President's Blog

Sustainability and resilience at George Mason University

Scientists have been telling us for years that atmospheric CO2 and other gases derived in part from combustion of fossil fuels and other industrial processes were reaching concentrations unseen in human history. These cumulative emissions are believed to be driving a gradual increase of average land, ocean and atmosphere temperatures, a disturbance of statistical weather patterns, a disruption of ecosystems and reduction of biodiversity, an accelerating melting of polar icecaps, and an increase in sea levels.

Some of these changes are mutually reinforcing, often in complex, non-linear ways, which makes forecasting a particularly difficult endeavor.  Predictions of how these trends will affect us are imprecise–and at times contradictory–but include the possibility of  changes in the availability of fresh water, the redrawing of densely populated coastlines, the increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters and the geographic expansion of certain infectious diseases.

Yet the emission of greenhouse gases that is threatening our current standard of living is the direct consequence of the technological advances that have allowed many of us to enjoy unprecedented levels of prosperity.  It shouldn’t surprise us that scientists’ admonitions have been received in some cases with indifference, lukewarm skepticism, denial or, even outright hostility.  The threats posed by climate change appear uncertain, broadly shared and long-term, while the costs of curbing emissions are painfully real, immediate and personal. And, while rich countries point the finger at the rapidly growing emissions in the less developed countries, the question that looms in the less developed world is why those who contributed the least to the problem should bear the cost of dealing with it.

We are thus trapped in a tragedy of the commons of global proportions, where the immediate self-interest of each individual, group or nation is at odds with the collective, long-term interest of all.  National political processes and international governance mechanisms have repeatedly failed not for a lack of rationality but for an excess of it.  While emissions have gone down slowly in a few countries, a host of cultural, historical and political differences that cut across inter- and intra-national boundaries make it safe to bet against sufficient action happening to stabilize the climate system any time soon. Meanwhile nature maintains its course and keeps changing the parameters of the problem.

Climate change is the poster child of what has been referred to as “wicked problems”. Problems are wicked when they are hard to define and isolate, when their underlying causes and effects are complex and evolving, when different stakeholders are affected by them differently, when there’s no consensus as to what would constitute a solution, and when the information and resources needed to reach a solution are held by different individual and groups who may have difficulty communicating and collaborating.

As a university that has declared its commitment to producing research of consequence and contribute to find solutions to some of the most pressing (read wicked) problems of our time, we have our work cut out for us.  On the positive side, our resources in the disciplines that are relevant to tacking climate change are nothing but impressive. Here’s a sample:

  • Prof. Jagadish Shukla, a lead author in the IPCC that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, and his colleagues at the Center for Oceanic-Land-Atmosphere Studies have developed unique tools to understand short and long-term climate fluctuations.
  • Prof. Thomas Lovejoy, the award-winning conservation biologist who coined the term biological diversity in 1980, has spent most of his scientific career documenting biological decay due to ecosystem fragmentation, deforestation and climate change.
  • Philosopher Andrew Light, currently advising the U.S. Secretary of State on international climate change negotiations,  has written extensively on the moral implications of policy and market-based solutions to climate change.
  • Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and its director Prof. Ed Maibach produce with Yale University some of the best data we have about Americans’ attitudes towards climate change.  The Center’s most recent addition, former conservative Congressman Bob Inglis, is leading a campaign promoting free-enterprise solutions to climate change.
  • Arison Prof. Gregory Unruh, who created the concept of carbon lock-in, has worked for years in trying to change the mindsets and skill sets of business leaders to try to drive environmentally-friendly business practices.

The list of academics, just at Mason, who are experts in one aspect or another of climate change is much longer.  Yet for all the impressive talent that we have, we suffer from some of the same limitations to address this most wicked problem: we are tackling this from mostly disconnected, narrow disciplinary lenses.  Each of the individuals listed above (and many of the ones I skipped) know painfully well how hard it is to reach across ideological, cultural and disciplinary divides to drive action.  They have the scars to show for trying.  But they have successes under their belt too.

Our challenge is now is to try to bring this impressive talent together in a way that can help define and address some of the most pressing challenges of climate change.  We need to figure out how to best train new creative problem solvers who can experiment with new approaches.  We need to come up with transdisciplinary approaches to understanding the geophysical, biological, economic and social implications of climate change.  We need to find new ways for our science to serve society, helping governments, businesses and the civil sector make informed decisions about matters of utmost importance.

And we need to find the right external partners who can expand our capabilities.

This is exactly the goal of our new interdisciplinary institute: The Institute for a Sustainable Earth.