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Students, experts discuss climate change on campus, regional, global scale

Brown community reflects on recent high temperatures, climate trends

With seven days of temperatures over 70 degrees Fahrenheit in Providence so far, this November has broken multiple high-temperature records, making it the warmest in Providence since the start of continuous weather data collection in 1904. According to experts, these unusually high temperatures are connected to climate change. 

“We’re seeing extremely warm temperatures for this time of year,” said Jason Doris, a meteorologist at NBC 10 WJAR. “Maybe this happens every so often, maybe it's a fluke thing. But this is the third time within the last 10 years that we’ve had this warm of a November.” 

“Warm weather in fall doesn’t feel like a tropical cyclone or something that seems like the end of the world is coming,” said Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “But both can be related to climate change.”

While weather — day-to-day temperatures and precipitation — does not itself amount to climate change, climate change impacts trends for weather statistics, making certain patterns in a region more or less likely. According to Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, the window for typical winter temperatures is “shortening” as warmer temperatures creep into the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall. 

Those 70-degree days from Nov. 2 to 12 were likely due to meandering west-east wind patterns, the frequency of which has likely increased on account of the 1.2 degrees Celsius warming since the pre-industrial period, Fox-Kemper said.

“It always stresses me out,” said Caroline Sassan ’24.“I feel like there's just this weird, underlying climate anxiety that really, I kind of always have. But it's especially bad when … the weather is like that.”

Sassan noted that although the warm weather makes her and others uneasy, she is aware of more pressing, destructive impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather and natural disasters. It's a “weird tension to hold,” she said. 

What does climate change mean for the East Coast? 

While warm weather in November might be pleasant, it is not the only impact of climate change seen by the East Coast in recent years. Beginning in late August, Providence experienced an intense drought, immediately followed by one of the wettest beginnings to autumn on record with “well above average” rainfall, according to Doris. 

These seemingly opposite weather extremes can be “confusing,” but make physical sense, according to Fox-Kemper. “Warm air can hold more moisture. So if it's warm and dry, it can drive a bigger drought,” he explained. “If it's warm and wet, it has more water in it to rain out. So the extremes in precipitation on both sides can tend to get accelerated by climate change.” 

The warmer-than-usual weather and more frequent extreme weather events are expected to continue into the winter, Doris added. Providence residents can expect warmer-than-average temperatures for the winter but also an “above average snowfall” due to bigger, more powerful storms that climate change has made more frequent. 

“It gets kind of tricky when you’re communicating about climate change … because people think, ‘Oh, a warm winter, no snow.’ Well, that’s not necessarily the case,” he said. 

“We get these humongous snowstorms now, here in southern New England,” he continued. “We very rarely get the small, one- to two-inch snowstorms that we used to get maybe 20, 30, 40 years ago.” 

Warmer winters and more intense summertime temperatures have stark implications for agricultural regions in terms of growing seasons, productivity and yields, according to Cobb. She also pointed to sea level rise as a particularly potent impact of climate change, due to low-lying coastal plains that make the East Coast “exceptionally vulnerable.” Sea levels are expected to rise about three feet — and as much as 10 feet — by the year 2100.

“When we talk about climate change impacts, that is certainly climate change impact number one for the Ocean State,” Cobb said. 

What climate initiatives are happening at Brown? 

Fox-Kemper pointed to the University’s investment in solar power, specific companies and sustainability on campus as examples of Brown’s climate-related action. That investment power is important to the “moral narrative of what a university does,” he said.

The University’s funding and investments have a “historical legacy” related to fossil fuel emissions, Fox-Kemper said. “Even if you might be spending (money) on something that's positive and looking towards a brighter future, if it also came along with massive emissions that are dirty … it's maybe not as clean of a story as you'd like it to be.” 

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Sassan said she thinks it is important for students to “keep their finger to the pulse” when it comes to the administration’s environmental initiatives. “We get to have these awesome professors … (in) IBES and all these really cool resources, but we have to ask where that funding is coming from,” she said.

The administration "has control over a lot of money,” she added. “Where that's placed … that matters. That's not neutral.”

Sassan, an environmental studies concentrator, said she sometimes finds herself asking if it might take years to be able to accomplish something “meaningful” with the content she’s learning in classes. She pointed to student initiatives on campus — the relaunched Sunrise chapter at Brown, anti-Koch initiatives and research opportunities — as ways to “be a part of something now.”

Beyond student activism, faculty members are taking active roles in the global conversation and research surrounding climate change. Fox-Kemper and Cobb were both authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, a UN report providing “regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks and options for adaptation and mitigation,” according to the IPCC website.

Fox-Kemper pointed to climate models to better understand and prepare for future impacts of climate change. He is currently involved in a project modeling sea ice in the Arctic. In the early 20th century, a series of nautical missions to reach the North Pole failed because they were crushed or blocked by sea ice, he added. 

Now, “it’d be easy to sail there,” Fox-Kemper said. “Even within our lifetimes, there might be no sea ice in the Arctic or not significant amounts in summertime. And that's a massive change.”

According to Cobb, IBES is currently developing an initiative called Equitable Climate Futures, which aims to connect more than 30 faculty members from across campus in order to develop and execute “the most ambitious kinds of research” in a “climate solution space,” she said. In particular, the initiative will emphasize justice-forward, equitable solutions to minimize risks for marginalized communities that often bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change. 

The initiative hopes to contribute to cross-disciplinary research around climate change and “cross boundaries” between academia and the private sector, policy and community organizations, she said.

If successfully funded, the proposed signature initiative would receive about $250,000 a year for three years and would “hopefully” attract external funding in the meantime, Cobb said. 

Local and global initiatives

Meteorologists, especially on TV, struggle to communicate the impacts of climate change. “You don’t want to be doom and gloom about it,” Doris said. To touch on the impacts of climate change, Channel 10 frequently compares current weather reports to historic patterns. The station is also working on implementing a weekly, five-minute segment breaking down current events in regard to climate, he added.

On a global scale, Brown students have attended programming and initiatives at the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change hosted in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt this year. At COP27, “countries come together to take action to (achieve) the world’s collective climate goals as agreed under the Paris Agreement and the Convention,” according to its website

The conferences are attended by government officials, negotiators and civil society representatives, including non-governmental organizations, businesses, think tanks and philanthropic organizations, said Vice President of Global Intelligence at ClimateWorks Foundation Surabi Menon, who attended COP27 as a representative of the non-profit organization. 

At the conference, countries announce certain initiatives or packages, which are then discussed at length among participants. Key issues this year include providing funding for loss and damage, limiting global warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase and preventing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest

The conference also includes a multitude of other presentations, said Madeline Canfield ’24, who attended the conference last week with Jewish Youth Climate Movement. But COP27 looked different than what Canfield had expected from watching it in past years, especially at the height of the youth climate movement. For one, there were few protests, in part due to constraints on free speech and assembly in Egypt.. 

"For some people, I think more of it's more cynical and practical, saying maybe it was a reflection of the desire to both sideline some of these more youth-focused or civilian programs (and) to diminish the quality of content that could be shared,” Canfield said. 

“This global conference, COP, does happen and should happen,” she said. “But largely, it isn’t so effective. People go as civilians, representatives of NGOs, sometimes companies (and) grassroots organizers to make connections, to amplify conversations. Then conversations are getting less amplified than maybe a couple of years ago.” 

Much of the programming Canfield and her organization expected to attend had been “removed from public access,” she said, and the group encountered multiple challenges attending conferences or events. 

Certain dynamics of the conference can be “frustrating” — delegates can discuss the language of agreements for days — but Menon emphasized the importance of global agreement and accountability.

“We're creating this body of (individuals in) civil society, data science … (and) advocacy to look at where we are in achieving our temperature goals … and how to translate those gaps into action through the political process,” Menon said. 

Climate change “is touching the lives of more and more people,” Cobb said. “More and more people are concerned about how they're going to stay safe, stay employed (and) thrive in a warming climate future. And they're not willing to sit back and watch nothing happen or very little happen.” 

People are “demanding more, and rightfully so,” Cobb said. “We don’t have time to waste.”



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