Earth Day Big 10: Experts offer planet prognosis

Earth Day Big 10: Experts offer planet prognosis

We'd wish you a happy Earth Day but as you'll see below, not everyone is in a merry mood about the future of our planet. We asked the experts: On a scale of 1 to 10 — with 1 being 'no worries' and 10 being 'utterly terrified' — how concerned are you about what's to come?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN
George W. Bush-appointed EPA administrator (2001-03) after two terms as New Jersey's first female governor

"I'm at an 11. If people don't start to take climate change seriously, our entire planet will see much worse disruption than it has already. It's time for the United States to understand that this is a national security issue."

DAVID ARCHER
Computational ocean chemist, University of Chicago professor

"The future would definitely be 10-scary if humanity continued on our business-as-usual trajectory forever, but this is like supposing that Victorian London would have drowned in poop if they'd never invented sewers.

"It might have been controversial in its day but we now realize that sewage systems in city planning are not optional, they are necessary. Humanity will soon feel the same way about CO2 released to the atmosphere, I believe."

GINA McCARTHY
Preceded Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator (2013-17)

"I would give it a 3. I am, of course, always concerned about the future of our planet, but I am much more hopeful than I am terrified.

"I am at Harvard working with students that I consider some of the most socially conscious individuals I have ever met — laser-focused on issues of equity and justice. I see democracy waking up with people marching in the streets and women running for office in record numbers.

"Sure, we have serious challenges today that threaten public health and the future of our planet. Few people know that better than I. But my first grandchild is due to join this world in August. I want him to know that I — like so many others — refuse to be afraid or complacent.

"Hope is what sparks energy and drives solutions. Hope is what will give my grandson the opportunity to live a long and healthy life."

DENIS HAYES
National organizer of the first Earth Day, in 1970

"Honestly, I have to say 10 since you didn't offer an option of 11. We have a president who thinks nuclear wars are winnable; a national security advisor who wants to preemptively bomb Iran; North Korea with missiles apparently capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental U.S.; and Russia headed by a guy who views all of life as a gigantic game of chicken.

"I've never had less confidence in the people in charge of global international affairs.

"Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant diseases are emerging from all corners of the planet. There is an accelerating epidemic of extinction. Global warming is manifesting itself in droughts, floods, forest infernos, hurricanes and insect infestation into places that were previously too cold for them to survive. The EPA has been turned over to someone who has no respect for good science. And, of course, we have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord.

"Still, I will go with 9, because we need at least a trace of hope. There is no survival value in hopelessness."

MARCIA McNUTT
President, National Academy of Sciences

"My answer would be a 1. The planet will go on. It has survived asteroid impacts, major glaciation and deglaciation events, flooding of the continents and other catastrophes.

"I have every confidence that there will still be an Earth. And probably an Earth with life in some form.

"Now, whether that Earth in the coming centuries will harbor the air, water, soil, plant, animal and climate life-support systems necessary for human civilization is another question. The choice is ours, and we are the first and only life forms on Earth to have held our future in our own hands."

ALAN ROBOCK
Climatologist was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it was awarded 2007 Nobel Peace Prize

"Ten. I am very worried about a nuclear war, which could occur by accident, hacking or unstable leaders. It could produce a nuclear winter, and most people on Earth could die by starvation.

"We need to solve this problem by eliminating nuclear weapons, so we have the luxury of worrying about global warming, for which I would give a number of 5, but which can easily move to 1 if the world implements a carbon tax, which will lead quickly to the world being powered by sun and wind, and which will stop the use of the atmosphere as a sewer for greenhouse gases with no current fee."

SIMON LEVIN
Ecologist and Princeton professor won 2014 National Medal of Science

"I'd give it an 8. I think that there are lots of things to be concerned about. Some of these are environmental due to our difficulty addressing problems of the global commons, like climate change, pollution, overuse of antibiotics and loss of biodiversity.

"We were making progress in our country; but the changing agenda at the EPA and interior, and our increasing isolationism and unwillingness to participate in global compacts on climate change, are huge steps backwards.

"But what worries me even more is the rise of a populism globally that increases polarization and xenophobia. Madeline Albright's recent warnings on a rise of a new fascism seem to me to hit the mark, and to capture fears I have held for several years. I visited Dachau two years ago, and in their museum displays saw documentation of the rise of hatreds that made Hitler possible.

"I do hold out hope that we will come to our senses, but we better do it soon."

HAL BALBACH
Champaign environmental biologist

"I'd say 5. In my humble opinion, the most relatable concerns deal with the simultaneous increases in population everywhere, not just in places we have never heard of, which is then combined with continuing loss of land suitable for production of food crops and grazing of livestock.

"These trends cannot continue concurrently forever, but I can't predict when the meltdown will occur."

ANURAG AGRAWAL
Cornell professor won 2016 MacArthur Award, presented by Ecological Society of America

"I give it a 7.5. The train has left the station, and whether it is our own population density, air pollution, the availability of clean drinking water or loss of biodiversity, we already live on a degraded planet. The trend cannot be reversed over the medium term but we can make choices to it slow down.

"Probably the biggest stumbling block to sustainability is the problem of short- versus long-term thinking. Tax cuts, irrigating the desert and fracking for gas seem fine for today, and I can imagine a world for my children where this might be OK too. But it is both difficult to imagine what things will look like on this trajectory for our great grandchildren, and it seems so far off, especially in the face of short-term gains.

"Technology will solve our problems, right? Additionally, we all have a shifting baseline — we don't really remember the passenger pigeon, and we will soon forget the white rhino."

JEFF NESBIT
Climate Nexus executive director and UI grad ran National Science Foundation's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs after serving as Dan Quayle's White House communications director

"I'm at 10. We'll exhaust our carbon budget in just 15 years. We don't know what happens beyond that because we've never pushed the atmosphere beyond that while humans walked the earth.

"Countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia are essentially out of water now. Major cities like Beijing will experience water resource problems within a decade.

"We don't have much time to act. We're already seeing climate impacts from extended droughts and extreme weather. It's a slow-moving catastrophe, and doesn't always make headlines. It needs to start making headlines."

MARK SERREZE
Director, National Snow and Ice Data Center

"I'd give it an 8. We have not been effective stewards of our planet. We are changing the very composition of the atmosphere, which is changing our climate, and we are using up our natural resources.

"There is only one Earth, and we have no place to go. It's not too late take to take a more sustainable path, but we need to get our act together soon."

HILTON KELLEY
Environmentalist, activist, winner of Goldman Environmental Prize

"I say 8. Evidence of global warming is all around us — rising sea levels, major flooding in all coastal communities and a disproportionate number of people with cancer from coast to coast due to chronic exposure to VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and carcinogens from oil refineries, chemical plants and chemical incinerator facilities."

KATHARINE HAYHOE
UI grad and Texas climatologist, named to Time magazine's 2014 list of the world's 100 most influential people.

"One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is: What gives you hope?

"And I have to be honest, the science does not make me hopeful. These days, it feels like almost every new study — on sea level rise, Antarctic ice melt, drought, heatwaves, hurricanes and more — shows that our planet is changing faster and to a greater extent than we thought before.

"So what does give me hope? People.

"Individuals who are taking one small step to make a difference — driving by in their plug-in car, or hesitating in the lighting aisle trying figure out what new LED lightbulbs to buy, or walking into the grocery store with their bags.

"Innovators who are helping others make a difference — like Colby May, a seminary graduate who's founded an energy consulting business to help churches lower their operating costs and their carbon footprint; or Sara Volz, who was just 17 when she won Intel's big science fair for figuring out a more efficient way to turn algae into biofuel with an experiment she ran at home, under her bed.

"Organizations like the 'We're Still In' movement, with cities, states, businesses and even universities committing to the Paris Agreement and together representing nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions, or Citizens' Climate Lobby, who founded the only bipartisan climate solutions caucus in Congress with 37 Republican members — and 37 Democrats, too.

"Inventors who are thinking up new ways to power our lives, whether it's pay-as-you-go solar that is revolutionizing sub-Saharan Africa, where over 700 million people live without any energy at all, or new solar roof or road technology that's coming soon to the places where we live, or even airlines like United, which is running flights out of LAX powered by biofuels.

"And then there's all the good news that's flooding in from around the world — the fact that developing countries led the way in new clean energy development in 2017, or that Texas got 18 percent of its electricity from wind last year, or that China has more wind and solar energy than any other country, and Morocco has the world's biggest solar farm.

"Hope isn't a passive emotion. We have to go looking for it. But when we do, we can find it."

BRIAN TOON
Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Colorado

"I suggest that your readers look back on their own lives. From my perspective, the world is much better now than when I was young. Polio killed many when I was young, but now is about to be defeated. The same is true of many other diseases, so that the average life expectancy is growing.

"We solved the ozone hole problem with science, industry and government working together. Had we not, we might have had a global catastrophe on our hands. The death toll in wars has fallen dramatically, and the number of nuclear weapons has declined from 70,000 to around 15,000.

"We recognize the dangers of climate change, but we haven't solved that problem yet. More work is needed.

"Many of our problems are due to the rising population. It has tripled in my lifetime. However, many countries now have declining or even negative growth rates.

"We know that educating women, providing health care so that children survive, and improving living standards will result in the population stabilizing eventually.

"Should we worry? You bet. Should we only worry? No. We should do something.

"It is the hard work of countless people everywhere on Earth that has led to the improvements we have gained so far. The future of Earth depends on what we do. Action is needed now, as it always has been in the past."

KONI STEFFEN
Glaciologist directs Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research

"Given the current climate warming, I am worried that we will have more extreme situations.

"In extreme environments, most life forms on Earth cannot survive. Global warming leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of weather and climate extremes, and can result in unprecedented environmental extremes.

"Changes in extremes can directly be related to changes in mean climate, because mean future conditions in some variables are projected to lie within the tails of present-day conditions."

MICHAEL MAN