Duke professor William Schlesinger discusses climate change

SUB Ballroom A was filled Thursday, Sept. 29, as community members and students alike gathered to listen to William Schlesinger, a professor at Duke University and a renowned biochemist, speak about his take on anthropogenic climate change. Schlesinger has been studying the links between environmental chemistry and global climate change for decades, having written and published over 200 scientific papers on this topic along with a popular textbook on biogeochemistry. He was president of the Ecological Society of America from 2003 – 2004 and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions as an expert witness on various environmental issues. He came to MSU as a part of the Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Series that is being put on by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems. His talk was entitled “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,”and highlighted what Schlesinger believes are the four greatest human threats to the planet.

His first major point, or first “horseman of the apocalypse,” in his words, was overpopulation. Schlesinger claims that there will soon be an unsustainable number of humans living on Earth. The current world population is approximately 7.5 billion and Schlesinger predicts the population to rise to 11 or 12 billion by 2050. As the population rises, there is a greater need for energy and resources which invariably leads to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the number one contributor to global warming. He pointed out that although the rate of population growth is decreasing, the population is still growing. However, he said the population will reach equilibrium soon.

Schlesinger acknowledged that with an increase of economic development there is a decrease in fertility. This is largely because as women become more educated and financially independent they have fewer children. However, to keep the current energy demand constant while increasing economic development, the decline in fertility would have to be much more than is possible worldwide. His proposed solution is an increase in public discourse, especially in politics, on issues that are traditionally taboo: family planning, preserving a woman’s right to choose and maintaining programs like Planned Parenthood. He wants to see an increase in education on family planning and the empowerment of women as a priority worldwide.

Schlesinger’s second major concern was the idea that economic growth is always a good thing. Often it is taught and widely considered that an economy is not successful unless it is growing. For an economy to be growing continuously, an unending process of production and consumption, which often has high energy and resource demands, must be maintained. Schlesinger would like to see that whole thought process reversed in favor of a steady state economy, saying, “We need to move to a mentality that enough is often quite adequate and that more is often quite harmful.” He also quoted Kenneth Boulding, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado, who is famous for saying, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Schlesinger concedes that humans are indeed increasing the size of the resource pie, growing more food than ever before; however, they are doing so with the use of nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels.

The third horseman Schlesinger addressed was greed both on the corporate and individual level. He emphasized the fact that corporate executives; who hold much of the power, wealth and say in a lot of countries; will perpetuate products that are dangerous to the environment and the public at large just to maintain profits. He advocated for the need for products and activities to be proven to be safe by businesses before they enter the market. The biggest suggestion Schlesinger had was inducing a carbon tax; that would tax carbon emissions on both the individual and businesses. This tax would provide an incentive to everyone to decrease emissions and look for alternatives such as clean energy. He concluded by saying, “The Stone Age didn’t end for a lack of stones, it ended because they found a better way to do things.” He claimed that is true for the fossil fuel age as well. It need not end because of a lack of fossil fuel resources, it can end because there is a more efficient and sustainable way to do things, and a carbon tax would speed this transition.

Schlesinger’s last horseman of the evening was that humans are usurping habitat from other species which is leading to a loss of species diversity. According to Schlesinger, one-third of the species on Earth are predicted to go extinct as a result of climate change. Although not all species are essential to life on Earth, it is hard to predict which species are essential before they go extinct. He compared it to removing the rivets from the wing of an airplane; there is no way of knowing beforehand which is the critical rivet that, when removed, will cause the plane to crash. He argued that conservation biology should move from preserving only the species that are useful to us or have an economic value to preserving species that are useful to all of the biosphere.

In summary, Schlesinger spoke about overpopulation, economic growth, greed and the loss of species diversity and habitat for species as the four human-driven forces leading to the demise of the human race and our planet. He did, however, propose many solutions: increasing family planning and the empowerment of women worldwide, reducing resource use and moving toward clean energy through a carbon tax and ensuring that products are safe for consumers and the environment before they ever reach the market.