Steve Carpenter Explains "Yahara 2070" Project

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Steve Carpenter Explains "Yahara 2070" Project

Premiere Date: 
May 9, 2014

The UW Center for Limnology director discusses what the Yahara Watershed could be like.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

"Climate change, once considered an issue for the distant future, has moved firmly into the present." That's a quote from the National Climate Assessment released this week in Washington. A large panel of scientists prepared the report, noting that whether extremes from drought to torrential rains are the effects of this climate change. That's the macro look at climate change in the Midwest. The micro look narrows down to the Yahara Watershed in south central Wisconsin. The UW-Madison Center for Water Sustainability and Climate publically launches what it's calling Yahara 2070 next week. Yahara 2070, as the name implies, looks 56 years into the future, and what the watershed that encompasses the region, including lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, could look like if climate change continues unabated. It's four scenarios, including the worst case, where science takes off into science fiction. UW-Madison director of the Center for Limnology, Steve Carpenter, is lead investigator for the project. Thanks very much for being here.

Steve Carpenter:

I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

So looking at your first scenario that you put out, it's kind of a doomsday scenario, where tens of thousands of people die due to these toxic plumes of algae that spread through the street. Even elephants escape from the zoo and are roaming free. Why these science fiction scenarios? Are you trying to be heard on climate change?

Steve Carpenter:

We had two different thoughts there. First, we wanted to compare four very different paths for the region. One of them was an inaction path, where we don't do enough about climate change. But we also looked at the role of government, the role of technology and the role of values. What we interviewed people in the watershed about what they wanted, we encountered a significant number of people who wanted a lower population. And so we thought, well, how could we give them a scenario with lower population? I guess we'll have to move a lot of people out. So we had a scenario where that happens.

Frederica Freyberg:

And so many of your scenarios do move into this kind of realm of science fiction. But you weave true science throughout all of these, and kind of educate and illuminate what might happen with climate change. So what is your message about what real solutions would look like?

Steve Carpenter:

Every element of the scenarios is true and exists today. What is fiction is the way we put the elements together. And so the question for the public is, as we go into the future, what parts of the present do we want to take with us and what parts should we leave behind?

Frederica Freyberg:

And is there any one thing that you can point to that we should be doing now, in your estimation?

Steve Carpenter:

Well, I would say that inaction is a bad idea, but it may happen.

Frederica Freyberg:

What do you say to climate change deniers? And what is in these scenarios for those people?

Steve Carpenter:

Well, first of all, denial is a political position, not a scientific one. And so we talk about the consequences of insufficient action to adapt to climate change.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, if your scenarios reach into the realm of science fiction, and some of them do, do you worry that the deniers will kind of discount your message because it's so far flung?

Steve Carpenter:

Sure. They-- I'm sure that there will be many people who discount the message. But we hope that there are a lot of people who will be interested in thinking two generations into the future, and what kind of world do we want to have here for ourselves. Young people will be here in two generations, and even people my age will have children here.

Frederica Freyberg:

A recurring theme in your scenarios is water quality issues caused by manure runoff from rather large-scale livestock operations. How does a state like Wisconsin, committed to agriculture, respond to this problem?

Steve Carpenter:

Well, we look at four different approaches. One is a values-driven approach. Another is a government-driven approach. And a third is a technology-driven approach. And I would say that we're seeing a lot of elements of the technology-driven approach in the Yahara Watershed right now. We have a major university, we have a lot of technological capacity in the watershed. We have a government that's very open to technological solutions. So we're trying things like manure digesters and other fairly advanced technological approaches to the problem.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, you've set your scenarios in 2070. Why so distant in the future?

Steve Carpenter:

We wanted to get away from the clutter of one to two-year decision-making, which is, you know, where all of us spend most of our time. And environmental problems are long-term problems, and they require generational thinking. And we're really not interested in next year's zoning decision or next year's county budget. What we're interested in is what goes on 60 years from now, what kind of world do we want, and what kind of world can we get.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, thanks for giving us a look at that. Steve Carpenter, thanks.

Steve Carpenter:

My pleasure. Thank you. 


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