deny climate change. Nicholas Kristof, writer for The New York Times, recently reported that Americans are more likely to believe that aliens have visited Earth (77%) than that humans are causing climate change (44%)! Yet, he also noted that his readers identified climate change as under and poorly reported by the U.S. press.2
At a 2012 Lehigh Valley-wide forum on climate change at the Nurture Nature Center, many participants said that the local community should take some responsibility for addressing this problem. Furthermore, 68% did not believe that their community was prepared for the impacts of a changing climate, and almost half attributed their response to a lack of education.
These polls suggest an opportunity to engage the public: to find out what questions they have, to help them observe changes in their own backyards, and to discuss as a community what is unusual close to home. Focusing on global phenomena, especially “global warming”, probably isn’t the best tactic for starting meaningful conversations. For anyone born after 1980, which includes most of the students that I have ever taught, a warmer planet is their norm. Since then, the Jan-Dec global mean temperature over land and ocean has persistently been above the 100-year mean (1901-2000). However, each of us can recount stories about unusual weather events that have impacted us (Superstorm Sandy, Hurricanes Ivan and Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, etc.). Many climate experts anticipate an increase in storm frequency and intensity. While no single event can be attributed with certainty to climate change, sharing our personal narratives can lead to fruitful discussions about adaptation and risk reduction.
Community dialogue centered on local concerns and observations can lead to community action for a climate-resilient Lehigh Valley. Indigenous communities around the world minimize risk from extreme shocks in their environments through inclusive participation in considering and adopting new practices, acting independently without waiting for national governments, and being open to technological solutions when local knowledge is also valued.3 With all the colleges in the Lehigh Valley, we surely have useful technical “expertise”, but our adaptive planning must also include farmers, first-responders, city planners, gardeners, students, diverse ethnic groups, and politicians—that is, a representative sampling of the entire Lehigh Valley community.
Although Pennsylvania has climate change legislation (Act 71, enacted in 2008), a state Climate Change Advisory Committee, a Climate Change Action Plan, and a Climate Adaptation Planning Report, statewide action has stalled. But we don’t have to wait for state or federal governments. Effective change is ultimately going to take place at the regional level, in cities, with grassroots movements. Given the ongoing Envision Lehigh Valley process, efforts of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities and Buy Fresh Buy Local, neighborhood revitalization efforts, and organizations like the Nurture Nature Center that excel in engaging the community in conversation, we have the ingredients for effective leadership in regional climate adaptation and resilience-building efforts.
Diane W. Husic, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences at Moravian College and a member of the Research and Independent NGOs steering committee, a key focal point for civil society within the UNFCCC process.
(Published in the 2014 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
“Changes to Pennsylvania’s climate are happening now. While there is uncertainty as to the extent and timing of these impacts, it is undeniable that action must be taken to minimize risks to the public.”
—Pennsylvania Climate Adaptation Planning Report (February 2013)
- UNFCCC (see unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/items/6036txt.php)
- Kristof, Nicholas op-ed (see www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/kristof-neglected-topic-winner climate-change.html)
- Marcus Oxley, Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction, “Knowledge of indigenous communities is critical for addressing resilience”, United Nations Open Working Group Session 7 for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, January 10, 2014, New York, NY