While climate change is a serious issue, there is still time to act before it spirals out of control, experts said in a conference Friday and Saturday at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Over the weekend, the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters held its annual conference about the effects of climate change on tropical forests. About 70 to 80 Yale graduate students and professors came together with colleagues from other universities to wrestle with environmental issues such as deforestation and extinction.
ISTF member and conference chair Gillian Paul FES ’10 said members of the ISTF were initially unsure whether this year’s conference should focus on climate change, since many conferences have already addressed the topic. But the group decided it would be an appropriate topic after the United Nations’ climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
“Instead of strictly focusing on policy or carbon emissions, we tried to bring the conversation to on-the-ground issues faced by people and ecosystems in tropic areas,” Paul said. “We brought in people from different countries, organizations and disciplines to highlight the essential links between conservation and mitigation strategies.”
Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, a USDA-supported organization, said in the conference’s first keynote address that it is a myth that tropical forests are fragile. In reality, he said, such ecosystems are very resilient in the face of climate change.
In the conference’s second keynote lecture, Thomas Lovejoy ’64 GRD ’71, the biodiversity adviser to the World Bank and the United Nations Foundation, a public charity, described the impact climate change has had on biological systems. Lovejoy said restoring ecosystems could help to combat the negative effects of climate change.
“Climate change is nothing new in the history of life on earth,” Lovejoy said. “The big difference between the past and today is the kind of landscapes that human presence has created.”
In the future, serious complications could result from climate change, Lovejoy said, because the change will not be linear or gradual, but abrupt. The world is already seeing such changes in at least a couple of ecosystems on a global scale, including coral reefs worldwide and in western North American coniferous forests, he said.
Twice in world history, there has been a dramatic drop in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere: after plants emerged on land and again after flowering plants evolved, Lovejoy said. But because similar phenomena are unlikely to recur soon, it is up to mankind to control carbon dioxide levels, he added.
“We need to get really ambitious and think about putting a really significant part of [the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere] back into terrestrial ecosystems,” he said.
Audience member Jennie Miller FES ’15 said she thought Lovejoy effectively synthesized the impacts of climate change in his keynote address. Blake Troxel FES ’11 said the most interesting parts of Lovejoy’s speech were his opinions about how to overcome the problems of climate change. Troxel added that he was intrigued by Lovejoy’s suggestion to allow natural landscapes to repair themselves.
In addition to publishing the proceedings of the conference, the ISTF plans to compile the presentations from the conference onto a compact disc, Paul said.