The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

University of Tennessee climate panel: Scientists say don’t despair. Yet.

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Scientists discuss climate challenges and solutions during 2021 One Health Day

As climate experts and scientists huddled in Glasgow in an international effort to stem potentially disastrous global environmental changes, a panel of doctors representing multiple disciplines at the University of Tennessee and beyond offered their assessments of climate challenges and solutions.

Their take on climate change? We have problems, but we also have solutions. Hopelessness will drive you crazy. Stay healthy, stay informed and do your part to mitigate the long-term environmental consequences of a changing Earth. 

Above all: Don’t despair and don’t lose hope.

The panel, held Nov. 3 at the UT Student Union and presented by the UT One Health Initiative, consisted of the following experts:

— Dr. Gus Engman, Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture 

— Dr. Kate Evans, Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

— Dr. Joshua Fu, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Tennesse

— Dr. Sindhu Jagadamma, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

— Dr. Kristina Kintziger, Department of Public Health, University of Tennessee

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity and don’t include the full response. Questions were submitted ahead of time or during the panel discussion. 

What do you see as the largest threats of climate change, especially related to your individual research interests?

Engman: Changing precipitation patterns are something I think about a lot.

Pretty much all the rivers in the world are expected to have changes to their flow regime.

These changes in droughts and floods are a really large issue.

I think a lot about aquatic communities. If we are scarce on drinking water, we are always going to prioritize people having that water, over the fish or the bugs in the streams. 

There are all kinds of impacts to life histories and interactions with communities in streams. 

When animals are stressed because of these changes in precipitation patterns and changes in flow patterns, they might become more susceptible to other stressors, like disease. 

Changes in algal community composition can impact the entire water quality of a stream, and that might happen because of these changes in precipitation patterns.

These places that are experiencing these extreme droughts really worry me. The Colorado River already doesn’t even flow all the way to the ocean anymore. That’s a huge change. Because we take up so much water for agriculture. 

If a stream runs out of water, it’s not a stream anymore.

Evans: From a meteorological perspective, the biggest event that hurts people's health is actually heat waves. A lot of press goes to tornadoes and hurricanes and storms but in fact these large domes of hot air (are deadly), which happen because of changes in the large-scale weather patterns.

The greenhouse effect insulates the earth, it makes it more uniform in temperature and so that changes the flow patterns that go around the earth. That changes those big weather systems that come in and how long they stick around. 

When you talk about these long droughts, we know that’s what's we have to understand: Will they last longer, be more humid, less humid, and that has huge impacts for human health as well as the food they eat and the plants that grow. 

Kintziger: Heat also has a bigger impact on a more indirect pathway to human health. Not just heat-related illness but also cardiovascular impacts, renal impacts and even mental health impacts.

Heat is the one that keeps me up at night. We are seeing increasing temperatures globally and we also have this urban heat island affect. 

Our vulnerable populations in the cities — inner cities with lower-income housing, homeless populations — they are going to experience heat very differently than people who live in newer buildings with better cooling and infrastructure and have better capabilities for adapting to heat. 

Fu: Heat islands, especially for low-income people, who cannot pay their energy bills.

This year we had a heat wave in Europe. Last year, too. We can have more frequent heat waves. Those cause problems. 

We just published one paper this year, (projected) to 2050, middle of century, how climate change impacts urban areas (and provision of affordable utilities).

These problems will gradually spread to different communities no matter your income levels.

Jagadamma: As a soil scientist I am actually worried about the impact of climate change on agricultural sectors, globally and locally.

The increase in mean annual temperatures, and also the occurrence of more frequent and severe extreme events like drought and flood, can decrease crop production and also livestock production. 

Statistics show 64 percent of the world population depends on agriculture for a living. This negative impact can directly affect the 64 percent of population. It can also hit the other 40 percent in terms of shortage of high-quality food and an increase in food prices. 

What are the mitigation strategies that exist to prevent or slow the problems you are observing?

Jagadamma: I want to emphasize what we can do to keep (2.5 trillion) tons of carbon in the soil. 

In the past there was a lot of soil mismanagement — intensive tillage, over-application of fertilizers and other chemicals. These practices actually caused a lot of soil degradation. Because of that there were a lot of greenhouse gas emissions (that) enhanced the climate-change problems.

We can focus on soil-centric approaches to find solutions to these problems. These are natural approaches, include no tillage or reduced tillage or growing cover crops during fallow seasons.

We can also rotate several crops instead of growing one crop every year.

Another option is to replace (some) chemical fertilizers with organic sources. We can also integrate crop and livestock farming together. With all these practices we can definitely reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kintziger: In public health we deal more with adaptation than mitigation: How can we reduce our vulnerabilities or increase our resilience?

At the larger scale, one thing public health can do, and is doing, is focus on improving our information systems and early warning systems around climate change impacts on human health.

We are working with hospital administration datasets to understand those types of health outcomes.

We are working more closely with environmental information systems to start integrating (relevant data) into one network. We also have public-health practitioners working with National Weather Service offices to better understand what the local area thresholds are for health impacts from heat and extreme temperatures.

Engman: We as humans could be so much more efficient with our water use. Our default storage for water is an open reservoir where there’s all this evaporation. (And) we are flushing it down our toilets, literally.

Sometimes we need to not think about mitigating or resisting these changes that are happening with climate change because they are going to happen and there’s not much we can do about it to some extent.

We can facilitate some of these changes in ways we think are best for biodiversity of ecosystem function.

Evans: I’m personally of the strategy we should develop technologies as soon as possible to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

I think removing some of that might be our best strategy to prevent some of the things we know are coming, at least from the atmosphere standpoint.

Fu: We are warming because of carbon dioxide emissions hanging there; 400 ppm carbon dioxide concentrations.

How to slow down climate change? Carbon recycling, recovery and reuse. 

All the countries that have forests, don’t touch it, don’t minimize forests in their own countries.

We need to work on the parallels that are working at the same time. 

Some predictions… If we still keep using fossil fuels we are going to 800 ppm of carbon dioxide concentration. Even 1,000.

What can individuals do to mitigate the effects of climate change? What strategies would you use to inspire individuals to take action around climate change?

(Long pause)

Jagadamma: We can do something maybe as environmental activists, to varying degrees, to address these environmental concerns. 

Engman: Individual solutions are great. But people need to start looking a little bigger. Don’t know if through voting or petitions but we need to demand of leaders broader change.

There’s a lot of changes that could’ve been happening, there are lots of people resistant to those changes happening; find a way to push back against those.

You can spend a lot of time focusing on what you are doing as an individual, but you can actually put that energy into pushing for broader changes.

Evans: One thing you can do is make sure your educational system is teaching everybody. Climate change is something we can understand, and it’s not trivial. Explain both the issues and solutions. People don’t just want to hear the earth is going to destroy itself, (they want to hear) there’s a way to fix it. I think that’s the key.

Kintziger: Some things we can do as individuals is just improve our overall health because it’s our underlying conditions that sometimes make us more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

Improving our social networks to increase our mental health resiliency can also benefit us after the effects of climate-related disaster. The mental health impacts are pretty profound. Having a social network, a social support system, can be very helpful as well.

Fu: The United Nations has sustainable development goals; they have very good guidelines. 

The University of Tennessee is now utilizing that and promoting it to our students. 

I have a presentation in high schools, and students are very interested in how they can protect the environment. 

Then they can tell their parents, 'you need to do that.' This is one strategy, to go to these younger people, to start.

We need to (reach) those young kids, when they grow up they carry the mindset.

These are cultural things. It’s not a one-day or overnight solution. But I believe we will get there.

Do you feel largely or hopeless about adapting to climate change? How would you help people who feel helpless?

Fu: I still have high hopes. 

As a nation, (U.S.) CO2 emissions are going down. Slowly,but the trend is going down. 

That means a lot of industries want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in their manufacturing process. 

I still have high hope we will gradually get there.

Jagadamma: We have more scientific knowledge now than before about the seriousness of the problem. We also have potential solutions and support for actions.

We have soil-centric or climate-smart options available. Most of our farming communities are adopting one or both.

Globally, if producers adopt these better solid management practices they can mitigate 8 million tons of carbon a year.

Stay hopeful, and be informed about the knowledge we are gathering and also do what you can to educate the people around to the extent possible, and try to reduce the carbon footprint, like carpooling or things like that.

Kintziger: Our leaders need to be focused on this change, to modify our instrastructure. Seems that pendulum swings every couple of years.

I’m feeling a little less hopeful right now because of the general public’s pushback against science through this pandemic.

Even though our science is improving, I don’t know if they are listening, in general.

I do feel our younger generation are more prone to activism, and with respect to climate change that seems to be a big focus, that does give me hope. So I don’t want to end on a negative note.

Engman: I consider myself an optimist generally. I study ecosystems and animal communities…they are surprisingly resilient. Life finds a way. 

The worst thing you can think is there’s no value left anymore because it’s a little different.

Hopefully we can maintain some of the things we have but even if things are a little different in the future they are going to be very valuable to us. 

Ecosystems are still going to function and exist.

I think start petitions, write your senator or representative or (support) a lawsuit, whatever you need to do. I think we need to push our leaders to stand up on these sort of things.

 Climate Panel


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