At Eagle's Conversation Series event, panel tackles cold, hard facts of a warming world

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PITTSFIELD — After climate scientist Kim Cobb learned that flying makes up 85 percent of her carbon footprint, she drastically cut down the time she spends on planes. This week, that decision led the Pittsfield native to take a train from her home in Atlanta to Springfield so she could participate in a community conversation on climate change at South Congregational Church.

Cobb said she isn't "climate obsessed" because she thinks reducing her own footprint will save the world, but it does inspire her.

"It fuels me forward in new ways," she said Thursday, at The Berkshire Eagle's Conversation Series event, which also was hosted by the Berkshire Museum. "It empowers me in new ways."

Cobb, the Georgia Power chair and professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, joined Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert and City as Living Laboratory Director Olivia Georgia for an event that also was part of the museum's "Voices and Visionaries" program.

The women talked about the state of the planet, how average citizens can get involved in slowing the pace of climate change — and what keeps them up at night.

For Cobb, that's the changing predictions for sea level rise, for the worse, and whether governments can prepare for the possible damage.

"I remember when I was a graduate student, they were saying 11 inches in 100 years. The next assessment said maybe a foot, a foot and a half, and this assessment is going to say something closer to 10 feet by 2100," Cobb said of assessments on sea level rise. "That keeps me up at night. So, we have to ask ourselves, 'Are we prepared? Do we have what it takes to prepare and protect ourselves?' "

Kolbert, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," is concerned with how societies will react to the political repercussions of a warming planet. As parts of the world become too hot to farm or live in, there will be more people on the move, she said. How will governments react to those who are displaced?

"What keeps me up at night is not just the geophysics of climate change, which are really, really scary and ugly. We're talking about geopolitical change layered on top of geophysical change," said Kolbert, of Williamstown.

"I think what we see right now is a world that is increasingly violent, nationalistic and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee."

And that's before "the big whammy that's going to hit a lot of places in the coming decade," she said.

"What keeps me up at night is not just that bad things are going to happen on the planet, which they will, but that people don't tend to react calmly when bad things happen."

So, what should society, and individuals, be doing to play their part in saving the world?

On a grassroots level, Cobb recommends that people get involved by supporting legislation that promotes forestation. About 50 percent of emissions are absorbed by the Earth, so the last thing municipalities should be doing is removing trees, even to build solar farms, she said.

Georgia, whose work focuses on connecting artists and sustainability, showed the audience examples of how creativity can be an avenue to climate change advocacy. She presented a slideshow of projects that include murals focused on water, tattoos drawing attention to an at-risk watershed in New York and a water tower that changes color to indicate when residents should reduce their water use.

For her, art is one way to raise awareness and put pressure on legislators to make change.

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The moderator, Eagle Executive Editor Kevin Moran, asked the three women their thoughts on the Green New Deal, a plan that calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

"Certainly, I think it's a powerful package of legislation that reminds us that it's not just about putting solar panels up or more renewable energy," Cobb said. "We have to have a comprehensive solution that has equity at the core."

But besides being an inspirational banner that "a lot of folks can get behind," Kolbert worries that it's not something that will bring real change.

"When the rubber hits the road, and you say how do you get from here to there, then we'll see if this coalition of goodwill persists," she said.

There is no doubt that some demographics will be negatively affected by efforts to combat climate change, especially those who work or live in areas that are dependent on fossil fuel industries. Moran asked the panel how to convince those individuals that they, too, should be on board with the efforts.

"Southern Louisiana is completely dependent on the oil and gas industry," Kolbert said. "So, here we have a very, very good example of these things coming into conflict."

Citizens who are more susceptible to the financial impacts of climate change are more likely not to acknowledge the climate crisis, she said. It's important for politicians to be honest and acknowledge that people are going to be displaced, but also work toward building the industries that will take their place.

Cobb said that the notion that fossil fuel industries will be gone overnight is "equally as wrong" as believing that they're not a problem.

Right now, the focus should be to stop propping up a business model that will not be sustainable, she said.

"When we stop digging the hole, we can start getting out of it," she said.

With predictions looking poor, some wonder if it's too late to protect the Earth from the effects of its rising temperature.

In response, Cobb referred to an activist group that closes down streets, demanding change because its members believe that humans are on track to go extinct within the century.

"That's not true," she said. "The science does not support that."

So, when people ask whether even the efforts that are pitched will be enough to stop climate change, Cobb says no.

In order to be "enough," the world should have started fighting 30 years ago, she said, but it's important to start somewhere.

"We have a lot to fight for, and it's worth fighting for, but this little notion that you get an A or and F is not the right frame," she said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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