Climate expert to Vail Valley leaders: ‘Nowhere close to the new normal’

Dr. Robert Davies says solving climate change is a political and cultural problem more than a scientific one

Dr. Robert Davies, a professor at Utah State University, addresses a packed house Wednesday night at Battle Mountain High School.
Paul Abling | Special to the Daily

EDWARDS — The only rational response to the greatest threat to mankind is a radical one.

That was the message delivered Wednesday night by Dr. Robert Davies, a renowned physicist and climate science expert, to a packed auditorium of more than 400 attendees at Battle Mountain High School. Davies’ lecture, “Getting to Zero: From Radical to Rational,” was hosted by the Climate Action Collaborative and attended by elected officials from Vail, Avon and Eagle County as well as local Vail Resorts mountain executives and other community leaders.

“The bad news is that we’re not even close to meeting these challenges,” Davies said during a sobering hour-plus monologue. “The good news is that we haven’t even tried. We’re going to have to figure it out.”

‘This isn’t alarmist’

What will the Vail Valley and the world look like at the turn of the next century? It’s a terrifying sight if we, as humans, continue on our current pace of carbon dioxide emissions, Davies said.

Picture local winters with no snow, just rain. Imagine hotter temperatures, food and water shortages. Picture 2 meters of sea-level rise globally, complete extinction of coral reefs and as many as 200 million humans displaced from coastlines and 600 million more annually flooded. Envision global political chaos.

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“This is why the U.S. defense department views global climate change as the single largest security threat our nation faces,” Davies said.

 The only words to describe such conditions are catastrophic, un-adaptable and irreversible. It’s enough to make anyone despair, but Davies plainly stated that climate scientists around the globe aren’t projecting doomsday scenarios to make headlines.

“We’re nowhere close to the new normal,” he said. “This isn’t politics, this is just physics. This isn’t alarmist. The information is alarming … Humans are very adaptable, but we’re very finely tuned to the climate we have and where we get our food and water, how we move around … Once we cross thresholds and tipping points, the planet will be a dramatically different place, and once you cross, the likelihood that you can return to the place in which human civilization is very highly tuned is essentially zero. The chances of going back become dramatically reduced.”

He added: “When you don’t know where the edge is, you want to stop before you get there if the consequences are big.”

A cultural problem

For more than a decade, Davies has been recognized in critical science outlets for his work on global climate change and sustainable human systems, and he has delivered hundreds of public lectures during that time.

While his talk Wednesday was heavy on climate science, and the overwhelming scientific consensus about the increasingly alarming effects of global climate change, he sprinkled in asides on history to put into context the response required to save the planet.

More than anything, Davies said global climate change is a cultural and political problem to solve — and that there’s a role for every single human to play. There’s also no time to wait.

“We’ve got to find a mindset where we can move forward in response to the problem,” he said. “Our job is to take the next step with the mindset of an emergency. In an emergency you don’t hope you get out, you just get out … We have no time to fix climate change. The next decade is the most important any of us will ever live through.”

To use a very simple metaphor, he likened climate scientists to the engineer on board the Titanic who knew the ship was doomed when he saw that five compartments had flooded while the rest of the crew thought that the iceberg had only delivered a glancing blow.

“Yes, it’s extremist, but it needs to be,” he said. “We’re clearly nowhere near the response it requires, according to the physics.”

Viable solutions

To solve the problem, Davies said the framing of the problem has to be a mindset of resolve on a global scale.

“You resolve to do something and then you figure out how to do it,” he said.

He then provided historical precedents for meeting such a challenge. He spoke of the Apollo 13 engineers who figured out a way to get the astronauts back safely to Earth against impossible odds, or Winston Churchill rallying Great Britain when surrender and Nazi occupation was all but assured during World War II.

Among other things, he said nobody would think that U.S. automakers shutting down the production of new cars would be a viable solution, nor would grounding all domestic flights. And yet, the United States has done both things before. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress banned the production of new autos and pushed automakers to make tanks for the war effort in the fall of 1941 and we grounded all flights in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“What is radical is knowing and not responding,” he said. “It’s got to take us out of our comfort zone, plugging ourselves into efforts that change whole systems.”

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