Climate symposium concludes with energetic, informative public forum

CNN correspondent Bill Weir, left, led a panel discussion on climate change involving scientists, journalists, and government and industry officials at Friday’s symposium. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

CNN correspondent Bill Weir, left, led a panel discussion on climate change involving scientists, journalists, and government and industry officials at Friday’s symposium. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Climate symposium concludes with energetic, informative public forum

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Hosted by the University of Miami and spearheaded by the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the event featured an informative panel discussion and a sneak peek at an upcoming CNN environmental special.

On the third day, it was the public’s turn to listen and engage. And, what they heard only reinforced what scores of scientists have been stating emphatically: climate change is not only real, it is having a profound influence on weather patterns around the world, fueling super storms that batter Caribbean and U.S. coastlines, and stoking fires that rage from California to Australia.

The University of Miami’s Miami Climate Symposium 2020 came to an end on Friday with an audience of hundreds gathering at the Watsco Center Fieldhouse for a public forum that mixed science and discussion with inquiry—and a sneak peak at CNN anchor Bill Weir’s upcoming environmental special.

“Few challenges are as complex as climate change,” President Julio Frenk said in opening the event, which followed two and a half days of scientific discussions at the University’s marine campus on Virginia Key—where a dream team of researchers from across the country assembled to examine how hurricanes, storm surge, coastal flooding, and other weather phenomena are being exacerbated by a changing climate.

“We are not neutral researchers. Rather, we find ourselves at ground zero for the threats produced by climate change,” Frenk said. “We are both the producers and the beneficiaries of the knowledge on this topic, and we have both a sense of urgency about applying that knowledge to ourselves and also a driving sense of responsibility for helping to save the planet we all share.”

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Read student reaction to the symposium

Blog coverage of climate symposium scientific presentations

Climate Change Special Report

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The symposium is the first of what will be a series of climate-related symposia, according to Jeffrey Duerk, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “While this inaugural symposium focused on extreme weather, future themes will focus on other parts of the puzzle to provide a holistic picture of the impact of climate change,” he said.

Many of the scientific presentations held on the first two days of the summit focused on the risks posed by climate change, and at Friday’s public event, Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, laid bare some of the hard climate truths facing our planet. 

“We’re definitely going to get more rainfall from hurricanes—no question about it, the science is solid,” he said. “It’s also extremely likely that we’re going to see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes.”

Sea level rise is accelerating, he warned. “We need to think about what that means for us. How are we going to help our community endure in the face of that rising sea level?” said Kirtman, also noting that on the West Coast, half of all heat waves this decade will be caused by climate change.

In his brief remarks, Kirtman localized the climate emergency for the audience, telling them that warmer nights in Florida are steadily increasing. “And that has a profound effect on economically disadvantaged communities and a positive feedback on climate change,” he explained. “If you can’t open your windows at night to cool your house, you’re running your air conditioner 24/7.”

Some scientists argue that a global disaster is already upon us—and for good reason. Just recently, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2019 was the second-hottest year on record.

Responding to climate change, they say, will involve a two-prong approach: mitigation, reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and adaptation, learning to live with and adapting to the climate change that has already been set in motion.

But what role will science play in solving the problem?

“We scientists come up with the science, and we figure out solutions, and those get translated into practice. But that last part doesn’t always work that way,” Adam Sobel, Columbia University climate scientist  said in his keynote address.

Sobel, a professor of applied physics and applied mathematics and of earth and environmental sciences—who directs Columbia’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate—lamented the fact that politics has played a role in mitigation and adaptation practices.

He noted how Australians have vented their frustration with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and what they view as his ineffective response to the fires in their country and his reputation as a climate change skeptic.

Sobel also took aim at the United States, mentioning President Trump’s roll back of environmental rules and regulations and his promotion of the fossil fuel industry.

CNN’s Weir previewed his upcoming special, The Road to Change, which, he said, starts at ground zero for climate change—South Florida.

“We talk about climate change, and we go from the scary science to all these technological wonders, but we skip what is missing in the middle, which is the loss of life as we know it,” Weir said. “Even if we do everything needed to make that deep carbon cliff, that means every landscape will be covered in solar panels, every hillside in turbines. It’ll mean giant carbon-capture plantations. It’ll mean a new kind of concrete, a new kind of mining, a new kind of farming, different kinds of economies. Politics will change.”

Weir moderated a panel that included University of Miami researchers, local journalists, and government and public utility officials.

Is enough being done fast enough to address flooding, Weir asked James Murley, chief resiliency officer for Miami-Dade County.

“The real challenge is how to translate those 2040 or 2060 curves that talk about [sea level] inundation of six feet back into a society that’s dealing with real problems today,” said Murley. “We’re going to have to try different approaches. We’re working with a corps of engineers who are looking at how we protect ourselves from storm surge. We’re looking at different scenarios about the way the landscape might look if it’s faced with that kind of inundation.”

Michael Jarro, Florida Power & Light’s vice president of transmission and substation, said the power utility company has made significant investments to strengthen the grid and make sure it is resilient to storms. “We’re either responding to a storm or preparing for one—that’s our resiliency model,” he said.

Convincing people that climate change is real remains a challenge, said Steve MacLaughlin, NBC 6 (WTVJ) Miami meteorologist. “I think that for climate change around the country, most people don’t feel it until it happens to them,” he said. “I lived in Pittsburgh for some time, and there’s no real major effects from climate change in Pittsburgh. They don’t really see the day to day. But you come down to Florida, and everyone literally sees it with their eyes.”

Jenny Staletovich, WLRN environmental reporter, echoed MacLaughlin’s sentiments. “People tend to react to drama more quickly and more readily than they do to slow things like saltwater intrusion, which is not only slow but invisible,” she said. “As a journalist, our job is to connect the dots for people, make them pay attention to things that they might ignore like saltwater intrusion, like peat loss in the Everglades. That is a complicated and hard thing to convey to people, and it’s also difficult to convey the importance of that—that if you lose the center of these marshes that you tend to ignore a lot, it’s going to threaten your drinking supply.”

Kirtman called attention to some of the efforts underway at the Rosenstiel School to solve some of the mysteries of extreme weather events, most notably, why hurricanes intensify.

“We’ve been improving year over year with getting the track for hurricanes better. But the intensity has turned out to be a really tough nut to crack,” he said, noting that the school’s air-sea interaction tank, SUSTAIN, which generates hurricane-force conditions, could solve the problem.

“SUSTAIN is specifically designed to figure out how that exchange of heat and momentum between the atmosphere and the ocean determines the intensity of storms,” he said. “If we’re able to do the science right, we think we can solve that intensity problem. And it’ll help us understand why we’ll see more Category 4 and 5 storms.”

Public participation, said Katharine Mach, associate professor of marine ecosystems and society at the Rosenstiel School, can play a major role in climate change response. “This is not going to happen from one individual making a choice,” she explained. “It’s about whole societies coming together and changing rapidly, nonlinearly, in ways that we know societies can, but haven’t yet done for climate change.”