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The Meramec River flooded Fenton and Valley Park in December, 2015. “These are no longer 500-year floods. These are the new norm,” said Jack Fishman, who is organizing the St. Louis Climate Summit at St. Louis University.
The Meramec River flooded Fenton and Valley Park in December, 2015. “These are no longer 500-year floods. These are the new norm,” said Jack Fishman, who is organizing the St. Louis Climate Summit at St. Louis University.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Climate summit at St. Louis University considers ‘the new norm’

Pope Francis’ encyclical inspires organizers to protect God’s creation

St. Louis had two 500-year floods — December of 2015 and April of 2017 — within 16 months. “These are no longer 500-year floods. These are the new norm,” said Jack Fishman, the organizer of the St. Louis Climate Summit at St. Louis University later this month.

Fishman is a professor in St. Louis University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Center for Environmental Sciences. The native St. Louisan worked at the NASA Langley Research Center for 31 years. During his career at NASA, Fishman pioneered the use of satellite observations to provide a perspective of the extent of global pollution.

St. Louis already has been affected by climate change, according to Fishman, an organizer of an international climate summit at St. Louis University April 22-24.

Excessive hurricanes also are a direct result of changes in the climate, Fishman said. “We don’t need any more data to be convinced that global warming is happening. Now you can speculate all you want about what the impact of that will be.”

But the increased hurricanes, the record rainfall in Texas from Hurricane Harvey and extreme fire dangers in California and subsequent floods are all manifestations of the changes, he said.

Each could be predicted from climate models, Fishman said, because of warming temperatures.

A helicopter dropped water on a fast moving wildfire Oct. 9, 2017 in Orange, Calif. Climate scientists attribute increased fire occurrences in part to warm, dry weather patterns caused by global climate change.
Photo Credits: Mike Blake | Reuters

Global warming slowed in the early 2000s, but was followed by three years of record-breaking temperatures. The scientific consensus is that global warming has been occurring and much of it has been and is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, Fishman said. He added that Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” “is calling all of us to embrace a much greater moral responsibility to care for God’s creation.”

Fishman said “the skeptics, or deniers, will say it’s all part of the natural process. That’s false.”

Among the researchers he cites is National Academy of Sciences president Ralph J. Cicerone, who issued an early warning about the grave potential risks of climate change. Cicerone headed an academy panel, commissioned by President George W. Bush, which concluded unequivocally that “greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.”

Paul J. Crutzen wrote about the anthropocene, a term for the Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.

The models suggest extreme weather phenomenons will happen more frequently, Fishman said. Accompanying the general trend of warmer weather are extreme heat waves and extreme cold outbreaks. High latitudes, especially in the northern hemisphere, are warming up quicker than low latitudes, the tropics, he explained.

Storms and hurricanes occur primarily as the result of heat exchange, getting the excess heat from the tropics to the high latitudes, he said. With a weaker jet stream, a bigger north-south component and a proclivity for bigger extremes, both heat waves and cold spells result. A cold spell in February 2015 on the East Coast, Fishman explained, was among the coldest ever but other places farther north, such as Russia and Alaska, had record warm weather.

According to Fishman, climate is a statistical phenomenon, not a day-to-day weather phenomenon. It shows the average temperature is going up and the variability is increasing. And the models predicted it.

“What used to be extreme is now only moderately extreme. Now you have new extreme areas in the bell-shaped curve that have never been common before. That’s what’s predicted, and that’s what’s happening,” he said.

Steps need to be taken now because global warming isn’t going away, Fishman said. “Even if we stop burning all fossil fuel tomorrow, the impact of the increase in carbon dioxide remains. That’s what the Paris climate accords emphasize.”

The St. Louis Climate Summit grew from a guest newspaper column written by Trudy Busch Valentine in 2012 stating that “environmental preservation must take priority in citizens’ hearts and leaders’ minds.”

The daughter of former Anheuser-Busch chairman August A. Busch Jr., Valentine stated that climate change issues are neither liberal nor conservative and that they reflect widespread international crises rather than short-term agriculturalist problems.

Fishman read Valentine’s remark that climate change shouldn’t be a political issue and went to work. The result is the summit bringing together experts in climate science, ecology, sustainable development and related disciplines for three days of discussion on climate change. Included are several people who were resources in the formulation of “Laudato Si’,” which stresses the moral obligation to address the issue of climate change.

Among the climate experts speaking at the summit are members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which produced “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement of the Problem and the Demand for Transformative Solutions.” The academy is an independent entity within the Holy See that provides information and recommendations to the Holy Father. Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, is a member of the academy and is co-chair of the summit. Another member of the academy who helped with the conference planning is Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego.

When considering the idea of the summit, Fishman knew that Pope Francis was writing the encyclical and that the bicentennial of St. Louis University was in 2018, so it all fit together. The summit seeks to fulfill Pope Francis’ call to unite in defense of our common home.

Papal encyclical inspires SLU climate summit

The St. Louis Climate Summit, to be hosted by St. Louis University April 22-24 as a part of its yearlong bicentennial celebration, will bring to the Midwest some of the most authoritative minds in climate science and related disciplines.

The conference will highlight key issues in climate science, celebrate achievements and look to the future. It was inspired by Pope Francis’ convocation of leading climate scientists at the Vatican in 2014, and the encyclical that emerged from that gathering, “Laudato Si’.”

“We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is a conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.”

Pope Francis

Speakers will include Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and advisor to Pope Francis in the formulation of “Laudato Si’”; Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California, San Diego, a recent recipient of the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth Award; and Peter Raven, director emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Carl Pope, former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, will give the keynote address at 7 p.m. Monday, April 23, at Chaifetz Arena on the St. Louis University campus. Cardinal Turkson will talk at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church at Grand and Lindell Boulevards on the SLU campus. The documentary “Before the Flood” will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at SLU’s Center for Global Citizenship.

The Nine Network of Public Media will serve as media partner and will provide event management for the summit. It will host many of the speakers and panels at its facilities in Grand Center, near the campus of Saint Louis University.

For information or to register, visit www.stlclimatesummit.org.

What data reveals

One of the elite scientists who advises the Holy Father as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is Veerabhadran (Ram) Ramanathan, professor of atmospheric and Cclimate aciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. He wrote a positional paper entitled “The Two Worlds Approach to Mitigating Climate Change: The Top One Billion and the Bottom Three Billion.”

He wrote:

“Ocean data have revealed that the added heat trapped by the thousand billion tons of greenhouse blanket has penetrated to a depth of more than 1,000 meters in the ocean (Roemmich et al, 2015). The heat stored in the ocean will influence the climate for millennia even if we stop polluting the planet today.

“On the contrary,we are continuing with the pollution at a faster rate. Roughly 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other warming gases are being added every year. If the current rate of pollution continues, the planet can warm by as much as 20C (3.50F) by 2050 and as much as 40C (70F) by end of century (Schellnhuber, 2013). Such temperatures have not been witnessed in the last million years and the probability of tripping over many tipping points of the ecosystem is high (Schellnhuber, 2013).

“The damages to natural ecology, human health, water and food security due to drastic changes in iconic climate systems such as the Greenland glaciers, much of coastal systems, wetlands, Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers and rivers are incalculable. One major obstacle in estimating the damages is that the predictions of the future climate are subject to large uncertainty. The changes could be smaller than the predictions by a factor of 2 but could just as well be larger by a factor of 2. Already, the 40C (70F) warming predicted for 2100 would be unprecedented but if it is larger than the predicted by a factor of 2 or more (albeit a low probability event), it could be catastrophic. For example to find a past analogue to a world warmer than the present by 80C (140F), we have to go back more than 50 million years. Economists are beginning to recommend that such catastrophic warming, even if it is a low probability event, should govern our policy responses (Weitzman, 2011).”

Climate summit at St Louis University considers the new norm

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