Campus & Community

Climate choices: Grim and grimmer

2 min read

'We're fated to have climate change no matter what we do'

Climate change from burning fossil fuels is probably already unavoidable, but it is still up to humans to decide just how bad it will be, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Daniel Schrag said Thursday (Sept. 29) in a talk on global warming that kicked off a new exhibit on the subject at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH).
“We’re fated to have climate change, no matter what we do,” Schrag said. “We’re going to have climate change. We’re going to have a lot of climate change. The question is whether we’re going to have catastrophic climate change.”

Schrag, who directs the Center for the Environment, said conservation, increasing energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy sources, and capture of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels could stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide by 2100 at a level higher than today’s but at half what the worst-case scenario would produce.

Schrag’s talk paralleled the new exhibit, “Climate Change: Our Global Experiment,” which was developed in conjunction with the Harvard Center for the Environment. The exhibit opened Oct. 1 and highlights the work of Schrag and other scientists on the topic.

“A key element of our mission is to present current science on issues of importance,” said HMNH Executive Director Elizabeth Werby in introducing Schrag. “It [the exhibit] is incredibly timely and incredibly urgent.”

Schrag drew on the lessons offered by Venus’ hot atmosphere, Mars’ cold one, and Earth’s own past of fire and ice to illustrate how atmospheric carbon dioxide has affected planetary temperatures.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts much like the glass in a greenhouse, letting the sun’s rays in and preventing their energy, in the form of heat, from radiating back out into space.