Climate Change Interview with Jonathan Overpeck

The Climate Change + Poetry series continues this Thursday with a reading from Camille Dungy and with more readings upcoming through the spring. Gregg Garfin will give a Climate Talk at 6:30 PM prior to the reading. As part of our effort to pose questions about poetry, language, and our role in combatting climate change, we will also feature blog posts where we pose some of those questions to climate scientists. Today's post features climate change scientist and Nobel prize winner Jonathan Overpeck.

 Poetry Center: What do you want people to know about climate change right now?

Jonathan Overpeck: The first thing everyone has to know about climate change is that it is happening, and that it’s having increasingly noticeable – and expensive – impacts. In the Southwest, human-caused warming is reducing the flows of our rivers – our primary sustainable water supply. Climate change is contributing to the death of large expanses of trees, and is helping to make wildfires much more devastating. For the U.S., and around the globe, climate change is contributing to more intense precipitation and thus more floods, more powerful tropical storms and hurricanes, and inexorable sea level rise. The Syrian drought that helped set off a whole cascade of problems was exacerbated by human-caused warming. The problems are just piling up.

The second thing everyone needs to realize is that climate change can’t be stopped overnight, and that the longer we wait to fight the core causes of climate change, such as the burning of fossil fuel, the longer climate change will continue, and the larger the changes and impacts will be. Changes much larger than what we’ve seen so far are likely if we don’t act aggressively to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases soon.

The last thing that everyone should be aware of is that there are some major tipping points in the global climate system that we could trigger with devastating consequences if we don’t curb the emissions of greenhouse gases quickly. One of these is the melting of the polar ice sheets and many 10’s of feet of sea level rise. Another is major transformation of global ecosystems, and likely widespread species extinction. Scientists don’t know exactly when these tipping points will be triggered, but it could be soon.


PC: You sometimes work in the area of environmental law. How do you see (or not see) our laws evolving to address this crisis?

JO: Laws change slowly, but they do evolve. Right now, we have many laws that were designed without climate change in mind. In many cases, climate change won’t alter the effectiveness of laws, but in some cases we need to consider changing legal frameworks to help manage a rapidly shifting world under climate change.

For example, one primary way to deal with climate change is to adapt. Whereas many laws and regulations allow this, some may inhibit the adoption of effective adaptation options. Are the laws currently governing the use of rivers and groundwater, as well as the sharing of water, optimal? Are laws and regulations protecting species going to work given climate change? Sea level is rising faster and faster – are the laws governing how we manage coastal infrastructure going to work well given this change? The list of potential issues involving law is only growing longer with each megaton of carbon added to the atmosphere.

It’s also now clear we will not be able to adapt successfully to all levels of climate change – the costs, both economic and otherwise, will just become too large.  For this reason, there are lots of efforts focused on how to reduce the causes of climate change – mainly the emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This “climate change mitigation” also needs a sound legal basis that hasn’t yet been fully developed.


PC: What role do you think poetry (or more generally, language) has in the education about and fight against climate change?

JO: Poetry, prose, the arts and humanities are all fundamental components of how humans communicate, inspire, and reflect. Poetry seems to me to be a personal experience in some respects – how I interpret and process the words is not something I ever learned, and yet poetry has impact on me. Poetry also brings people together, and I really believe it has the power to inspire in fundamentally powerful ways. When it comes to climate change, we all need inspiration.


PC: What can people do/what do you do to combat climate change?

JO: There are many personal choices we can all make to compact climate change, from wasting less, to turning off our LED lights when we’re not using them, to installing smart thermostats and making good food choices – the list is long. If you have the resources, installing solar on your home will save you money long-term, and be good for climate. And, pick a car to drive that is climate friendly – even high MPG vehicles earn you a gold star with Mother Nature, although she’d like to see you walk, bike and use mass transit more, and drive less. But, without any doubt, the most important thing you can do if you want to tackle climate change is to VOTE to tackle climate change. (Editor's note: this Arizona election calendar will be updated regularly with voting dates and information.) Only when enough Americans make this their priority will we truly turn the tide on climate change. The nations of the world are ready to act, and they need continued and more serious leadership from the United States of America.


Jonathan Overpeck, or "Peck" as he prefers to be called, is director of the Institute of the Environment, as well the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor of Science and a Regents' Professor of Geosciences, Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences. He received his BA from Hamilton College and earned his MSc and PhD from Brown University. Peck has published more than 200 works in climate and the environmental sciences and served as a coordinating lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment (2007).