Thinking in Systems: the Climate Big Picture

In another recently published column, written by Stephanie Kaza for the SE Examiner in Portland, she discusses the need for a systems view of climate change and its impacts. Here's the text:

From season to season it can be confusing whether hurricanes, floods, droughts, or wildfires are unusually harsh or whether they represent significant climate change.  No single event alone can tell us much about climate trends.
If we want to know whether sea level is rising, for example, we have to look at the big picture over time. Taking a systems view can help make sense of isolated incidents.
The global climate system is impressively complex, reflecting patterns on land, ocean, soils, air, and in all life forms. In fact, just about everything is part of the climate system.  Major events such as volcanic eruptions and solar flares can trigger significant changes in climate systems.
Climate observers are especially interested in critical limits or thresholds beyond which a system does not return to its former state. They look for feedback processes that intensify or reduce rates of change, say, in a forest’s capacity to store carbon.
These days everyone is talking about “resilience”; the capacity of a system to absorb or recover from the impacts of a stressful event. If too many stressful climate events occur in one place, it can take quite a toll on a city or region’s support systems. If a system is strong enough to maintain its basic structures and functions after a big hit, then it is said to be “resilient.”
One of the frustrating aspects of climate trend prediction is uncertainty. There’s uncertainty about which places will suffer next and how much; uncertainty about which climate feedback patterns will be set in motion with unexpected results; uncertainty about how infrastructure such as subways and sewage systems will behave under duress or about how people will cope in dealing with adverse situations.
Resilience and coping capacity are two things that can be increased to meet the challenges of climate change uncertainty.  Planting more trees in a city adds shade cover resilience for future heat extremes.
Neighborhood disaster preparation adds more coping capacity if supply sources are cut off. A coordinated bike route system adds options if roads are blocked to cars.
Sometimes it can seem like there is nothing to be done in the face of the complexity of climate change, but taking a systems view offers a way to focus on the Big Picture.
As a way to begin, we can actively prepare for climate change by building resilience and coping capacity in our neighborhoods, cities, and regions.
This might mean taking care of your street’s bioswale to keep it clear in heavy rains or joining with neighbors in a walking school bus to stay in touch and brainstorming ways to add fun and stability in our relations with others.
As a small piece of this project in Portland, a chance is offered to think creatively about resilience through a “Let’s Talk Climate” series in January-April of 2017 at TaborSpace, 5441 SE Belmont St.
See letstalkclimatepdx.org/p/about.html or ask to join the mailing list at contact@letstalkclimatepdx.org.
Stephanie Kaza is professor emerita of University of Vermont. She recently served as Director of the Environmental Program. A native Portlander, she has returned home to add her voice to local climate and sustainability actions.

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