At UN Climate Conference

By Carolyn Belardo

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (also referred to as COP 21) underway in Paris this week and next, there is an historic opportunity to put the world on course to meet the climate change challenge. The world needs a new model of growth that is safe, durable and beneficial to all.

Carol Collier, the Academy’s senior advisor for watershed management and policy and director of the environmental studies and sustainability program, was invited to participate in this momentous opportunity. Formerly executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, Collier has been a leader on climate change issues, especially as they affect aquatic resources and water supply.

Her advocacy lends an important voice to the Academy’s 200 years of biodiversity, evolution and environmental science research aimed at tackling critical global issues.

We caught up with Collier before she headed off to Paris.

How did you swing an invitation to the event?

I was very lucky! Drexel has four diplomatic passes to be observers of the proceedings. Four of us will be attending the first week and three other professors and a student will be attending the second week. I have been very involved with climate change and ways we need to adapt. My major emphasis has been on impacts to water resources and what changes we will likely see in the eastern U.S. This past summer, I was co-chair for a Climate Change Adaptation Conference in New Orleans, organized by the American Water Resources Association.

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The goal of the conference is “to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” A tall order. Do you think this is possible?

I think we will come much further than in the past UN meetings of the Parties, but I’m not sure we will achieve an agreement “with teeth.” I am optimistic that individuals, organizations, and governments around the world are taking this much more seriously and see that change is needed.

We need to look at two sides of the issue. One is reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by reducing releases into the environment and also supporting systems, such as forests, that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This will be a heavy lift and difficult to do without changing people’s life styles.

The second approach is adaptation. We need to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases to stop the rising trends which can change life as we know it. But at the same time, we know there already are changes occurring—sea level rise, more intense storms, and droughts.

Is climate change affecting Philadelphia and the tri-state region? Can you give a couple general examples?

Yes. One can see the effects now. It is difficult to attribute any one storm or event to climate change, but it is a series of events that show the trends. Here we can see a number of impacts.

Sea level records in Philadelphia from 1900 show the sea rising, but recently it is rising at a greater rate. This can affect low-lying areas in Philadelphia and the surrounding region during storms, especially when there are storm surges. Did you know that the first predicted path of Super Storm Sandy by the National Weather Service was straight up the Delaware Bay and River? We would not have been prepared!

We also have another issue. Philadelphia and New Jersey’s American Water Company have intakes for their potable water supplies in the tidal portion of the Delaware River (Torresdale for Philadelphia). Salty water almost reached the Philadelphia intake during the multi-year drought of the 1960s. With estimated sea level rise of 1.5–4.5 feet by the end of the century, the chances of contaminating the water supply are much greater. Other predictions include more intense storms in the winter and spring, but dry conditions during the summers.

While we can still get snow storms, in general the temperatures will be warmer, changing everything from types of precipitation (more rain and less snow), increasing number of days above 100 degrees, to changing fish and bird migrations.

You never know who you'll run into at a climate conference. Collier and Al Gore.
You never know who you’ll run into at a climate conference. Collier with former Vice President Al Gore.

Can you break it down to a community level by giving some examples of how a person would be affected?

One issue is increase in temperature during the summer months. Cities are known to be “heat islands” or areas of increased heat due to the amount of asphalt and concrete and fewer trees than in suburban areas. The elderly and those confined to homes with little or no air conditioning will have higher risk.

Also we will likely use more water and more energy. We use much of our water for outdoor use –- landscaping, pools, etc. As temperatures warm and evaporation increases, we will want to use additional water.

Also as temperature rise, we will be tempted to use the air conditioner more frequently. Depending on the energy source, this can exacerbate the greenhouse gas problem. If you like to fish or  bird watch, the location and timing of your favorite trips may change. The spring thaw and high flows are coming earlier in the season; bird migrations are changing.

 

Name two things that I can do, in my small way, to help the climate crisis situation.

1) Be open and willing to learn about the potential changes in your neighborhood and the world. As a start, you check out the November issue of National Geographic, which is dedicated to climate change issues, or this recent article in The New York Times: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.

2) If each of us makes changes to the way we live, it can make a big difference. Here are some easy tips:

-Change your light bulbs to LED.

-Turn down your thermostat or get a programmable thermostat so you can reduce energy use while you are not home.

-Install ceiling fans to reduce the need of air conditioning.

-Get a professional house audit that will give advice on insulating your homne and other projects to reduce energy use.

-When you buy a new car, look for one that gets higher miles per gallon or consider an electric car.

-If you have a yard, evaluate your landscape plantings. Do they shield your house from winter winds and shade your house in the summer?

-Consider a white roof or solar panels.

-Walk or ride a bike to local destinations rather than taking the car.

-Encourage your municipality and county to invest in trails and bikeways.

 

To get Carol Collier’s regular updates from the conference, follow her on Twitter at Carol Collier and #drexelcop21 or through NatureConservancyPA on Twitter. Also, her observations can be read on the PA Environment Digest Blog.

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