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New Threats, New Opportunities

Sep 17, 2018


Consider Roger Federer.

The world’s most dominant male tennis player provides a meaningful analogy for climate change’s destabilizing impacts, according to David Lobell, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Speaking at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 14, Lobell compared the Swiss tennis star’s tactical adjustments during the previous week’s unusually hot U.S. Open to those of the globally dominant U.S. agricultural economy.

“There’s only so much you can do if it’s really hot and you’re running out of water,” Lobell said.

The panel discussion centered around new evidence to support the U.S. EPA’s "Endangerment Finding." There has been widespread speculation that the EPA will revisit the 2009 decision, which established the need to protect people’s health and welfare from the impacts of greenhouse gasses, and has underpinned national climate policy. Hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the event featured Lobell, fellow Earth system science professors Noah Diffenbaugh and Marshall Burke, and Woodrow Wilson International Center Senior Fellow Sherri Goodman. Woods Director Chris Field moderated.

To avoid a fate like Federer’s – he lost his match in a stunning upset – policymakers would be wise to not only heed the Endangerment Finding’s precautions, but to build upon them with scientific knowledge of threats and opportunities that has amassed in the intervening years.

The Endangerment Finding was “barely scratching the surface” with its focus on coastal communities, agriculture and a list of vulnerable populations limited to children and the elderly, Burke said. Warming’s impacts, for example, have since been linked to lower manufacturing output, increased violence and cognitive declines among students and white collar workers. Going forward, the impacts will be uneven, according to Burke. Traditionally cold regions fare better than traditionally hot regions when average temperatures rise. That inequality presents and environmental justice issue with unknown potential for global instability.

Recent years’ unrest in the Middle East and Africa may provide a harbinger of things to come. Goodman noted a large overlap of hot climates and failing states that have been the focus of U.S. military deployments. “There’s an increasing risk of that coincidence.” In the Arctic, warming temperatures have opened the previously ice-choked Northern Passage to the naval ambitions of countries such as China and Russia. “Climate change has changed the operating environment for our forces,” Goodman said. On top of that, sea level rise is encroaching on crucial U.S. military assets such as Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest such installation.

As our understanding of the scope of climate change impacts has broadened, so has our ability to link it to extreme weather, according to Diffenbaugh. The science of attribution – determining “where global warming is upping the odds” – has accelerated since the Endangerment Finding was written. As a result, we can better pinpoint the role of climate change in driving extreme heat, heavy rain, wildfires and other damaging events. Diffenbaugh noted that scientists had already made climate change links to an active hurricane on the East Coast and a Typhoon bearing down on the Philippines that day.

The science is not perfect, Diffenbaugh acknowledged. It cannot find climate change’s finger prints in every case. Science rarely provides absolute answers, but can supply valuable evidence to act upon.  “It’s always going to look like scientists don’t know enough from the outside,” Diffenbaugh said of those who continue to doubt climate change findings.

Regardless of a person’s perspective on the science behind climate change, they are the potential recipient of the opportunities it presents – from lower energy costs and improved cardiopulmonary health to enhanced military readiness and an easing of the worldwide migration crisis.

Waiting for more evidence of climate change’s threat would be foolhardy, Goodman warned. “We don’t wait for 100 percent certainty,” she said, quoting Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the former Chief of Staff of the Army. “If you wait, something bad will happen on the battlefield.”

Burke is a fellow at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research; Diffenbaugh is the Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute and Kara J Foundation Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Field is the Melvin and Joan Lane professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, a professor of biology and of Earth system science, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy; Goodman is the former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security), senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, Senior Advisor for International Security at the Center for Climate and Security; Lobell is the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment; Professor of Earth system science, William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and senior fellow with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Read a related Q&A with Stanford experts.

Read more about Stanford-affiliated events at the Global Climate Action Summit.

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