I’m a college student who met the world’s top climate scientists. Here are 5 things I learned.

Opening night at the Workshop on Correlated Extremes at Columbia University.

BY: Arturo Ruiz

For many of my gen Z peers and me, climate change is a major issue.

We are going to be directly affected by its consequences. Recently, I was able to attend a conference at Columbia University with several of the world’s top scientists on climate change. The majority of people at the “Correlated Extremes Workshop” were some of the world’s leading climate graduate students, scientists, and experts. Going into the conference, I was worried that everything was going to go over my head. While there were certainly things that were hard to understand, the message was clear: climate change and extreme weather are only getting worse and my generation is going to be financially and physically affected by it. Here are 5 things I learned about correlated extremes and their relationship with climate change:

1) More correlated extremes, more problems

When climate extremes are combined, their damaging effects are compounded. Radley Horton, Lamont Associate Research Professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, introduced the different types of compound events as multivariate, concurrent, and sequential.

NASA’s Dr. Alexander Ruane presents three types of correlated extremes at Columbia University’s workshop.

Compound events are different ways in which extreme weather events affect one another. One example Horton used was how a combination of high temperatures and low precipitation contributed to the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, CA. Lisa Thalheimer, a PhD candidate focusing on extreme weather events and human mobility at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) of the University of Oxford, described how extended heat waves in Somalia led to crop shortages which resulted in famine and human migration — another devastating example of correlated extremes. Hearing examples of recent events was a huge help in my understanding of the impact and relevance of compound extreme weather events. 

2) Correlated extremes are kind of like a bathtub

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior lecturer at the Climate Change Centre, UNSW Sydney, used an analogy that I think described correlated extremes best: her baby. She showed an image of her smiling and happy baby while in the bathtub, then flipped to a photo of her crying when bath time was over, and she was no longer in the tub. Her environment had changed, causing her reaction and demeanor to change.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s baby “experiencing climate change” after being removed from the bathtub.

It may sound simple, but her baby’s reaction to a change in environment is not much different than how correlated extremes operate on a fundamental level. When something changes about the environment in which the extreme weather event is occurring, the results can be devastating. For example, even a slight increase in temperature of an environment can exacerbate wildfires and flash floods. When I heard this, I thought about the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, where I lost power for two weeks and others had it much worse. If extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy start to be an even more frequent occurrence — and if they become exacerbated by other environmental and societal factors — it would be catastrophic. 

3) Waterfront Property? I’ll Pass

Extreme weather is already affecting where people can and want to live. Adam Sobel, a Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, brought up the increasingly present phenomenon of “climate gentrification.”

Some coastal areas are losing their appeal and value due to rising sea levels and increased risks associated with weather events like hurricanes. Sobel referenced what is already happening in Miami’s historically African American and Latino communities. Because of the growing risks associated with living on the coasts, big real estate companies and wealthier residents are buying land further inland where low-income and communities of color already live. This move inland is raising prices and pushing many low-income people out, which we observed in from our documentary series “Sinking Cities”.

Miami’s waterfront property is at risk due to climate change. From our 4-part broadcast documentary “Sinking Cities”.

Sobel posed a scary idea which is already a reality for some people: Lower income communities will continue to be pushed towards places that are unsafe because of extreme weather and rising sea levels. The idea of climate gentrification is concerning, and shows the growing inequalities in society due to climate change.  

4) It’s all about the long-term game

Imagine that your arm is falling off and the only thing keeping it together is a bunch of band-aids, well, this is kind of how the government is handling climate change. Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University, spoke about some of our current policy issues when dealing with climate change. The famed climate communicator explained that after a natural disaster, governments pour resources into fixing the problem. There’s reactive concern surrounding climate change when an extreme weather event happens, but it eventually dies down.

Michael Oppenheimer explaining the significance of considering social factors and scientific factors when faced with extreme weather events at Columbia University’s Correlated Extremes Conference.

Oppenheimer, who is a resident of New York City and one of the leading voices on climate change, feels that long-term, proactive planning isn’t being taken care of, but said that one way to make sure it does get addressed is to have a dedicated revenue stream. New York City does have a dedicated revenue stream and has used it for the city water tunnel project, which began in 2013 and is projected to be finished in 2021. The project improves the quality and dependability of the water system and the service and pressure to outlying areas. A big part of protecting people and fighting against climate change seems to be to not only focus on the short term “band-aid” solutions, but also on long term thinking and remedies. 

5) The general public needs to understand correlated extremes

Kate Marvel, who works at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia Engineering’s Department of Applied Physics and Mathematics, posed the question towards the end of the night. For Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, she feels that at times the message falls upon deaf ears. She stressed the importance of expressing tangible ideas in order to effectively communicate.

Michael Oppenheimer is hopeful that young people will take over and create lasting changes, but is worried that it might be too late. All of the scientists talked about the importance of being able to take the information they have on climate change and effectively convey it to the general public.  

More people need to be part of the climate conversation

So if you have an opportunity to attend a conference on climate, hear an author, scientist, or policymaker speak, or attend an advocacy event– go for it. There is always new research and new lessons on climate to learn. As a young person, I feel it’s my duty to expand my knowledge and get involved, even if only in a small way, it’s making a difference. If I hadn’t attended, I don’t think I would have understood how dire climate change is. Some things are irreversible, but the sooner we act the better our chances are to limit the damage of a warming world. It was also clear that the scientists are all making an effort to take what they know and explain it in ways that the general public can understand. The scientists are making the extra effort, now it’s time for us to do the same.