Setting the Table

by Alan R. Townsend, Nicholas School Dean

The week Duke’s newly formed School of the Environment opened, I was nearly 5,000 miles away, quite possibly covered in mud. It’s not as bad as it sounds: the mud would have been Hawaiian, and I’d wash it off around sunset each day by jumping in the ocean.

More of the mud—or more properly, soil—would have been in a jumble of Ziploc bags scattered about the bed of a dented white pickup truck. Eventually, I’d measure how much carbon was in that soil, among other attributes, and the three-dimensional tapestry of field days would become flattened into a series of spreadsheets. It was all aimed at unraveling just one piece of a problem at once momentous and yet describable in two words: climate change.

The first I remember those words entering my personal radar was during the summer of 1988, just weeks before I began graduate school. My plans for a trip in the Yellowstone backcountry were scrapped by historic fires. The East Coast was unrelentingly hot. At some point, I read a short article in the New York Times entitled Global Warming Has Begun, a piece that summarized the warnings several scientists had delivered to a Congressional panel. Little did I know that one of those scientists, George Woodwell, would soon join the board of a new environment school in Durham, N.C.

I started my PhD that fall, working on a topic that had nothing to do with climate change. But I couldn’t shake both the intellectual excitement and the societal urgency of what I was hearing. Within months, I’d switched labs and dug my first soil pit, proud to be a small part of what I thought was the initial groundswell of a widespread response to a truly global challenge. Two years later, the Nic School opened its doors, I was washing mud off in the sea, and that optimism remained. The problem was defined, the need for action clear, and the first climate summit in Rio was but months away.

So am I jaded now?

Well … a little, but mostly not. The pessimistic take is that when it comes to meaningful climate action, we’ve essentially wasted the last generation. In many respects, that’s true, and it means our job today is harder than it might have been back then. But as I’ve written here before, climate change is a wicked problem, and solutions to those don’t come easy. I didn’t really understand that in 1991, but now that I do, I see a lot of progress over the last 25 years. Today, we understand and approach climate change through the kind of interdisciplinary lens it demands—one that embraces the workings of both people and the natural world. We have a much better grasp on both the risks and the potential solutions. We’ve put the topic on nearly everyone’s radar. And led by examples such as the Nic School’s, we’ve transformed many of our educational institutions in ways that can better train students to put solutions into play—in private and public sectors alike.

Put another way, I think we’ve set the table. I wish we’d done it faster, and yes, we now better serve the meal and wolf it down. The last few months are but our latest alarm bell, with an Arctic winter that nearly wasn’t, eastern seaboard tornadoes in February, corals bleaching and sea ice melting as never before. But I also don’t think the next 25 years will see the same gridlock. Too many forces are now pushing us onto a different path. To be sure, some of those forces are frightening, but some are unquestionably hopeful. Six months ago in this column, I wrote that the Paris Conference of the Parties would be more of the same: a disappointment. It wasn’t.

Even more importantly, real options exist to help meet the Paris targets. Accelerate the widespread adoption of current wind, water and solar technology, and let that in turn spur even more rapid technological innovation. Focus policies—domestic and beyond—on some of the other climate mitigation levers we can pull fastest, for the greatest effect: preserving forested lands, transforming agricultural practices, reducing non-CO2 agents of warming. Achievable solutions, ones that will not wreck economies and toss us back to the Stone Age, are before us. We just have to start putting them into play.

Will we? In truth, none of us knows the answer. I’ve watched maddening setbacks play out again and again. I’ve watched the warning signs of climate change mount, and as they have, I’ve watched our own country’s politics descend into a dangerous theater of the absurd. My glasses aren’t as rosy as when they were splattered with Hawaiian mud, and I know we might screw this up.

But most days, I think we’ll get there. Most days, if you asked me how a Nic School 50th anniversary retrospective will start, my answer might be: In the first 25 years, we laid the groundwork for change. In the next 25, we saw it come to pass.