Williams-educated chemist, climate expert talks formula for defending planet from warming
WILLIAMSTOWN — Time is running out, but individuals still have a chance to reduce the effects of climate change on the planet.
That was the message delivered Sunday by William Moomaw, who has been studying climate change since 1988, shortly after it first was noted by scientists. Not nearly enough is being done to blunt the impact of a continuing rise in the planet's temperatures and the heat-trapping gases that make it worse, he told a crowd of nearly 100 at the Williamstown Youth Center.
During a speaking engagement hosted by Greylock Together, Moomaw also noted that all is not lost and that there are things individuals can do in their daily lives to help the effort to maintain a habitable Earth.
According to Moomaw, in 1988, long before climate change became a politically divisive issue, NASA scientist James E. Hansen told a congressional committee that the greenhouse effect is 99 percent likely to have been caused by human activity since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As a result, he said, that activity has created a buildup of carbon dioxide and other gasses in the atmosphere.
The message from the scientific community largely has been consistent ever since.
Moomaw said these conclusions result at least partially from scientists taking and recording daily temperature readings at 7,000 sites around the world every day for decades.
"What we see is that the median temperatures around the world are steadily increasing, as are extreme highs," he said.
Moomaw is emeritus professor of International Environmental Policy and founding director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School. He serves as co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, which he co-founded. He received his bachelor's in chemistry from Williams College and doctorate in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After a 26-year career in chemistry and environmental studies at Williams College, he served as AAAS Science Fellow in the U.S. Senate, where he worked on legislation that successfully addressed ozone depletion, and on legislation responding to the 1973 energy crisis.
'Back to a balance'
After 30 years addressing the topic, he shared his observations on climate change Sunday with friends and neighbors. Moomaw hasn't just been studying climate change, though. He noted that, over the years, he has been doing what he can in his personal life to blunt the effect of rising temperatures. That includes driving a hybrid car and building a home in Williamstown that has a zero carbon footprint largely through the use of solar power with photovoltaic panels, a solar water heating system, and the latest technologies in insulation and construction materials.
He said that, at its core, the issue is about the biological breathing of the planet and getting it back to a balance of sorts that would minimize debilitating future effects if climate change continues unchecked.
"There is a direct correlation to the rise in temperature and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere," Moomaw said.
He explained that radiant heat from the sun heats the atmosphere and was once able to escape back out of the atmosphere, until greenhouse gasses started blocking that escape, trapping it in the atmosphere to continue the heating process.
This leads to all kinds of changes, Moomaw said, especially increases in the temperatures of the oceans, which is reacting in a number of harmful ways, including changes in migratory patterns and increases to sea level.
Efforts at the local level
The National Climate Assessment, required by Congress every five years and released in November, showed that the effects of climate change already are being felt at the local community level, and that "future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems and economic inequality."
Moomaw said there are several things that can be done at the local and individual level to help reduce the cost of climate change. Improving energy efficiency at home can help lower emissions, he said. And using zero-emission energy sources, such as solar and wind, also can cut emissions. A smarter approach to forestry and agriculture can increase the level of CO2 absorbed naturally by the planet itself, he said.
For example, if forest management approached old-growth trees differently, it could increase the levels of carbon sequestration — the rate at which carbon is stored in trees and soil.
If a tree grows for 100 years, it has been shown to store carbon at a higher rate as its mass increases, and old-growth trees increase in mass faster as they get older. So, opting to not cut down older, bigger trees would be a better approach, Moomaw said.
But if such a tree has to be removed for construction or safety issues, it should be replaced not by just one small tree, but by a number of trees that equal the mass of the lost one.
"Wood stores carbon by weight, so bigger is better," he said. "We are just not thinking about this very clearly."
And patronizing stores that offer locally and sustainably grown food also can help.
"It does, in fact, reduce our carbon footprint," Moomaw said.
Effects at the international level
The international effort has focused on trying to limit the median global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, but limiting that increase to 1.5 degrees would blunt some of the most dangerous anticipated effects of a warmer climate, Moomaw said.
But at this point, he added, even with the Paris climate agreement, nations around the world have acknowledged the need but their commitments fall short of what needs to be accomplished. Indeed, none of the industrialized nations is on track to meet its goals at this point.
"It's not nearly enough," Moomaw said. "At this point, even if everyone keeps their word, models are showing that the temperatures will still rise 4.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100."
But, he noted, in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report released in October, scientific modeling has shown that if the world can limit the increase in mean global temperatures to 1.5 percent, it would mean cutting CO2 emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels. If that is accomplished by 2030, in 2050 CO2 will be entering the atmosphere at the same rate that the oceans and vegetation absorb it, or a level of net zero.
In trying to limit the increase to 2 degrees, that net zero level would not come until 2070.
And Moomaw should know: He has been a lead author of five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports. The IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize for its climate work in 2007.
Scott Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-629-4517.
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