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Planetary futurist: 'Climate change is now. It's not a future problem'

"Something we all need to get real about is what we can and can't afford to protect," Alex Steffen says.

Hurricane Florence, seen from the International Space Station,

Hurricane Florence, seen from the International Space Station, threatens the East Coast on Sept. 12. Photo Credit: AP / NASA

Alex Steffen thinks about the future a lot. It's his job.

A planetary futurist, Steffen looks at the ways changes in large-scale natural systems will impact humanity's future, and vice-versa. He spoke with Newsday following the recent urgent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In it, scientists laid out the stark differences between a world that warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels and one that reaches the 2-degree threshold. Among them, a 2-degree world would mean higher seas, the loss of virtually all coral reefs and many more people exposed to heat waves.

Coastal regions like Long Island are on the front lines of climate change. By building more on the shoreline, Steffen says, "we're creating more places that are subject to risk and damage and even destruction."

And, he emphasizes, "climate change is now, and climate change is here."

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: The biggest take-away for me from the IPCC report was that the timeline of the climate problem has sped up. We only have until 2030 to avoid more dangerous global warming, and at the current rate we'll reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by around 2040. What was a long-term problem is now a lot closer. What do you think?

A: I think that's a pretty good read. The way that I might think of it is that the world's scientists have been exercising caution in their predictions, and that we have all been sort of hoping we would get lucky — that the forcing effects, the severity of global warming, would not be as bad as we feared. And instead what it's looking like is that perhaps the scientific caution was a little too cautious, and that the forcing effects are pretty much as bad as we feared — not as bad as we could be — and that our emissions pathway, the amount of CO2 we're actually putting up in the air, has not slowed the way that we hoped it would.

Q: Parts of Long Island's South Shore were devastated by superstorm Sandy in 2012. And I've read some of your writing about ruggedization. What are some ways Long Island can ruggedize itself for future extreme weather?

A: Well, something we all need to get real about is what we can and can’t afford to protect. … Places may be our homes, they may be places we really care about, but that doesn't mean that there's going to be the resources to protect every place we care about. So one thing we're going to have to all be very aware of is the risk that we run as climate change worsens that more and more places will become vulnerable. They'll become brittle, as I call it. And brittle places, the only way to keep them safe is to spend money to ruggedize them. That might be building a sea wall, it might be building wetlands, it might be raising homes on stilts. It might be all sorts of things. But in many cases it's gonna have to be simply moving. Withdrawing away from the shoreline, doing what people call managed retreat. And we're not yet having that conversation. … In fact in a lot of places, and I assume on Long Island, we're still building more on the shoreline. … And so we're creating more places that are subject to risk and damage and even destruction. And we know that the seas are rising, we know that the storms are getting worse, and we know that the water's getting hotter. And it's setting ourselves up for a catastrophe not to be thinking about this stuff and acting on it now, because the problem is here now. As Sandy showed.

Q: What can people on Long Island do?

A: A while back, maybe 10 years ago, we could really look at individual actions. We could say hey, you ought to drive less, eat less meat, recycle more. And those things were steppingstones, but they had some impact. And now we're at the stage where it's way beyond the capacity of individuals to do what's necessary by themselves. Where we need larger, bigger changes. We need to change the way that we plan our cities, the way that we build our infrastructure, the way that we provide our energy and our food and our water, and the way that we get ready for the impacts of the climate change and other ecological problems that are coming. And that means needing to really both change the way we're planning our future, but also change how fast we're acting on those plans. That the plans we need now are the plans that change things over the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, and change them in big ways. We need to be dramatically slashing our climate emissions in that time, but we also need to be dramatically increasing our preparedness. We need to be both moving towards carbon zero, and ruggedizing. … We're used to starting planning processes that take 5 years, and then they plan out 30. But in 30 years we're going to live in a completely different world than we live now, even if we do a good job of fighting this stuff.

Q: What are other parts of New York, or the country, that could be impacted the most by global warming if it's not addressed?

A: There is no part of the U.S. that won't see serious impacts, but Atlantic and Gulf coastal regions may see a worse-than-elsewhere combination of impacts from heat, sea level rise and worsening storms.

Q: It seems like if we're going to seriously address the problem, we need massive change, and structural change. So how do you get people to care about something that doesn't affect their day-to-day lives today, but it will impact everyone eventually?

A: Actually I'd challenge that it doesn't affect people's day-to-day lives today. We know that the storms we're seeing are bigger and fiercer than they would have been without climate change. We know that the droughts are longer, the wildfires are worse. We know that there are geopolitical instabilities that are more dangerous now because of climate change. For example, the Syrian refugee crisis. We know that the drivers behind these things are weather and climate events that would have been much less likely had we not already put so much CO2 into the air.

I think the first thing is to realize that climate change is now. It's not a future problem. In terms of how we get people to care about it, one of the things that I try to do is to explain to folks that when we talk about climate change, we tend to think of it as this very abstract, future-focused, environmentalist issue. And it's actually not that. It's actually more of a planetary crisis that encompasses everything around us. … All of these other impacts that are changing the way our economy works, changing how safe we are, changing how healthy we might be, leading to global security problems — climate change is a national security issue. It's an economics issue. It's a jobs issue. It's a health and safety issue. It's all of these things, already, right now. … And so when we say the words climate change, I think a lot of regular people vaguely connect it to some bad thing that's happening that involves probably distant ice sheets. But climate change is now, and climate change is here. It's around us, it's what we're living through.

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