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Notre Dame professor discusses climate change

Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 03:02


Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

Debra Javeline, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, spoke yesterday afternoon on the urgency with which social and political scientists should study responses to global warming impacts. 

The talk, titled “The Most Important Topic Political Scientists are Not Studying: Adapting to Climate Change,” was sponsored by Pi Sigma Alpha, the Tufts Political Science Honor Society, according to the website for the Department of Political Science. Javeline spoke primarily about why and how adaptation is as significant as mitigation when it comes to the climate crisis, and how political scientists can act as valuable contributors in those efforts.

“My goal is to offer you an information shortcut to understanding climate change and this concept of adapting to climate change, and to convince you that that is a social science topic,” she said. “I want to convince you that the topic is urgent and maybe you personally can make a contribution.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Oxana Shevel brought Javeline to Tufts, Pi Sigma Alpha president Caroline Sherrard, a senior, said. Javeline was going on a Boston-area speaking circuit, talking earlier in the day at Harvard, where she received her Ph.D, and heading to Boston University in the afternoon, according to Sherrard.

Javeline said that her talk was non-traditional because political scientists do not typically discuss climate change. She explained that she wanted the audience to ultimately consider how they could link themselves personally to the topic at hand. 

“I want the political scientists in the room to be thinking the entire time about your own research and your own expertise,” she said. “I want you to embrace your inner narcissism and to think about how this topic of climate adaptation could relate to you in your scholarship and your studies.”

Javeline started off the talk by providing a “Climate Change 101” to communicate the severity of the situation.

“It’s a game changer for everything in the human experience,” she said. “And that’s not an exaggeration.”

In 2014, climate change experts will have to decide how much time they will spend on climate change deniers who are misrepresenting scientific knowledge that is proven as fact, Javeline said. 

“The climate has changed and the climate is changing,” she said. “Notice the verb tense I’m using. One reason to emphasize impacts is to hit home to you that this is our climate reality.”

Javeline described the negative effects that climate change is having in the world, including droughts, loss in soil moisture, severe flooding, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and contaminated water.

“What is mind boggling to me is that it does not take all that much warming to have devastating effects,” she said. “No region on Earth is spared. This is the single most urgent issue we face.”

Javeline said that in the last century, the sea level already has risen 15-20 centimeters. If conditions continue on their current path, we will see coastal areas like Bangladesh and New Orleans underwater in the near future, according to Javeline.

Rising temperatures are also responsible for wildfires, intense mold problems, insect migrations, biodiversity loss, coral bleaching and damage to infrastructures including railroads and asphalt, Javeline said.

“This is insanity,” she said. “If this doesn’t bring out the truck driver language in all of us, I don’t know what will.”

Javeline also explained the difference between mitigation and adaptation, adding that adaptation, which was previously seen as a defeatist strategy, is now essential.

“Greenhouse gases emitted already have committed the planet to warming,” Javeline said. “The world must adapt. We are in this ‘we have no choice’ phase.”

Most, if not all, of the adaptation strategies, such as controlling forest burning to prevent wildfires, urban farming and the relocation of coastal communities, are controversial and costly, but the costs of not adapting to climate change are far higher, Javeline said.

According to Javeline, there is a familiar national narrative that pits Republicans, as climate change deniers, against Democrats who seek climate change action. She added that this might not be the case when it comes to protecting regions from the high risks of further warming.

“There’s a very different partisan dynamic when it comes to adaptation than when it comes to mitigation,” she said. 

Javeline concluded the talk by explaining that there are two hypotheses that explain why people may not feel the sense of urgency that they should in the current crisis: a finite capacity for worry and the concept of “well-informed futility,” that people become overwhelmed when they receive too much demoralizing information at once.

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