Air date: Jan. 24, 2016
UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz talks about climate change and previews the UA’s Spring Lecture Series, Earth Transformed. Then Kacey Ernst, a UA associate professor of public health, joins me to talk about how climate change will impact human health, particularly when it comes to us here in the Southwestern United States.
The Spring Lecture Series kicks off Monday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. at UA Centennial Hall, with UA geosciences professor talking about the impact of climate change on the oceans. It’s free. Find more details here.
Here’s a transcript of the show:
(Nintzel) Hello, everyone. I’m Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel and we’re here to talk Zona Politics. Today, we’re taking a break from the usual political debates to lay a little science on you. Every year, the UA College of Science presents a spring lecture series and this year, the six lectures will focus on climate change Joining me today to talk about the upcoming lectures is Joaquin Ruiz, the dean of the UA College of Science. Dean Ruiz, welcome to Zona Politics.
(Ruiz) Thank you for having me.
(Nintzel) So, you’ve been packing people into Centennial Hall lectures for several years, now. This year’s theme is climate change. You’re calling it “Earth Transformed.” It begins on Monday, Jan. 25. Why did you pick this topic?
(Ruiz) We’ve been doing these lecture series 11 years. Ten years ago we did it on global climate change. So much has happened that we thought it was important to bring it for a tenth anniversary of what we said ten years ago, and bring it and really to show how the earth has really been transformed by us. Ten years ago we were still debating it. Now we know.
(Nintzel) And, bottom line, how badly have we screwed up this planet?
(Ruiz) Well, I’ll give you just a few numbers. When I was getting my PhD. in 1982, the pH of the ocean was 8.3. The pH of the ocean, now, is 8.1. Now it sounds like a minor number but these are logarithmic units, so we changed the ocean chemistry significantly because of the CO2 in the atmosphere, and that has consequences to the corals and what not. And of course we also know that the climate is changing sea-level, we know that places are getting warmer. In the end, the hammer of global climate change is water, and our variation of climate and all of that we’re seeing now in spades.
(Nintzel) And there’s a lot of political debate in this country over whether climate change is happening, or whether humans are contributing to climate change, but there’s not too much debate within the scientific community on this topic. What do you make of these arguments that critics have said the measurements are all wrong or even that it’s just a massive hoax?
(Ruiz) Well, I mean, it is now clear the general consensus, and that is really the general consensus of the scientific community is that the climate has been changing. We have all the measurements we need for that. It correlates beautifully with humankind and the industrial revolution and so on. And we also have chemical fingerprints to show where the carbon from the CO2 is coming. So we have everything we need as scientists to clearly show that we are the culprits for this one, for this particular change. People like to use the fact that the Earth is variable, and at some point or another, and I could go into details of geology, the Earth has been a snow ball. It was completely frozen a few times in its history. It’s been way warmer than it is now, when the dinosaurs were milling around, it was way hotter than it is now. It always correlates with CO2. In those times, the CO2, when there were no humans, the CO2 was burps from the ocean or volcanic emanations. There are all kinds of ways that we can actually even show what it was, but now we’re clear that it’s humankind, and in the end we need to do something to reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. The sad thing about it is that there’s a social justice component to global climate change, because we’re not a people really getting dinged by the climate change, but people who are farmers in poorer parts of the world will notice they don’t have any water, and in other places where farms are being completely damaged because of floods like they’ve never seen in the history of floods, and that is a shame.
(Nintzel) Can you explain to a casual viewer why releasing the carbon into the atmosphere results in a higher temperature?
(Ruiz) Right. Interestingly enough, the way that CO2 operates in the atmosphere has been understood and known by chemists. Arrhenius, in fact, was the first one that did the experiments in the 1900s. This was known how to operate even before there were climate change was even a term. And what happens is a radiation is trapped by CO2 and that energy that is trapped by the radiation trap is emitted as heat. So it has a multiplier effect, and that’s why small amounts of CO2 can make such a large difference. So we sort of goofed as scientists by even using in my opinion, the term “greenhouse gases.” And trying to argue that the earth is sort of like a greenhouse and that the heat comes in and can’t escape. It’s way worse than that. It’s that radiation comes in, gets trapped by the CO2 and the fuel to emit heat. So that is not exactly like a greenhouse. It’s like a multiplier, right? That’s exactly how it works. So, that’s been understood for a long time. And then we’ve been doing experiments for a long time showing its consequences. Interestingly enough, and I say this because we now own the Biosphere, but the Biosphere in the ’90s did something incredibly elegant in seeing what the ocean in the Biosphere would do as you increased CO2. And as you increase CO2 in the Biosphere to 400 parts per million CO2, which is what we have on the earth today, the ocean in the biosphere acidified, the corals died, and there are some very important papers predicting what was going to happen, exactly what’s going on today.
(Nintzel) Let’s talk about your speakers. You start tomorrow night with Joellen Russell talking about the ocean’s role, actually, in the climate. So what are folks going to learn now?
(Ruiz) Sure. So let me just sort of tell you about the whole thing. We have a we have speakers that are going to address, one, the ocean; two, the atmosphere and food safety and security; three, the biosphere, ecosystems, then we’re going to get into health: What is it that global climate change changed health patterns? Then we’re going to go into what can we do about it, so there’s going to be an engineer discussing clean energy and carbon sequestration. And the last speaker will try to put it all together for the public to summarize. Now, the oceans, going back to your question — we don’t pay enough attention to the oceans as lay people, but in the end, the oceans are the thing that mostly controls global climate change. It’s the biggest sink of heat. It’s the biggest sink of CO2. it really drives how much CO2 is going to be in the atmosphere, and it also drives, because of the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere, weather. So the oceans are hugely important, and now we’re all running around trying to understand precisely how the oceans are operating.
(Nintzel) And there’s danger that the ecosystem in it is ….
(Ruiz) That’s exactly right.
(Nintzel) And then you’re going to have David Batista, who’s the professor of atmospheric science up at the University of Washington, talking about the global food security issue. What is the concern there?
(Ruiz) Well the concern is …. Food safety and security is an enormous problem right now for two reasons. One of them is that, simply, the population has grown very quickly. But the other is that, because of global climate change, places that were the breadbaskets of the world are shifting. That’s one variation. And the other variation is that places where the livelihood of third and fourth world countries are actually disappearing. So, the danger of letting … a lot of migration already has happened because people have to leave where they leave because they can’t produce any food. That’s part of food safety and security. And the other part of food safety and security is whether we actually will have enough protein, for example, as population grows. Again, part of that has to do with just numbers, but the other one is the niches where these things are growing and changing.
(Nintzel) There’s a lot of concern about whether we’re going to be able to feed people and then they can’t eat where they’re going to go and how that affects the geopolitical issues around the world.
(Ruiz) That’s right.
(Nintzel) That’s the idea of the college of engineering is going to talk about Carbon sequestration?
(Ruiz) That’s the idea That’s the idea of trapping some of this carbon so it doesn’t escape from the atmosphere. Think about what’s happening today. We’re all busily, and the Paris talks are all about that, trying to reduce the amount of fossil fuel, fossil gasses into the atmosphere. And they do that by making more efficient cars. They do that by making it more efficient ways of producing energy. Right now broadly speaking, half of the emissions, the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from vehicles worldwide, and half of it comes from power plants. So, at least we know the two inmembers kind of thing. So, one, we need to produce cars that are electric or hybrid, whatever you want to call it, that are way more efficient and we also need to produce our electricity in ways that are more environmentally friendly. So we need to more away from coal, which is the worst polluter to even gas, which is much better, so the amount of carbon dioxide or monoxide that is produced by a gas turbine is better than out of a coal factory and she’s going to talk about that. She’s going to talk a lot about “How do you actually produce cleaner energy?” But, the other question is we already have all this CO2 in the atmosphere, and then there would be ways that we can actually take it away from the atmosphere, engineer it out of the atmosphere and put it into making rocks out of it or make plants out of it. That’s called sequestration. That would help us a whole lot, because man is going to take a long time to build another fuel, too.
(Nintzel) And you’ve got Russell Monson from the tree-ring lab talking about how the trends in land use have exposed vulnerabilities in the ecosystem. First of all, for those who are not aware, what is the tree-ring lab? And, secondly, what is Dr. Monson talking about?
(Ruiz) So the tree-ring lab is an invention of the UA. It’s a very important discipline in which trees and using the rings in the trees tell us things about chronology so we can talk about when the pueblo ruins weren’t ruins when they were actually working, all the way to global climate change and past climate. So, the tree ring was — just a little aside, here, — was invented actually by an astronomer at the UA trying to understand how the sun influenced climate. So, even then, he was the first department head of astronomy, a guy named Douglass of course it doesn’t work so simply to tell us how the sun forces a climate on the earth, and he was able to produce this geochronological tool. But, the very, some of the most important papers that have come out pointing to global climate change, early on, there’s a very famous graph called the hockey-stick graph which shows how the temperature of the earth was sort of constant for millennia and then all of a sudden started climbing after the industrial revolution. That was done in the work in the tree-ring lab. And what Monson’s going to talk about is how ecosystems have been affected by global climate change. So the great piñon die-out of a few years ago throughout the west, that’s related to global climate change for sure, and he is going to describe, then, what are the dangers of some of the most important ecosystems that we have, like the Amazon, to global climate change.
(Nintzel) What’s going on in the Amazon right now?
(Ruiz) Well, it’s taking a beating, because the Amazon, interestingly enough is one of those places that is sort of drying out. So global climate change there is its effect there is dry-out, not a lot of rain. So of course then, the reaction to, from that ecosystem is not a good one. Now there are other issues that are affecting the Amazon—land use change is a big deal. Even putting a road through the Amazon is a big problem because the Amazon gets these edge effects. And what that means is that, if you put a road through the Amazon, more light and more wind will get through the middle of the Amazon, and that change is doesn’t affect more deeply, it’s just been divided.
(Nintzel) You’re going to You’re going to wrap up with Jonathan Overpeck, who’s going to be talking about what Arizona can do to prepare for climate change. He’s been one of those leading researchers on climate change for many years.
(Ruiz) That’s right. So we’re very lucky that Peck, and now, Pachumbri (phon) is part of our team, and what he is going to talk about is that Arizona, the model of global climate change show that Arizona’s the bull’s eye of the U.S. It’s going to get hotter and drier as we move on We already are in a drought. This year we’re getting a lot of rain because of El Niño, which, again this is the largest El Niño in history and probably also related to global climate change, although Rosen has made it a fact. Those are indeed the main impacts, but the fact is, now it’s raining because of El Niño, and that’s helping California and us, but we’re in the long trend of a drought. That is not going to change and how we’re going to have to deal with it.
(Nintzel) And we also have Dr. Kacey Ernst who is actually on the program next and she’s going to be talking about the issues regarding disease and public health.
(Ruiz) And that’s a very important project.
(Nintzel) So What can we do to prepare for climate change here in the Southern United States?
(Ruiz) Well, I think that we’re going to have to be even smarter about how we use water and where water is coming from. That’s going to be fundamentally the biggest issue. We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with cleaner energy. Fortunately for us, we have a sun, and it’s one of the parts of the world that has the highest sort of radiation, so we’re lucky— we could actually just run the solar …. we could run the energy for the whole country, if there were a way of transmitting the electricity. We need to have technology with which we store it, and which we produce it cleaner. But I think Peck is mostly going to talk mostly about our border issues.
(Nintzel) So for climate change here in the Southwestern United States?
(Ruiz) Well, I said the hammer for global climate change is water. So we’re going to have to deal with changes in the power of the rain which are going to change our ecosystems. We’re going to have to deal with the fact that the Colorado River is probably going to dry out. It’s all about water. So, we have some time for that. Now, of course, one of the things we must do, is we must find ways to efficiently use electricity so that we don’t keep polluting the fuel, too, but it’s going to be warm, yes.
(Nintzel) Why do you think this area has been so popular the Tucson community?
(Ruiz) Well, we live in a — I’m not a sociologist and I wish I really understood what has been created here, but I am so proud of the community we live in. The first lecture series we had which was on evolution, the first lecture was in the Center for Creative Photography where we had 250 seats, I was more worried that people would show up with placards outside against or for. None of that happened, and we had 500 people show up for the actual first lecture, and since then it’s just been history.
(Nintzel) And if you can’t get to the series, you will be live-streaming with Arizona Public Media and posting videos on YouTube afterwards.
(Ruiz) That’s right. So we have a podcast for all the lectures of the past, so you can go there and some of the earlier ones were sort of funky, but then they, it’s almost like TED talks. And if you can’t come and join us in the excitement of Centennial Hall, you certainly can watch it at home because it’s being streamed live. And, folks can find out more about the lecture series at uofascience.org.
(Nintzel) Okay, as long as we have you here, what’s going on out at the Biosphere?
(Ruiz) 25th anniversary of the Biosphere, and regardless of what people may or may not think of the Biosphere, it’s an amazing structure. It’s the biggest apparatus to study our environment and we’re going to be celebrating that. And the biggest celebration this year is going to be in May, where we’re going to have One Young World. It’s an organization that connects 18 to 30 year-old leaders and the environment worldwide and they’re coming to our community for a meeting.
(Nintzel) That’s going to be amazing. Thank you for all you do over at the College of Science. Thank you for joining us here today on Zona Politics.
(Ruiz) Thank you very much for having me.
(Nintzel) And we will be right back with Dr. Kacey Ernst to talk about some of the health impacts of climate change. Stay tuned, and we’ll be right back.
(Nintzel) Welcome back to Zona Politics. We’re here now with Dr. Kacey Ernst, associate professor of public health at the UA who’s going to be talking about the health impact of climate change on February 22 as part of the UA College of Science Spring Lecture series. Dr. Ernst, welcome to Zona Politics.
(Ernst) Thank you very much for having me here.
(Nintzel) Your work has been studying how climate change may impact human health from a global standpoint. What are some of the impacts you have been seeing based on the climate change?
(Ernst) You know climate change is one of those exposures that’s going to affect everybody globally. There’s nobody who can escape the effects of climate change, really. And some of the things that we will see are increasing food insecurity, increasing food and water insecurity. And those are all sort of fundamental building blocks to people’s health. If you don’t have enough good nutrition, if you don’t have access to clean water, that can really affect your health status. But then, things that are a little more indirect like increasing range of vectors that transmit infections. A vector would be things like a mosquito or a tick. They may be expanding their range and putting people at risk that weren’t at risk before. Also there’s the direct impact of increasing extreme weather events. As you have more flooding events If you have other things like extreme heat events, those also have direct health impacts on individuals.
(Nintzel) And in your talk on Feb. 22, you’ll be focusing on the impact in the Southwest United States and we talked a little bit before about modeling and much depends on what happens in terms of reducing carbon emissions but can you talk a little bit about best-case scenarios vs. worst-case scenarios?
(Ernst) Sure. I think what we know, now, is that it is going to get hotter. Here in this region it is going to get drier, and then the precipitation events are going to be a little more extreme, so when we do get a rainfall, we will get a more sort of heavier rainfall, and so this coupling of less water but more extreme water events in addition to higher extreme heat, those are some of the climatic things that we will be facing. In terms of the spectrum of what the range could be, the impact—if you look at 2080 scenarios and you look at the best vs. worst-case scenarios it could be ranging from a nine-degree Fahrenheit increase within the timespan, or it could be half of that. It could be four or five degrees. It really depends on what we do now to decrease those CO2 emissions, to try and minimize the effects, the warming effects, because we’re already getting warm. It’s happening every year. It’s getting warmer. It just depends upon can we slow that route down. decrease those CO2 emissions, to try and minimize the effect, the warming effect, because we’re already getting warmer It’s happening every year it’s getting warmer. It just depends upon can we slow that rate down.
(Nintzel) Talk about some of the impacts that increase increased heat has on human health.
(Ernst) So if it’s a really hot day, I’m sure everyone has experienced that. We live in a hot climate already and, you know, one of the things that can happen, is if you are directly exposed it can exacerbate health problems that you already have. So people who have cardiovascular disease, are more likely to have a cardiac event when it’s extremely hot. Individuals who are out working in the sun may have a heat stroke, so there are those real, direct impacts that can occur. Also when you have drought you have a higher risk of wildfire, and when you have wildfires, that influences the air quality, and if the air quality is poor, that can trigger asthma attacks in people and other health effects.
(Nintzel) And, of course a lot of retirees here in Arizona, the heat’s tough on them.
(Ernst) That’s exactly right, so you know, the most vulnerable people would be young children people who have chronic health conditions. The elderly populations are all at higher risk.
(Nintzel) One important element of this is your work with mosquitos and the risk of Dengue fever, and what do we have to worry about?
(Ernst) You know we have Aedes aegypti mosquitos. The Aedes aegypti mosquito was recognized again. It was here, historically for many decades, but then there was a huge sort of campaign throughout Latin America to eliminate the mosquitos but it resurged, and in 1998, we first recognized sort of that re-establishment of Aedes aegypti here.
(Nintzel) I have been wondering “Why are these darn mosquitos back?” It seems like they weren’t here when I was younger.
(Ernst) Right. I think it’s multiple factors One aspect may be climate change, but there’s also, we have a much higher mobility of our population. This mosquito can get introduced when you bring in imported gifts. Imported tires. Lucky bamboo has introduced Aedes species into California. So, there are many reasons that it can be introduced, but one of the things that is really sort of unique about Aedes aegypti is that they really love people. They like to be in domestic environments. So If you have a lot of containers in your back yard, these are container breeders. Flower pots the plates that you put under a flower pot if you don’t drain it regularly they can lay their eggs right in that little basin of water underneath your flower pot and go through their life cycle until they become an adult right in that area and so, any time you have increased plastic containers or things like that in your back yard, it’s going to really increase their habitat
(Nintzel) How long do some of these mosquitos live? That’s something that’s always puzzled me. They have their season, but how long do the individual ….
(Ernst) That’s actually a really good question. The average mosquito I would say lives about three weeks, give or take. It really depends on climate conditions. If it gets really hot, it actually decreases their survival, but they’re very adaptable mosquitos, and they, just like people, will find those little niches and microclimates, as we call them, that are cool and more moist and then they sort of hunker down and survive longer
(Nintzel) And what are some of the steps we can take to reduce these risks?
(Ernst) Well, you know, one public health message that I would love to see get our there is that people will make it a habit to use mosquito repellant as often as they do sunscreen here in this area. You know a lot of people when we surveyed them in Tucson don’t like to use the repellant, but there are some repellants that you can use that you can apply to your clothing, etc., and you don’t have to apply directly to your skin. So, mosquito repellant. Empty out that standing water. A lot of those messages that you heard associated with West Nile Virus hold true here, too. Also, if you can cover up, although, you know, with that extreme heat event you certainly don’t want to cover up too much, but you would overheat, but you know, just try to avoid those as best as possible and reduce your immediate involvement in introducing habitat.
(Nintzel) You’ve done some of your work in Kenya and Jamaica third-world countries. What have you been studying there? What have you learned?
(Ernst) So, in Jamaica, I’m working with people from the University of the West Indies and the Ministry of Health. And they had a massive chikungunya outbreak, just in the past year and a half and so, we’re trying to develop a research plan to help them better understand what the transition dynamics are like, and how to prevent it the next time it might come through there. And in Kenya, I actually worked more on malaria research and that work is a lot more pride (phon.), so if you talk in climate-change lingo, it would be on the adaptation side. What can we do to prevent people from getting these diseases?
(Nintzel) And it’s these third-world countries that are suffering more of the brunt of climate change than we are here in the United States.
(Ernst) Right, and a lot of that has to do with their ability to respond to climate change. So if you have a nation that already has a lot of poverty and poor infrastructure, when you have drought when you have food insecurity, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to respond and to be able to help people reduce their vulnerability.
(Nintzel) And you also do work on vaccinations and why people choose not to vaccinate their children. Can you talk a little bit about that in the two minutes we have remaining here?
(Ernst) Sure, absolutely. So we have been, I’ve been working with Dr. Bess Jacobs, who’s also in the college of public health, and we’ve been trying to understand a little bit more about more about the vaccination exemption patterns that are occurring here in the state. And, you know, certainly, we are still in an upward trend in the wake of the California Disneyland measles outbreak, as everybody has sort of dubbed it. There’s been a lot of attention toward trying to reduce those exemptions, because when you have pockets of people who are under-immunized, it leads to a much greater risk of an outbreak occurring.
(Nintzel) And what are the dangers of not vaccinating your children?
(Ernst) The dangers of not vaccinating, it’s not just to your own child who might be susceptible to vaccines for preventable disease, but it’s to the other populations the vulnerable kids who may have some chronic health condition and they can’t get vaccinated. To be able to protect them, you have to have enough people around them that are vaccinated to kind of act as a barrier to transmission.
(Nintzel) The herd immunity.
(Estes) Exactly. That’s right.
(Nintzel) We hear a lot about. Alright, well thank you so much for joining us here on Zona Politics today. Your talk is going to be on Feb. 22, and we look forward to coming down to Centennial Hall to see that. We’re going to have to leave it there, today Thanks for watching Zona Politics. I’d like to thank our media partners at the Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media and KXCI. If you missed any part of our program you can find us on zonapolitics.com, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.