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What on Earth are we doing?

Lessons from the past to help solve future environmental and climate problems

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  • What on Earth are we doing? - Dr. Peter S. Liss

Many argue that climate change is the greatest challenge facing humans in the coming decades.   

If you accept this statement, then global society faces a significant challenge in changing how it conducts its affairs.  However, we should take note of experience in dealing with environmental problems in the past, some of which have worked surprisingly well nationally and internationally.  Examples include the phasing out of pesticides that are highly toxic to wildlife; the cleaning of some lakes and rivers by controlling sewage and nutrient inputs; improving air quality in cities through cleaning up vehicle and other emissions; and protecting the stratospheric ozone layer by the phasing out the use of freons as propellants and coolants.

Decarbonizing our societies – in addition to adapting to the ongoing changes in temperature, rainfall, and sea level – will take much effort.  But the past indicates that once the scientific case is strong enough and becomes generally accepted, action at the national and even international level becomes possible.  Thus, it is the job of scientists to conduct their research critically and dispassionately, to explain their findings about climate change and its implications to policymakers and the public, and to work closely with government, industry and others through key international programs, such as the recently formed Future Earth research initiative.

Peter Liss is a professorial fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and is renowned for his contributions on the biogeochemical interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere. His work is an integral part of East Anglia’s Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. Liss’ research reveals how gases that are formed biologically in the surface oceans can affect atmospheric chemistry and physics. A fellow of the Royal Society, Liss was the first recipient of the Challenger Society Medal, and has received the Plymouth Marine Sciences Medal as well as the John Jeyes Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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