Monday, April 23, 2012

What's Your Question?

Over the weekend I attended the thought-provoking symposium Rivers of Ice: What's Your Question, co-sponsored by GlacierWorks. Following the symposium was a reception at MIT's absolutely spectacular Rivers of Ice exhibition, featuring images from GlacierWorks founder David Breashears. A fully packed auditorium tuned in to hear five experts from diverse backgrounds speak on melting glaciers in the Himalaya and the impacts of climate change. Framing the speakers were beautiful works of art by local high school students that inspire questions surrounding water supply, rising temperatures, agriculture and politics.

Adventure photographer and film-maker David Breashears introduced a short film that followed his exploits on a recent climb. We were taken on a journey of breathtaking beauty that showed first-hand the effects of climate change in this remote region and on its people. The photos that followed included some of the earliest photos of glaciers captured juxtaposed with a current photo taken from the exact same spot!  While most glaciers are losing mass at an increased rate, a few are actually gaining mass.  Albeit only a few inches a year, but this underscores the complex mechanisms at play in the region.

Adventure photographer David Breashears introduces the audience to the changes he has witnessed firsthand
from his decades of climbing the mountains of the high Himalaya.
Same goes for all the impacts of climate change. Take for example, global temperature increase. While one year may be cooler than others, and some regions may experience cooler temperatures than usual, that does not take away from the global long-term trend that average temperatures are increasing. Conversely, a warm spell such as our recent non-winter also does not mean that it is getting worse. The real answer is, it's complicated.

Solving the challenge of climate change is also no short order, all panelists agree.  But it is not impossible.  Susan Solomon, atmospheric chemistry professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT stated that the number one problem we must solve is that of energy consumption.  How do we come off our polluting, high carbon energy diet?  How do we provide clean energy to the billions of people in the developing world who are striving to live just like us?

Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society, remarked that if the United States (2nd highest emitter of carbon dioxide) and China (1st highest emitter of carbon dioxide) do not come to a binding, strict agreement to substantially lower their emissions, it will not matter what the rest of the world's countries do.  Personally, I'm a big believer of every little bit helps.  Otherwise, it's much too easy to sit back and let someone else figure it out without taking any responsibility. After all, climate change is a global problem.

But the best question was raised by one of the high school students, simply put, how do we motivate people, (and more importantly, politicians) to reduce their consumption of energy in order to avert the most serious consequences of climate change when they are unlikely to be affected by said consequences anytime soon?  I do not know the answer, but it fills me with confidence to see intelligent, engaged youth posing these questions. Keep questioning, and the answers are bound to come.

One of the many beautiful quotes part of the Rivers of Ice exhibition at the MIT museum.

If you were unable to attend the What's Your Question event, make sure to check out Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya on at the MIT museum on now until March 2013. See for yourself the striking images of receding glaciers and the impact that this vanishing supply of water will mean for millions of people downstream.

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