Affairs of the atmosphere

Climate affairs hits the scene with new book, academic programs

by David Hosansky

If universities offer multidisciplinary programs in marine affairs, wonders NCAR senior scientist Mickey Glantz, why not a course of study for students interested in climate affairs? The atmosphere is important to the well-being of societies, as are the oceans, and it requires the attention not only of physical scientists, but also economists, ecologists, geographers, lawyers, political scientists, and policymakers, among others. Such a multidisciplinary approach is important for making climate science usable to policymakers, Glantz believes.

“Climate-society-environment interplay is too important to be left to the climatologist or, for that matter, to any single set of discipline-focused researchers,” contends Glantz, a member of the NCAR Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (ESIG) since the early 1970s.

He’s detailed his vision in a new primer, Climate Affairs, published by Island Press. The wide-ranging book draws on atmospheric science, history, international law, and other disciplines to illustrate how climate influences virtually all aspects of society. It makes a powerful case for policymakers to take climate into account when making decisions, lest they face unwelcome repercussions from nature.

“In the ensuing decades of the twenty-first century, the ability of societies around the globe to cope with climate variability, weather extremes, and the likelihood of global warming and its unknown beneficial as well as adverse effects will increasingly be tested and will likely dominate the decision-making concerns of national leaders,” Glantz writes in the book. “In this regard, it seems that the twenty-first century has a good chance of becoming ‘the climate century,’ a century in which climate- related concerns will occupy significant attention of the next generations of policymakers.”

Defining a discipline

A climate affairs program, Glantz says, should focus on six climate areas: science, impacts on ecosystems and societies, policy and law, politics, economics, and ethics and equity. Topics would include understanding the physical climate system and accepting human activities as a part of that system, evaluating environmental regulations, interpreting the competing agendas of policymakers and private interest groups, looking into the impact of climate variations on a society’s well-being, and exploring such ethical issues as whether countries with a climate favorable to agriculture have a responsibility to help those with a less favorable climate.

Satellite picture of 2002 fires and haze on the island of Borneo. The red dots represent fire locations. (From Visible Earth, Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, 19 August 2002.)

Why encourage a multidisciplinary approach to climate? At a time of concern about climate change, Glantz says it is particularly important for physical scientists, social scientists, government leaders, and others to join forces if the international community is to formulate a unified approach to protecting the atmosphere. Just as nations had formulated the Law of the Sea by the 1980s to govern such oceanic issues as marine pollution and deep seabed mining, experts now are floating the idea of drawing up a law of the atmosphere that would cover air pollution, land use, and other activities that can affect climate.

The concept of a climate affairs course of study has stirred considerable interest overseas. The Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok is creating a climate affairs program, and universities and governmental organizations in China, Japan, and Malaysia, including the United Nations University in Tokyo, also are developing climate affairs classes. Columbia University is pursuing the possibility of establishing a climate affairs program at the master’s level.

In addition, Shannon McNeeley (ESIG) is helping to set up a climate affairs education and outreach program with the Alaska Native Science Commission and the University of Alaska. It will focus on the impacts of climate and environmental changes in the state, with a particular focus on Alaska Natives.

Glantz says one of his goals is to make students, educators, and policymakers more aware of the impacts of climate. As he writes in his book, “The field of climate affairs was developed in a conscious attempt to put climate and climate-related factors on the list of items that decision makers normally take into consideration. . . . The goal is to make them aware of such influences so that in the face of future anomalies they have the option to pursue proactive strategies and not just rely on reactive ones.”


Also in this issue...

The next phase of remote sensing

Spinning up a new GLOBE structure

Is the 1990s decline in grad-school interest reversing?

The road to Doppler data

Geomagnetic storms may spur thermospheric vortices

Mammoth meeting bridges the world of geoscience

Just deserts

President’s Corner: Crossing the valleys of death and lost opportunities: Toward an Earth Information System

Web Watch

UCAR Community Calendar

Governance Update

Science Bit