As climate change accelerates, how will we adapt to a changed earth?
by Jonathan Shaw
Biological oceanographer James J. McCarthy has been a leader in the international effort to assess the risks to human and natural systems posed by global climate change.
Photograph by Jim Harrison
During a recent Alaska study cruise cosponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History, James J. McCarthy stopped at several islands with small native communitiesLittle Diomede, for example, with 150 inhabitants. At each village, McCarthy asked the elders if climate had changed in their lifetimes. In one village after another, he relates, “They said, ‘Well, my grandfather said the ice used to come in November, and now it doesn’t come until January.'” Wherever he went, the story was the same: “My grandfather said it used to leave in June. Now it goes out in March.”
“Those are just anecdotes,” says McCarthy, the Agassiz professor of biological oceanography. But even as he distinguishes anecdote from scientific evidence, McCarthy shares with virtually all his colleagues who study climate change the firm conviction that our world is warming rapidly. Understanding the rate of change, its causes, and the consequences for humans and nature engages researchers around the planetincluding prominent scientists in Harvard laboratories. With the scientific consensus coming into clearer focus, policy analysts in the University, as elsewhere, are struggling to devise appropriate responsesa task revealing sharp differences of opinion over fairness and efficiency, and even wider gaps between the worldviews of biologists and economists.