A Question for the 21st Century

What is climate change? The answer to this seemingly straightforward question is shockingly difficult to pin down. As I sit here, trying to write this introductory post, I’m revisiting this question, which has been with me since I first started exploring and trying to understand climate change: how do you define it?

Part of the challenge in defining it is my background. I have worked in the fields of natural and social science as well as the humanities. Each of these offers a unique approach to problem solving, and each has colored my perspective on climate change.

Science is grounded in a specific method: gathering empirical evidence of a phenomenon through experimentation and observation. So the scientific side of my brain keeps trying to tell me to stick with the facts: climate change is a change in the regional characteristics of climate such as temperature, wind speed, storm tracks, precipitation, and other major climatic events. An imbalance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are causing these changes, and human activities are in part to blame. Climate change will affect different areas in different ways and will contribute to the alteration of natural ecosystems, atmospheric circulation, and human endeavors. In some cases, this is already happening. Cold. Hard. Facts. Easy enough, right?

My humanist side tells me something else, though. It tells me climate change has over six billion unique meanings. While it will affect everyone from Wall Street bankers to sub-Saharan farmers to Chinese politicians, it will affect us all in vastly different ways. Opportunity. Change. Fraud. Frightening. Uncertainty.These are all reactions and emotions you could expect if you asked people for their thoughts on climate change. A little different than the scientific method to say the least.

So which version serves us better in confronting the challenge of defining climate change? When it comes down to it, none of the scientific knowledge we’re building about climate change will matter one bit if we can’t find practical ways to apply it to the lives of the people affected by it. Basically, neither approach is useful without the other.

Unfortunately, it seems that climate change has taken a backburner role lately. Healthcare, the financial crisis, and two ongoing wars tend to get more attention because they are immediately accessible. They are problems happening now. In contrast, many climate projections in the IPCC reports are far in the future.Further, the source of climate change is invisible. You can’t take a picture of greenhouse gases and put them on CNN as public enemy number one.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing about issues in a way that will make climate change more tangible and present. The scientific method and individuals actions and perceptions will have equal billing here. You’ll be as likely to find an article on breakthroughs in climate modeling as you will a piece about how photography is being used to depict the effects of climate change. There will be recurring features on the localized impacts of climate change and profiles of individuals with unique perspectives. Lastly, although many of the projections about climate change we hear about go a hundred years in the future, I’ll be writing about how our climate system is behaving and changing today. Our answers to present climate variability will be invaluable as our climate continues to change, and it’s important to highlight successes and examine areas for improvement.

I’m excited to be a part of the Justmeans community. This website is a great forum for people to come together and talk about ideas and act on them. In the coming months, I hope to hear from the members of this community about their perspectives on climate change as each of you has a unique voice in the discussion.

Photo Credit: Flickr