Above the Waterline: Teaching the Unavoidable – Climate Change

This fall, I am teaching again at Georgia Tech in the School of City and Regional Planning. For the past four years, since I retired, I have taught a class about water resources planning for graduate students in urban planning, public policy, and environmental engineering programs.

In this course, we explore how regions around the world, from ancient Rome to the present, have learned (or failed to learn) to deal with water supply and water pollution issues. We consider the roles of science, law, financial investment, public opinion and politics in the management of water resources: what has worked, what hasn’t, and what we can learn from the past. We discuss their future careers, as planners and engineers, and how they may choose to advise policy-makers on critical issues, such as population growth, diminishing water supplies, flooding and the loss of natural systems.

Increasingly, the thread that runs through all of my lectures – the thing that motivates me daily to find new ways to help prepare my students both personally and professionally for what lies ahead – is climate change.

I look at the twenty-something faces in front of me and know that they will have to deal directly with this existential issue during their lifetimes; these bright, engaged young people are moving into a different world and must get ready for it. As planners and engineers, they will at least have some of the tools necessary to help their communities face the challenges ahead. Importantly, they must learn to be adaptable, resilient, compassionate and hopeful.

They, and we all, must accept that the world as we’ve known it in our lifetimes is ending. Michael Stipe was exactly right thirty years ago with R.E.M.’s hit song, “It’s the end of the world, as we know it,” followed by the refrain, “and I feel fine.” Our path forward must be to acknowledge, accept and persist in envisioning a future without clinging to the failing familiar. Be not only best, but brave.

When I taught my first water class at Georgia Tech in 2015, I wondered if any of the students would challenge the information I presented on our changing climate and the need to move aggressively to mitigate (stop pouring fossil fuel combustion products into the atmosphere) and adapt (change how, even where, many of us live). Now, just a few years later, the mountain of evidence is so overwhelming that none of these insightful students can be climate deniers.

Last year, I talked with the students about Hurricane Harvey and its impact on Houston where local officials have permitted development in low-lying areas for decades. This semester, the headliners are Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the latter being the third most intense storm on record to make landfall in the U.S. A 14-foot storm surge swamped our Gulf coastline; image the destruction if that surge had been 8-15 feet higher, as some experts predict will be the case by the end of the century, if we don’t dramatically cut fossil fuel pollution. Some of my students, and most certainly their children, will live to see that day.

Recently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report arguing that we have little chance of maintaining a stable climate, if the world cannot get to zero carbon emissions by 2050. Even if the warmer target of the Paris Climate Agreement is met (temperatures increased no more than 3.6F), the IPCC believes that oceans will rise between one and three feet and that we could see serious food shortages by 2040, just two decades from now. A conservative, consensus-building group of international experts, the IPCC calls the global long-term temperature increase “unambiguous.”

Meanwhile, the President of the United States has new climate intuitions: “something” is happening and it is “not a hoax”; however it will “change back again.” Facts say otherwise; average global temperatures have moved in one direction – upward – since the Industrial Revolution. The President says that he worries about losing “millions and millions of jobs” and spending “trillions of dollars,” clearly unwilling to acknowledge the obvious: that the costs of adapting are less than the cost of doing business as usual – and the benefits are many times larger.

Claims have been made by the President and others that climate scientists have a “political agenda.” Certainly, this issue has become politicized, but as a scientist at Texas Tech said: “A thermometer isn’t Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote.”

On Nov. 6, voters across our country will reveal whether they want to base the future safety and prosperity of their children and grandchildren on rational observations and informed conclusions or on intuition and magical thinking. At Georgia Tech, I’m thankful to say, my observation is that rationality is always the winner. There is hope.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards.