5 Climate Change Predictions for 2017

Like any issue with serious economic consequences, climate change has become a hot-button, politically charged subject. Many consider it a scientific fact; some claim it’s an elaborate hoax. The debate is often split along party lines and fueled by financial interests. To help separate the science from the spin, we asked Robyn Hannigan, founding dean at the School for the Environment at UMass Boston, to share her climate change predictions for 2017 and beyond.

1) Climate change denial will increase.

Photo of melting icebergsIcebergs in Greenland. (United Nations photo via Flickr.com)

I liken climate change denial to a general lack of understanding about our planet and how it works, combined with the necessarily myopic view of being a human with a relatively short life span. The realities of climate change are stark, and adjusting our economies and technologies now won’t result in a positive impact for decades to come. That delay is counter to our nature, our culture of instant gratification. It is human nature to “kick the can down the road.” If I can keep living as I do now and I can ignore climate change because it won’t directly affect me and mine, why should I change?  So, I expect climate change denial to strengthen over the coming year. 

2) Scientists will step out of the lab and into the spotlight.

Photo of NASA researchersScientists and Coast Guard swimmers test the integrity of ice near the Arctic Ocean. (NASA HQ photo via Flickr.com)

I consider the current dialogue around climate change to be one of invented controversy, one that is based on a genuine lack of understanding of how science works, how the Earth works and how our climate works. This lack of understanding falls, in large part, at the feet of those of us who have shirked our responsibility to communicate our work to broad and diverse audiences. All too often, the research that leads to discovery is buried in peer-reviewed literature, written for an audience of scientific peers, and so is inaccessible to the people who need the outcomes of this work the most. We must, as a community of scientists across all disciplines, do better. 

If nothing else, this change in administration will elevate the global issues of climate change and shine a light on the realities of climate change, particularly those that directly impact us where it hurts the most — our wallets. To ensure that the science is not obscured by spin we must, as scientists, step up. So my prediction is that we will see more scientists stepping out of the lab and into the spotlight, ensuring that our collective work is understood and accessible to all. 

3) Federal funding for research will shift away from climate change. 

Photo of MongoliaClimate change and adaptation in Mongolia. (Asian Development Bank photo via Flickr.com)

I think we can be confident, based on early indications regarding cabinet appointments and statements from the president-elect, that there will be changes in federal funding for research, particularly in the areas of climate change and renewable energy. We should anticipate more research in areas of conventional energy exploration. We have already seen movement to shift NASA research portfolios to other agencies, and we should expect declines in basic research funding in a breadth of areas associated with Earth systems.

We may have to look towards alternative funding streams such as industry and philanthropy. Having a broader portfolio of support for research is not a bad thing and could result in important research being done that could not be done under the auspices of federal funding agencies. We are already seeing the private sector making changes to their research programs to fill the anticipated gaps in funding for climate change research. I expect to see more of this, as well as increases in state funding for research of direct relevance to state priorities.

But I am not unrealistic. While I can see increases from other sources, I expect declines in federal research funding and a rebalancing of the federal budget to reflect the priorities of the new administration. 

4) Environmental change will continue to outpace many species’ ability to adapt.

Scene from Illulissat, GreenlandScene from Illulissat, Greenland, where the melting of ice sheets is accelerating. (United Nations photo via Flickr.com)

I expect the most profound changes to be seen in critical ocean and terrestrial habitats. We are already seeing these changes, such as in the Arctic, where ice no longer blocks the Northwest passage, and so ecosystems once connected by ice become isolated, where animals who relied on seasonal ice cover can no longer persist and where human communities dependent on these resources migrate to regions where these resources are more abundant. We will see deserts expand and communities dependent on migratory species for food move as their food sources move, where water resources become limited and, as a result, human communities either move or contract.

Like any earth scientist, I understand that change is the one constant on our planet, but its tempo, in the absence of humans, allows for acclimation and adaptation. With many of the pressures on ecosystems being driven directly or indirectly by humans, the tempo of change has accelerated, and for many species, including humans, these changes will outpace the ability of an ecosystem or human community to acclimate. And it is this issue that I foresee becoming manifest in 2017 — the inability for some systems to adapt and find a new equilibrium.

5) The truth regarding climate change will eventually surface.

Wind Turbines that generate electrical powerA view of the Middelgruden offshore wind farm in Denmark. (United Nations photo via Flickr.com)

I do not think that we should be disheartened by what we see as an anti-science rhetoric of the new administration. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” — it is a wise citizen who knows his own planet. Truth will come to light; the facts cannot be hid long; some may seek to bury it, but at the length truth will out.

Read more UMass expert predictions.