Earth is on track to undergo a period of global warming over the next century that will be at least 10 times faster than any other period from the past 65 million years, according to Stanford climate scientists.
The research, which was conducted by Professors of Environmental Earth System Science Noah Diffenbaugh ’96 M.S. ’97 and Chris Field Ph.D. ’81 using past scientific literature and research, was published in Science last month. The findings suggest that current warming trends – including a predicted 5-6 degree in annual temperatures by the end of the century — will impose significant burdens on species and ecosystems around the world.
“[The paper] is built on decades of research, and it’s also based on research by hundreds of other people,” Field said. “We pulled together the information that’s been published in other studies so that there were a few people that knew each of these things, but…what was not widely appreciated is the magnitude, pace and extent of the changes we’re likely to see.”
The study focused on comparing observed climate change with expected future change and emphasized the increasing velocity of global warming.
“One of the things I think people often don’t appreciate is how the changes that we’ve already seen, though they’re quite substantial, are a tiny fraction of what we might see over the century if enough gas emissions continue at their recent pace,” Field said. “For ecosystems, the amount of change is quite important.”
Field noted that human activities may complicate the ability of plants or animals to relocate or adapt in response to global warming.
“One of the real sources for concern is that in general the things that are good at moving are weeds, and in general the things that are bad at moving are the things that were already very endangered,” Field said. “It may be that there are good habitats in a cooler part of the world, but they may be separated from the present distribution of the plant or animal by many miles of agricultural fields or urban developments or industrial activities, and this idea of open pathways from where things are now to where they want to be in the future is strongly conditioned by the human impacts.”
Field expressed his intent to focus directly in future research on the relationship between humans and climate change through examining the Anthropocene period, a geological era shaped ecologically by human activities.
“I just put in a proposal this week on a new kind of research that builds directly on this paper,” Field said. “I’m calling it a biome model for the Anthropocene…We don’t really know how plants and animals are going to move in a world that’s dominated by human actions, and the new research project is intended to figure that out.”
Even so, Field stressed the importance of energy conservation and the further development of green energy technology to address humanity’s ongoing impact on the environment.
“The big business of the 21st century is going to be building an energy system that’s based on non-emitting technologies, and I hope that Stanford students are at the vanguard of that,” Field said. “Some of the opportunities are in designing products; some of the opportunities are in helping design legislative and regulatory environments that put the incentives in the right place; and some are just associated with being involved in the politics of the issue and making sure that people are aware of their consequences.”
Field expressed hope that the recent study will both expose the imminent effects of climate change and also encourage people to take action.
“I think the take-home message that I’d like people to have is that climate change is really the defining issue of the 21st century, and dealing effectively with it is a gigantic opportunity as well as a gigantic challenge,” Field said.