Pictures of the earth from space have always fascinated me. Boundaries disappear. The beauty of the planet engenders awe. Astronaut Wheelock has captured many beautiful images from his recent journeys in space.
More than 10 years ago, the Monterey Bay Acquarium offered a slide show of photographs of the earth taken from space during during 20 years of NASA space flights. I was in rapt attention as the scientist presenting went through the images that documented our changing planet. Early in the space missions, astronauts took photographs, and there was clarity and transparency in the skies. They looked for images of smoke and dust, and on those rare occasions when they found them, they would take photographs. Over the trajectory of space flights through the years, dust and smoke became much more common. In fact, the times when there was no dust or smoke became more and more unusual. Now forests are burning on every continent; dust swirls across enlarging deserts; smog darkens large metropolitan areas in every country.
Recently, as a friend and I were preparing a talk that included a segment on understanding systems. I mentioned that weather systems and global climate change are good examples of complex systems. “No. We can’t use that,” my colleague said. “Too controversial. Too many people disagree with the science.”
“The data are in,” I replied. “The proof is incontrovertible.” At that moment, our conversation stalled. The data are in from numerous sources and there is scientific consensus, yet still there is disagreement. Is it too difficult to talk about the seriousness of the climate issues we are facing? When I think about complexity and complex systems, I go back to the basics—the basics of our life-giving planet. The earth systems that support life are marvelous, interconnected, and complex.
The life-carrying capacity of the earth is under seige from human activities and has been for some time. The human systems and societies that are changing the planet are very complex: transportation, manufacturing, food production, distribution, electricity production and distribution, fossil fuel production, automobile, travel, and so on. Complex, interconnected systems are part of life and impact life. And, without the earth’s life-sustaining, life-giving capabilities, none of our human systems would or could exist.
Some resources for understanding climate change
When I have questions about climate change and the earth’s climate systems, the first place I go is to NASA. I trust those astronauts and value NASA’s scientific expertise as well as their thorough and thoughtful exposition of data. NASA’s site on climate change is creative and interactive, and the images are engaging for children and adults.
Another climate resource is a model of collaboration developed among universities, scientists and researchers, in two organizations working together: the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Their systemic perspective and sense of purpose help to link current climactic changes to consequences. Changing planetary systems takes a long time: “When you’re driving a car, you can slow down just like that. When you’re driving a planet’s atmosphere, you need to slow down decades ahead.”
Al Gore, Nobel prize-winner and advocate for action to reduce climate change, has written a book with its own interactive app that provide media-rich information about the reality of climate change. When travelling recently, I found the app to be informative and well-written—well worth the $5 price tag. The embedded videos made the information relevant and interesting.
Another site I visit often is the New York Times, which is increasing its coverage of climate change. The newspaper conducted a poll recently that showed how split Americans are on global warming.
The divergent understanding of global warming makes it difficult to create cohesive policy.There are tensions and dilemmas in the complexity of our belief systems. Although the data are in, our understanding of the data and willingness to believe them are lagging behind. When we negate the data and the scientific consensus of climate change, it is very difficult for us to consider the implications of the changing climate and even more difficult to enact policy.
Implications of planetary warming on food supplies
A human population that is approaching nine billion plus disruptions in food production because of a changing climate have created a serious situation. International policy and prioritization of global food needs are necessary in response. This year, the British Government Office for Science produced a report on the future of food and farming that urges political action and a redoubling of effort to ensure an adequate food supply for the world. As part of their solution, the British Government Office calls for integrating global policy efforts and initiatives to reduce the impacts of climate change, ensure sustainability and biodiversity, as well as reduce the devastating impacts of hunger on millions of people around the globe.
According to the British Government Office for Science, human activities have now become a dominant driver of the Earth system. Decisions made now to mitigate detrimental effects will have a very great influence on the environment experienced by future generations as well as the diversity of plant and animal species with which they will share the planet.
It is difficult to envision the impacts of climate change on the future. Marianne Bänziger, Deputy Chief of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement center in México, noted how little we understand the danger of our current situation:“There’s just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the highly dangerous situation we are in.”
Her concerns were ecohoed by a wheat physiologist at the center: “What a horrible world it will be if food really becomes short from one year to the next,” he said. “What will that do to society?”
It will take all of us
Our global political systems and societies are caught in economic turbulence and distress at a time when our energies need to focus on reducing climate change and preventing food supply disruptions. An important systems principle is that when things become chaotic, bringing coherence across multiple systems creates stability. Fostering greater international collaboration through our political systems and in non-governmental collaborations will help us reduce the impacts of accelerating climate change. It will take all of us working together to create the change we need and the future we desire.