December 13th, 2011


Faculty Director, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University

Founder and CEO, The Climate Corporation

Professor of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo

Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton


The year 2011 has been marked by extreme weather. In the U.S. alone, a record dozen disasters caused more than $1 billion in damage. This, and the release last month of a special UN report on extreme weather, was the backdrop for a Climate One panel on December 13 featuring three leading climate scientists.

Panelist Chris Field, Professor of Environmental Earth Sciences, Stanford University, is Co-Chair of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) working group that produced the extreme weather report. He said the report reached three main conclusions: that extreme weather events – among them high temperatures, heavy precipitation, and droughts – are increasing; that losses are increasing; and that there’s a lot we can do about it: “smart things that don’t necessarily cost a lot that can be protective of assets and protective of lives.”

What the extreme weather events tell us, said Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University, is that “the climate is changing, and we have to learn how to deal with that." The good news, as Chris said, is that there are a lot of specific examples where we have been successful. We’re falling behind right now. But, at certain places, at certain times, people have done a very good job.”

He cited the example of heat wave deaths. Forty thousand people died in a heat wave in Europe, in 2003. A few years later, when a similar but smaller scale heat wave hit France, Oppenheimer recounted, the death rates were down by a factor of 100. “There are things we can do; we ought to be doing them now,” he said.

One area acutely threatened by climate change is food production, where decades of steady gains could be reversed. “Some areas are probably going to lose pretty soon; some areas may win for a while,” said Michael Oppenheimer. “We don’t have a global food supply – we have certain people in certain places that even today don’t get food. This is another pressure that will be added to a system which already sees people falling through the cracks.”

Chris Field noted that global food production has increased by a predictable 1% to 2% per year over the past 50 years. “It meant that on millions of acres we didn’t have to cut down forests. That food prices were going down for much of that period. It was really a remarkable accomplishment at the global scale,” he said.

But, he warned, “I see food security at the heart of a perfect storm. There’s climate change; there’s a population that continues to grow; there’s a big demand for an increase in the use of farmland for the production of biomass energy; and there’s also the dramatic increase in the preference of people around the world to have meat-based diets, which requires more cropland per person.”

“You put all those things together,” he said, “and we’re going to need to get every bit of yield increase we can get in the future.”

One proven hedge against this uncertainty is resiliency, said Karen O'Brien, Professor of Sociology and Human Geology, University of Oslo. “Resilience is about being able to handle change – being able to respond to change in way that doesn’t actually flip the system to whole different state of being. A lot of people think of resilience as going back to what it was before, but it’s also about being adaptive, being able to deal with these changes that are coming in a way that has a short- and long-term perspective.”

The reality of extreme weather is forcing impacted individuals – whatever their personal beliefs about climate change – to acknowledge that something is amiss. “What we hear a lot from farmers, for example, is that they don’t really think about climate change by reading headlines about climate change forecasts,” said David Friedberg, Founder and CEO, The Climate Corporation. His company sells what it calls Total Weather Insurance to farmers. “They think about climate change when they’ve had a significant loss two, three years in a row.”

“I think the psychology of risk and the psychology of loss is such that you don’t necessarily think about it unless it is something you can relate to, or there’s an experience you’ve had associated with it,” he said. But, he added, “I think we’re starting to see that as these extreme weather events impact global supply chains. It’s going to start to hit you, either at the supermarket or in your stock portfolio.”

Lest the audience leave dispirited, Karen O’Brien offered a parting thought: “It’s really important to recognize that there’s not one solution to climate change. It’s not an international protocol. It has to happen at all levels. Each of us as individuals has a circle of influence – we can do things. We are agents of change.”


– Justin Gerdes
December 13, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California