Environmental science professor discusses the risks of denying climate change

Grace Dickens

Manifest destiny, the Berlin Wall, and the ridicule for belief in a round earth.

All of this, accepted in the spirit of the time. Zeitgeist.

The Campus Environmental Center, CEC, held its first campfire meeting of the year on Monday, featuring UT environmental science lecturer Thoralf Meyer as a guest speaker in a discussion about the future of Texas in the face of climate change.

Meyer began his lecture with the German compound word zeitgeist: “zeit” meaning time, and “geist” having the contextual meaning of spirit. With the infatuation Americans have with numbers like the Super Bowl statistics and the stock market, Meyer said he found the denial of numbers in the instance of climate change puzzling. To Meyer, it’s the spirit of the time.

“Regardless of the discussion (about whether) climate change is human-made … the climate is changing,” Meyer said. “There is a curve on the way up, the temperatures and the concentrations. So anybody that can actually read or interpret a graph should have no problem to see that the past 70 years have been an increase.”

During the presentation, Meyer said the atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, which are effective at absorbing longer wavelengths of light and radiating it back to the ground. These gases get trapped in the atmosphere and direct heat back towards the surface of the earth. Even in extremely low concentrations, the concentration of these gases is directly correlated with temperature rise.

“Hot air has the ability to hold a lot of water,” Meyer said. “From the scientific point of view, it took energy to transfer it from the ocean into the atmosphere, and energy cannot be lost. It will be released at some point. There is uncertainty if the frequency of storms is going to go up, but there is no scientific doubt that the severity is going to go up, and I believe in Texas that should send a shiver down everybody’s spine.”

According to scientific research, Meyer said storm severity is not the only effect of increased temperature. Energy expenditures, mortality rates — especially of the already sick and elderly — fires, floods, total damage and associated costs are all predicted to rise, while agricultural yields will go down. Higher temperatures could also affect social risks, such as income disparities and crime rates.

“By denying climate change, one actually agrees to things such as decreases in property values throughout Texas, loss of livelihood of entire communities today that depend on tourism (and) loss of revenue from farming and fishing, especially along the Texas coast, an already challenged area when it comes to income,” Meyer said. “We would be supporting, by denying (climate change), the loss of people’s possessions, friends, their health or even their lives.”

Trends leaning toward warmer weather in Texas predict more air pollution, especially in cities, as well as higher rates of cancer, ozone levels, community suffering and risk of diseases such as Zika, Meyer said.

“Focusing on specifically Texas was really important to me,” said James Collins, environmental science and government junior and ambassador for the CEC. “Talking about the local implications and breaking it down, getting it out of the global context, is a really powerful way to engage with people and have that conversation, and potentially change minds.”

Students interested in how they can do their part should first educate themselves, take action and learn how to communicate with people about climate change, according to Collins.

“I like that he said we’re not alone in the fight,” said Lynn Derkowski, sustainability studies and economics sophomore, who attended the meeting. “I like that he said scientists’ views aren’t going to change and that people are going to support people who believe in climate change.”

To those who believe in climate change, deniers are creating the zeitgeist with a return to the condemnation of science and math by denying the facts, Meyer said. According to Meyer, those in doubt of climate change must accept responsibility for risks resulting from inaction.

“Are you willing to take a chance on putting our communities and economy at risk?” Meyer asked. “Are you willing to be held responsible and, more so, accountable for it?”

The CEC is holding its next workshop on “Defending Climate Change” on Wednesday, Feb. 7, from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Student Services Building.