Hot House

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007
Rising temperatures. Increasingly intense storms. Shrinking ice fields. “Climate change is real,” declared Joel Scheraga ’76, ’81 PhD in a February 12 speech in Sayles Hall. Scheraga should know. As the national program director of global-change research at the U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency, he is one of the best-informed scientists around on the issue. “I’m not here to tell you whether or not these effects are good or bad,” he said. “That’s for you to decide. I’m just showing you what the data say.”

According to that data, ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence shrank considerably between 1987 and 1999. On the one hand, the change was damaging because it exposed the shoreline to greater erosion; but it also benefited shipping companies by opening up the gulf for longer periods of time. Similarly, changes in the freeze-thaw cycle in the northeastern United States have pushed some maple syrup production into Canada—benefiting Canadian businesses while hurting their Vermont neighbors.

While the impacts of climate change may depend on where you live, Scheraga decried those who argue that there is no evidence it exists. He said it’s up to scientists to do a better job of providing politicians with timely and useful information. “Our job is to inform the policy makers,” he said, not to let them make decisions based on scant or faulty science.

Scheraga was on campus to accept the graduate school’s Horace Mann Medal—formerly known as the Distinguished Graduate Alumni Award—as part of the year-long centennial celebration of the establishment of the graduate department. When he addressed the reasons for climate change, he supported the view that human activities account for much of the rise in temperatures around the globe over the past fifty years. But Scheraga said even significant reductions in the burning of fossil fuels will merely slow down the accumulation of green- house gases. “Regardless of what we do to mitigate climate change,” he concluded, “the climate is going to change and we’re going to have to adapt.”

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March / April 2004