Our Role

Eric Barron
May 01, 2002

The Inuit of Sachs Harbour in Canada's High Arctic have no native word for "robin." Yet they saw one last summer. Inland, they saw lightning too, a southerly phenomenon so rare in the far north that it sent the musk oxen into stampede. The harbor ice was odd as well: too thin for the curling match scheduled each July.

hands hold little black bear
Charles Fergus

Sustainable development is a valued goal. But what is to be sustained and what developed? How do humans fit in to the environment?

Skiers in Vermont ruined their edges on ice last winter; the tourist trade dropped off 30 percent, leaving resort owners to reminisce about the snows of yesteryear. Scientists warn that Vermont maple syrup may also be a thing of the past: The sugar maples may lose out to more heat-tolerant trees.

Baltimore orioles may no longer breed near Baltimore. Oysters may become deadly to eat, as diseases increase. Honey mesquite may outcompete little bluestem grass, diminishing our grazing lands. Alligators may shift their ranges inland, seeking fresh water in suburban lakes—or perhaps in swimming pools. Reservoirs, designed for 100-year droughts or floods, may fail to provide, or control, our drinking water. Wildfires may increase, as lightning strikes rise. Malaria, the cause of 7,000 American deaths in 1890, eradicated in 1970, may re-emerge. Mosquitoes and ticks may accelerate their breeding seasons and remain over winter, spreading dengue fever and lyme disease and West Nile virus, while new patterns of rainfall may favor the vectors of hantavirus, cryptosporidiosis, and cholera.

"Society has long viewed climate as 'constant,'" notes the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Impacts, Adaptation, & Vulnerability. "That is, we expect year-to-year variations, but we expect that the chances of hurricanes, floods, or heat waves don't change with time. The probability of a 100-year event (defined by crossing some threshold—say, 5 centimeters of rain in an hour) should be a constant." But it's not. "This assumption of constancy simply is not true." Climate has changed in the past, records show, and it's changing today.

We've known about climate change for at least 20 years, and for 20 years, we have disagreed. Are humans altering the Earth's climate by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere? Will the "greenhouse effect" of our industrial pollutants (carbon dioxide from cars and power plants is of most concern, though methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, tropospheric ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons also contribute) cause "global warming"? And if so, how much will the warming be? Two degrees Celsius? Four degrees?

"Suddenly all the arguments have begun to change," noted Penn State climatologist Eric Barron, speaking at this year's Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, a series of six public lectures sponsored by the Eberly College of Science and Pfizer Inc.

"From are humans altering the climate," Barron said, "the question has changed to how significant is climate change? How important will the impact of climate change be to us?

"That's an extraordinary change of focus."

Now instead of bantering two degrees versus four or who's to blame, both scientists and policy makers are thinking more broadly. We're discussing such issues as global food security and the effects of climate change on animal species—or, indeed, of animals on climate change; we're thinking of industrial processes in ecological terms and of regional climate change predictions on the order of weather forecasts. The question has changed from what is happening, from even why is it happening, to what can we do?

"The story of the future is not a mere projection of current trends and understanding," says the 1999 National Research Council report, Our Common Journey. "This strategy must be one not just of thinking but also of doing."

This new broad approach is called "sustainability science," explained agronomist and geographer William Easterling, head of Penn State's Environmental Consortium and a lead author on the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. "It's a nod to the fact that human development does not proceed independently of environmental change. You can't just pitch humans over the fence and say we're the bad guys because we cause environmental degradation. We are as much a part of the environment as an animal like a rainforest frog or a biogeochemical process like the carbon cycle."

It's in our own interest to preserve the environment's essential life-giving and aesthetic qualities, Easterling noted. But to do so requires a more interdisciplinary approach than has yet been attempted. "Think of what sorts of scientific problems you could solve by bringing economists, sociologists, and demographers together with engineers, ecologists, and atmospheric scientists," Easterling said. "That's sustainability science.

"It's about how one links processes across different scales, from the organism to the ecosystem to the biome. A major part of sustainability science is decoding the mysteries of the global environment by understanding the specifics at individual localities—by going down to the level where the organisms and people and resources exist. It is redefining the landscape of environmental research."

Sustainability science grew out of the idea of sustainable development, first codified by the United Nations' Brundtland Commission in 1987. The commission's report, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development as the ability of humanity to "ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The idea was widely acclaimed, yet difficulties remained. What, exactly, was to be sustained? And, conversely, what was to be developed? Different participants in the debate, it turned out, had vastly different answers to those two questions. They chose to sustain "nature" or "life-support systems" or "community." They wanted to develop "people," "economy," or "society." Nor did they agree on how to reach sustainability.

young doe curled up sleeping
Charles Fergus

How will white-tailed deer be affected by climate change? Or black bears? Scientists are just beginning to factor animals - and humans - into the equations.

In 1999, the National Research Council (formed by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) produced the follow-up report, Our Common Journey. "Unlike most NRC reports, this one does not originate in a request from government for scientific advice," the Preface notes. "Rather it is a product of the desire of a major benefactor, George P. Mitchell, to address the research needs for the global commons of atmosphere, land, and water. Equally, it is a product of the desire of the Academies to reinvigorate the role of science and technology in sustainable development."

The 25-member NRC Board included scientists, engineers, and social scientists, as well as members of government and industry. Reading through 375 NRC reports and hundreds of other texts, the board members concluded that "the science and technology community has not been a particularly prominent participant on this journey." With the "possible exception" of the rules to protect the Earth's ozone shield, "the central thrusts of many recent sustainability initiatives have been shaped more by political than scientific ideas."

That, the Board decided, has to change.

The world of the future will be "more crowded, more consuming, more connected, and in many parts of the world more diverse, than at any time in history," the report says. World population is expected to rise from 6 billion today to 9 billion in 2050. If sustainability is not reached by then, it may be too late. "In our judgment," the board members wrote, "it is over the next two generations that many of the stresses between human development and the environment will become acute." They added, "An explicit articulation of goals is necessary if the journey toward sustainability is to be more than a drifting with the powerful currents now shaping interactions between human development and the environment."

The stresses—and the best chance for sustainability—lie in the connections among things "previously treated as separate and distinct." Parsing problems into categories such as "acid rain," "soil erosion," and "fisheries depletion," as has been standard for the last 20 years, may have obscured the links among them—and made scientific findings on each subject less useful.

"We need to demand an integrated approach," said Barron, who heads the Environment Institute in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. "What's acid rain doing to the fish population? It is a multi-factor problem, and we keep trying to do simple cause and effect. I think you will see that 'multiple stresses' will be the code word for the environmental sciences for the next decade."

Yet even when the barriers between problems and scientific disciplines are breached and useful answers accrue, as they have in many areas in the last 20 years, sustainability doesn't automatically follow. As Our Common Journey says, "We are aware that the questions posed and issues addressed in this report are hardly new. Much is known about population, cities, land transformation, agriculture, ecology, and other phenomena that we discuss here only in the most general of terms. We are equally aware that much of what is known is not applied," the report concedes.

"Ultimately, success in achieving a sustainability transition will be determined not by the possession of knowledge, but by using it."

Eric Barron, Ph.D., is director of the Environmental Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and distinguished professor of geosciences. William Easterling, Ph.D., is director of the Environmental Consortium at Penn State and professor of geography and agronomy in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The 2002 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, a series of six public lectures, was sponsored by the Eberly College of Science with funding from Pfizer Inc.

Last Updated May 01, 2002