President Barack Obama announced a commitment during his inaugural address earlier this week to tackle climate change during his second term, noting that to avoid the issue would “betray our children and future generations.” Boston University may be signaling a similar, but longer-term, commitment to address the subject by naming Anthony Janetos as the new director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.
Janetos, who will assume the post July 1, is a Princeton-trained ecologist who has spent nearly three decades researching and doing policy analysis on the impact of global climate change. He has held positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the World Resources Institute, the Heinz Center for Science, Economics & Environment, and most recently, the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, where he has been director since 2006.
Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, says Janetos’ “passion and track record of high-quality research, exceptional teambuilding, and intellectual leadership were an ideal match for our needs here at BU.” She notes that his research and policy interests align with the center’s mission of supporting “interdisciplinary, policy-relevant, and future-oriented research that contributes to long-term improvements in the human condition.”
Janetos will take over from director ad interim James McCann, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history.
BU Today recently spoke with Janetos about the impact climate change has had locally and globally, what a warmer world might look like, and whether the United States, and more specifically, the Obama administration, is adequately addressing this global challenge.
BU Today: You’ve spent your career studying climate change. Why this topic?
Janetos: There’s lots of really interesting and difficult science that sheds some light on fundamental processes that govern how the physical world evolves. In addition to that, it’s such a difficult and fascinating problem looking at how governments interact. How do we actually address these really thorny environmental issues whose causes are at the root of supplying energy services? How do governmental institutions interact with NGOs and the private sector to try to create strategies?
Climate change is such a fundamental issue, in part because it really does affect how countries are able to develop. This is not an issue for our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren. Things are happening now.
What do you hope to bring to the Pardee Center as its new director?
One thing I think I’ve been able to do, and I’ll certainly try to promote at the Pardee Center, is to explore this interface between the changes and processes in the physical world and how social, economic, and cultural processes interact in improving human welfare.
What impact is climate change having on our daily lives?
In the United States, we have quite a large number of pretty well-documented effects of climate change and variability in the climate system, on crops, pests, and frequency of droughts and heavy rainfall.
In some parts of the developing world, in particular in parts of the world that are already drought-prone, there’s been an intensification of these patterns, with at least the potential for effects on food security. We are at a stage where the imperative to respond, the imperative to adapt, is with us right now. How we choose to do that, and in a sense how severe we allow the challenges to become, is still something that we can wrestle with, but we are going to have to.
What happens if the United States and other countries fail to take action on climate change?
If we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re going to see a very different world indeed, some of whose characteristics we’re not going to like very much. We’re already seeing pretty substantial melting of glaciers and land-based ice. The sea level rise alone has the potential to have a very serious impact on coastal settlements and cities. And since a very large fraction of the global population lives within 100 kilometers of a coast, this is something by itself quite serious indeed. Irrespective of what happens to hurricane frequencies or intensities, the simple fact that there’s more water to push around means that damages will rise. And we’ve just had terrible examples of that here on the East Coast. We’re not alone in that. We get constant reminders of this in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands with typhoons.
Which is a better strategy for addressing climate change—adaptation or mitigation? Or are both necessary?
You’ve got to do both. It’s simply right that in the developing world, where most of the population growth is and a huge fraction of economic development is going to be, they meet their growing energy demands. But how that’s done both in the developing world and the current large economies will make a tremendous difference in how the atmosphere behaves and how the climate system behaves. At the same time, we have this reservoir of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. The fact that we’re already seeing changes in the climate system means that we really don’t have a choice; we’re also going to have to adapt. I don’t view this as a contest between two classes of decisions; I view this as a fundamental challenge of creating and managing a sustainable environment.
Do you believe individual action can have a powerful impact on climate change?
Individual action can always have an impact. But at the same time, we’re talking about challenges that are at a scale that are simply going to require some form of governmental action and some form of action by the largest institutions we have. That’s one of the reasons why this is such a challenging and interesting problem: how do you get to a point where those kinds of agreements and challenges are met?
How would you rate the U.S. response to climate change so far?
I actually wouldn’t grade it. This is a really hard problem. It took us a long time to get into this, and it’s going to take time to get out of it. The challenge is not to wait to start. There are things happening. It’s really difficult to get to a common solution or a solution that is embraced by a large number of parties. If we just focus on the short term, it’s a problem. We have to be in this for the long game.
If you were to make a wish list of how President Obama should tackle climate change, what would it include?
We need a fresh national dialogue on this topic. Something that’s not just people talking past each other and not just caricature. If, in fact, we could get to a fresh national and international dialogue, then that would really be important.
Does there need to be a generational shift before comprehensive action can occur?
Caring for the environment at the same time as meeting demand for energy, crop production, and so on, is now part of the cultural environment that we all grow up in, and that’s very different than 40 to 45 years ago. These are really hard problems, but I’m optimistic that in this country and in other countries we’re having this cultural change about the importance of the environment as part of an overall well-being and that people won’t abandon that.