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Science & Technology

At Climate Change Panel, Drexel Faculty Urges Action

By: Ben Seal

February 20, 2017

Peter DeCarlo, PhD, speaks about climate change at a panel discussion.

Drexel professor Peter DeCarlo, PhD, discusses climate change at a Feb. 15 Dean's Seminar presented by the College of Arts and Sciences.

In a wide-ranging discussion Feb. 15 on the causes and effects of climate change and the reactions to it, Drexel faculty offered a glimpse at the challenges in store for the coming years. Before a standing-room-only crowd in a panel titled “Climate Change in the Age of Trump”— part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Seminar Series — professors from CoAS and the Dornsife School of Public Health laid out the case for immediate and aggressive action to combat the environmental damage caused by carbon emissions.

“With the new administration in Washington, it is more important than ever to take the right steps and make the right decisions when it comes to climate change,” said David Velinsky, PhD, head of the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) and the panel’s moderator. “We need to speak up often, very often.”

There is some uncertainty in the scientific community about the specific effects of global warming, depending on the levels it reaches, but the true uncertainty lies in how individuals and institutions will react, according to Peter DeCarlo, PhD, assistant professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering.

“That’s the real question: not the science, but what are we going to do?” said DeCarlo.

The models charting the course of climate change — the rising temperatures, melting ice caps and levels of greenhouse gases in the air — have grown more exact with time, but scientists have largely been predicting the same results since DeCarlo was a child, he said. Critical questions remain, though, about how to shift power generation from carbon-based fuels to more environmentally friendly options.

“We have to start thinking about what we’re willing to give up,” said DeCarlo while pointing to a chart showing the range of possible outcomes for global warming. “Are we willing to give anything up? Do we want the lifestyle we have now or do we want to give something up to avoid the red band [marking the worst-case scenario]?”

The release of methane into the atmosphere, the acidification of oceans, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and thawing permafrost are all alarming results of climate change, said Susan Kilham, PhD, an ecology professor in the BEES department. The level of ice melting is “unprecedented,” she said, and environmental changes are increasing the intensity and frequency of “hydrologic extremes,” such as storms, floods, droughts and fires.

The changing climate is going to have a significant public health impact — and already has, in some cases — according to Jerry Fagliano, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the Dornsife School of Public Health. Heat-related illness, cardiovascular problems and damage to the public’s mental health are all concerns. Heat waves brought on by global warming killed 65,000 people in western Europe in 2003 and 55,000 in Russia in 2010, he said, and will only get worse as temperatures rise. In Philadelphia, scientists predict more than 50 days each year will have high temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of the century, and the people harmed most by global warming, in Philadelphia and beyond, will be the poor, elderly and otherwise vulnerable.

In order to keep temperatures from rising four degrees Celsius by the end of the century, Kilham said, “We have to exert a huge effort, on par with the World War II mobilization.”

Fagliano said there are three response levels to the changing climate. The primary response is mitigation (actions such as energy conservation, reforestation and carbon capture); the secondary response is adaptation (forecast warnings, the development of sea walls and vector control to limit the spread of disease); and the tertiary response is recovery (medical care, emergency shelters and restoration of infrastructure). The third level will be required if change doesn’t come soon, he said.

Although much of the discussion focused on the daunting challenges facing the global community and the difficulty of organizing a proper response, DeCarlo offered a bit of optimism to those frustrated by insufficient government action.

“The solutions to climate change are not going to come from policymakers,” said DeCarlo. “They’re going to come from technology that makes it cheaper to make energy that is not carbon-based.”

There is an “economic gold mine” waiting for anyone who can develop a method for mass-producing green energy, he said, and research institutions like Drexel are well positioned to contribute to those advances.

“We have the ability to come up with technologies that are going to help us move forward. So who’s going to do that?” said DeCarlo. “This is a university. We have people here who need to be passionate about it and focus their energies on doing that.”