Physicist Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, gave a talk about climate change data and realities Thursday night at the Katharine Cornell Theater. Before a full house, Duffy, who came at the invitation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said the world is past the tipping point.
If the world had “instantaneously and completely stopped greenhouse emissions in 2010,” Duffy said, which he likened to turning off a spigot, data shows “the global temperature fails to drop significantly for at least 300 years.” In other words, Duffy said, “climate change doesn’t fix itself.” To this he added, “it doesn’t get better; it only gets worse.” Therefore, he said, “wait and see” policymaking is “not a good idea.”
The MVC held a meeting in the theater following Duffy’s talk. And after commissioners posed a few questions to Duffy, chairman Doug Sederholm read into the record a set of emergency climate resolutions.
The resolutions stated in part that the MVC would craft a “framework” for augmenting the development of regional impact process so as “to reduce the detrimental impacts of the climate crisis on the Island and to secure the benefits of policies designed to minimize those impacts — to the intent of protecting the Island values, its people, economy and environment…” The MVC would further resolve to support a nonbinding resolution put forth by Vineyard energy committees at annual town meetings to end Island fossil fuel use by 2040. Last, the MVC would resolve to draft a master plan to guide an adaptation process toward better resiliency on the Vineyard as the climate changes the Island.
The commissioners voted 13-0, with two abstentions, to adopt the resolutions. Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes was one of the two commissioners who declined to vote. Barnes did not seem unsold on climate change, however. He previously told Duffy one sign of climate change on the Vineyard was the lack of ice in Vineyard Haven Harbor in recent years. In the 1960s, Barnes noted, the harbor would freeze over completely. After the vote, Barnes said his abstention was due to the swiftness of the vote. He said he did not have time to review what the commission aimed to adopt before it adopted it. The other abstaining vote was was commissioner James Joyce. He did not publicly qualify his abstention. Reached the next day, Joyce said, as a commissioner appointed by the Edgartown board of selectmen, he prefers to check in with town officials and townspeople prior to committing to a position, and he didn’t have that opportunity ahead of the vote. “This was definitely rushed through,” he said.
During his presentation, Duffy pointed to the ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica. “Those ice sheets are more sensitive to warming than we thought,” he said. Should the global baseline temperature elevate two degrees, the Greenland ice sheet will be on an irreversible melting timetable. In such a scenario, “we will be committing our descendants to 20 to 25 feet of sea level rise,” he said.
Duffy noted that significant amounts of greenhouse gases are now seeping into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost in the Eurasian and North American Arctic. The latest information on the subject came in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration annual Arctic report card, which Duffy said was “in large part” based on work done by Woods Hole Research Group scientists. Duffy described the thaw of Arctic permafrost, and the methane and carbon dioxide released by it, as an “ominous threshold that we have crossed.”
Duffy later told The Times another danger from thawing permafrost is the release of frozen pathogens. Not so long ago, he said, anthrax was released that way in Russia, triggering an outbreak.
Climate change is definitely transforming hurricanes, Duffy told the audience — “all of the science of climate change points to stronger hurricanes.”
Data shows hurricanes of “high intensity” with “rapid intensification” as a new reality. And with such rapid intensification, he said, forecasting becomes more difficult, and as a result, “emergency response [becomes] more challenging than it already is.”
Hurricanes are anticipated to produce “more extreme precipitation,” he said, and “these hurricanes have a tendency to stall” or “almost stop,” which he described as “enormously consequential.” He cited Hurricane Harvey, which did so and inundated Houston with rain.
Extreme heat in parts of the world will make outside work perilous and largely undoable, he pointed out, with India being the poster child for such high temperatures.
Duffy used a bathtub model to show what the carbon situation looked like. While there was no stopping the warming trend now that it’s passed the point it has, he said, the global community can take efforts not to exacerbate it, and essentially shut off the tub spigot. The global community can also make efforts to remove carbon, and essentially drain the tub, he said.
“Really drastic reductions in emissions,” he said, starting immediately, would lead to negative emissions by about 2050; however, the only truly viable technology on the table presently to remove carbon was land management, specifically of forests, wetlands, and agriculture.
“In theory, if you do that, you can remove an awful lot of carbon,” he said, but it would take “an awful lot of work by an awful lot of people,” he said, plus “the commitment of land for that purpose. It means you have to preserve large areas of standing forest. It means you have to convince most of the 2 billion people in the world who practice agriculture to do it in a way that pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So it’s a challenge.”
Duffy said there are carbon-removing devices, which he referred to as vacuum cleaners, but he described them as “expensive” and dependent on “a lot of energy,” and not proven to work at the scale needed to be impactful.