Scientist says everyone plays role responding to climate change

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Utah State physicist and professor Robert Davies speaks with Whitefish High School students on the implications of the planet’s changing climate last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Robert Davies’ talks about the changing climate are, as he puts it, “heavy.”

Davies, a physicist and professor at Utah State University, stopped by Whitefish High School last week to speak with students about the planet’s changing climate and the effects those changes might have in the future. These students, he says, have grown up hearing about the issue, and know it well living here in Montana near Glacier National Park with its melting glaciers.

“Here in Whitefish I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with a number of direct impacts,” Davies said. “Wildfires, of course, are bigger and hotter. This has a great big global warming fingerprint on it. So you know about these things.”

In his talk sponsored by Whitefish Lake Institute, Davies laid out the problem, starting with how we got here — increased carbon emissions and the push for always exponential economic growth — and ending with what needs to be done to address the issue.

The former, he says, can be hard to wrap one’s head around, especially the exponential growth component. Davies used a series of examples to demonstrate the scale of exponential growth with the students.

First he had them take out any piece of paper and just try to fold it nine times, and no student could. The way the thickness of the paper doubles on each fold and becomes harder and harder to work with is a good metaphor for his point, he noted.

Then, on the projector screen in the Black Box theater, Davies added to a blank white screen one black pixel in the top left corner. If he were to add one more pixel every second, he explained, it would take roughly 10 hours for the screen to be covered in black — a demonstration of arithmetic growth.

But if he were to double that black dot and each subsequent one every second, the screen is covered in just 15 seconds. That’s the power of exponential growth, and it’s a big human problem that needs to be addressed moving forward.

“We used to be a few people, with not much stuff, in a really big empty world, and now all of a sudden, because of exponential growth, we’re a lot of people in a full world with no more space,” Davies said. “What science tells us now is the rate at which we are consuming resources, in order to continue doing that we would need 1.6 planets-worth of resources.”

The changes necessary for getting the planet back on the right track are, admittedly, drastic, he says, mostly because they’ve been put off until the last minute.

Human consumption needs to change, as do global food and energy systems, he said.

The goal would be to reduce consumption down roughly 7 percent for each person on the planet, Davies explained, which can be done in a variety of ways. Eat hamburgers seven days a week? Try eating them five or six days a week. Fly for vacation 10 times a year? Maybe cut those flights down by one each year.

This sounds hard, and frustrating as one single person, he notes, but we all have a role to play.

“I don’t want to hear about, ‘What can I do. I’m so depressed, this all seems too big, and I’m going to ignore it.’ We’re past that. This isn’t about hope, it isn’t about fear, it’s just about resolve. You don’t have to do everything, but you have to do something,” he said.

Davies pointed to the Extinction Rebellion movement in Europe and in the U.S., which began as a call-to-action signed by academics in May 2018 and has since become a civil disobedience protest movement, with thousands taking part in various parts of the world.

Protests and sit-ins like those organized by Extinction Rebellion and the school strike for climate movement may seem radical, especially framed against everyday life, but Davies argues for the opposite.

“Those of us who know about this problem and are not responding are radical,” he said. “Institutions, cities, states, schools, businesses that know about this problem and do not respond, that’s radical. The radicals in the climate movement are those who understand the data, but resist actual response.”

During a question period at the end of Davies’ talk, former state legislator Ed Lieser asked about the power of the ballot in fighting climate change.

“As a legislator for this community, I was appalled at the inability or disinterest in trying to address this problem. How would you characterize the importance of voting for individuals that embrace the concepts that you just described to us?”

Davies said it’s a powerful tool, but not everything.

“Voting is how express ourselves, but we all know, I think, that at the moment we live in a fairly imperfect democracy, and there are all kinds of reasons why legislators don’t respond to the will of voters,” he said. “I would argue that as much as voting and political reform and just getting the right candidates in is important, event when we get ‘the right candidates’ in, who say they believe these problems, it becomes very difficult for them politically to respond to them, and they end up implementing ‘feel good’ policies that are not meaningful.”

WHS student Nathan Sproul asked about the effects such drastic change would have on different nations’ economies around the world and whether those changes would lead to economic failure.

“It’s certainly possible to implement these policies in a way that would be hugely economically destructive, but there’s no need to,” Davies replied. “There’s been lots of studies on this. In fact, if you do it right all of this is an economic boom. But the ground rules have to be the same for everybody.”

Davies focuses on global environmental change and critical science communication at Utah State. Over the past decade, Davies has developed and delivered hundreds of public lectures on climate change and human sustainability. He is also co-creator of The Crossroads Project, a “performance science” collaboration that has been performed for audiences across the nation on the critically important topic of human sustainability and vibrancy.

Davies is past associate of the Utah Climate Center; has served as a scientific liaison for NASA on the International Space Station Project; as a project scientist with Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory; and an officer and meteorologist in the United States Air Force.

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