Climate change 101: Boylen talks causes, impacts, solutions at presentation

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Scott Boylen led a presentation on climate change at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre on July 31. Much of the information Boylen shared was collected during the 13th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Earlier this summer, Scott Boylen joined over 50 educators from around the country at the 13th annual Summer Institute for Climate Change Education at St. John’s University, in Minnesota. The institute was held by the non-profit Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, which empowers individuals and their communities to engage in solutions to climate change. Steger is an educator and polar region explorer.

“This program is for emerging leaders, educators and the public,” said Boylen, and focuses on the science behind climate change. 

Boylen shared some of the insights he gained from the program at a presentation at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, in Marquette, on July 31.

His intent was not to politicize the topic.

“Climate change is not a partisan issue,” Boylen stressed, “but a human issue.”

According to NASA, most climate scientists attribute climate change to human expansion of the “greenhouse effect,” the warming that occurs when the earth’s atmosphere traps heat radiating from earth toward space. There’s a natural greenhouse effect that helps sustain life on the planet, but greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are now allowing less heat to escape, then re-radiating it back to the earth’s surface.

Since 1880, Boylen said the global surface temperature has reason 1.8 degrees Celsius.

“That seems like very little,” he said, “but 4 would be the highest we could tolerate. Then we could be pushing the next extinction.”

This rise in temperature has coupled with the rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases, which Boylen noted is being released into earth’s atmosphere faster than any time in the past hundreds of thousands of years.

In 1960, the atmosphere contained 320 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Today, that level has reached 408. Scientists generally regard 350 as the safe level.

“Humans are a major contributor of carbon dioxide,” Boylen said, “and science shows that.”

Boylen said research conducted on 600,000-year-old ice cores from glaciers and ice sheets shows “there have been many periods of glaciation and ups and downs.” Global temperature and carbon dioxide have been coupled—rising and falling together. Carbon dioxide levels even differ throughout the year, as the earth breathes in and out. 

“But the trend is up. It’s changed dramatically,” he explained. “There was nothing recent—until human years.”

In the 1800s, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Boylen said humans began to burn fossil fuels. 

Although natural processes like respiration and volcanic eruptions can increase carbon dioxide concentration, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, industry and more can exacerbate that.

“There are benefits of fossil fuels,” Boylen said, listing cheap electricity and fuel, as well as the creation of plastic and other synthetic materials, as examples. “They’re difficult to live without.”

But is it worth it, he questioned?

Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. Sea levels are rising, while sea ice, as well as the glaciers and ice sheets on land, are decreasing.

“Just the color of the ice reflects more heat,” Boylen said. “Water warms nine times faster.”

When extra heat goes to the oceans, he said the warmer water creates more fuel, causing heavier rains and higher storm surges. Hurricanes become deadlier.

Boylen said people have also noticed changes in snow and rainfall. Plant life cycles—for example, when trees bud and leaf out—have changed, too. Soil moisture is lessening, affecting food supplies. 

“For every degree of warming, there’s a 10 to 12 percent increase of lightning strikes,” he added, which increases the risk of fire.

Some areas in the world are running out of water. This, said Boylen, could spur conflicts and wars, even render some regions uninhabitable. People may be forced to migrate.

“These are some of the poorest places on the planet and some of the highest populations,” he said. “They won’t be able to cope with it.”

In other areas, people are losing their homes and lands to encroaching sea levels. In one graphic Boylen showed, Miami and New York City were listed among the 10 cities in the world most at risk from rising sea levels by 2070. Boylen said people should think of the high populations and trillions of dollars worth of exposed assets in those areas.

“Who pays for that?” he wondered.

There are also implications for global health, Boylen said.

“Around here, fewer cold weather days means more ticks,” he remarked. “Lyme disease cases are on the rise. That’s a reality around here.”

Boylen said climate change isn’t “right across the board.” Every thing, every place, doesn’t change the same. People often wonder if it’s really the climate, or simply the weather, that’s responsible.

He told people to liken weather to a person’s mood, while climate is more like their personality. Climate, he said, “is the overall, general way you are, versus your mood that day.”

Weather, he explained, is a three-inch rainfall, while climate doubles the frequency of three-inch rainfalls.

“If you look at the data points over time, that’s climate,” he said.

There are steps people can take to help. Boylen advocated for people to be water wise, reduce waste and use cleaner forms of energy. 

“Plant a tree,” he stressed. “They take carbon dioxide and put it into the ground.”

He noted green energy, like wind and solar power, has grown in popularity. Careers in those fields have grown too. Businesses, as well as individual cities, are taking steps to become more efficient. 

“When I look at climate change science, sometimes I get down,” Boylen admitted, “but there are positives. People have to speak about it, move it forward. It’s important to have hope.”

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