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Saturday, September 17, 2005 | In the past half century, human beings have transformed Earth as never before. In the next 50 years, human impact on the environment will significantly expand due to the substantially increased consumption of energy and other resources by the nine to 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet, mostly in developing countries.
There are growing public and scientific discussions about emerging global environmental crises. Climate change, freshwater availability, global air pollution and the loss of biodiversity have emerged as fundamental environmental issues.
These discussions have led to questions about the planet’s ability to sustain its inhabitants: Is the current and growing level of human activity consistent with a stable environmental support system? Or, to paraphrase late Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Roger Revelle: How do we manage this great geophysical experiment that we are all living inside?
When the world at large awakens to the seriousness of these issues and demands solutions, will the planet and its inhabitants be ready? Will we understand enough science? Will we have developed and deployed the technologies? Will we know how to convey our knowledge to governments and industry? Will we have trained people to implement practical solutions?
After serving for the past seven years as director of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I have become keenly aware of the magnitude of many environmental problems facing the planet and its people. I also have been privileged to work among some of the world’s leading environmental and earth scientists, many of whom conduct research important to issues of “sustainability,” or how Earth’s inhabitants can best manage the planet’s limited resources and their availability to support future generations.
It is clear that sustainability is one of the most important concerns of ours and our children’s lifetimes. Because of this, I am now preparing to face these issues full-time through a new initiative specifically targeted to the environment and sustainability.
The problems of environment and sustainability are so complex that no single university can expect to address all the specialties needed to produce effective solutions. However, great universities in great locations can convene the right combinations of expertise by drawing on talent from around the world. At UCSD, progress has already been made with links and initiatives both inside and outside of the university.
On Feb. 16 of this year, the ministers from 55 nations signed an agreement signifying their intention to create the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This agreement sets the framework in which observations from satellites in space and networks of instruments on land, in the oceans and in the atmosphere, will be managed and then distributed to scientific
Here at home, leading programs and technologies at Scripps and elsewhere at UCSD put this university in a unique position to play a leading role in GEOSS and other efforts devoted to planetary sustainability. In November, UCSD will launch a new Center for Earth Observations and Applications (CEOA), a program designed to facilitate information and technologies for a
The new UCSD Environmental Sustainability Initiative that I will help launch will stimulate broad interdisciplinary research and teaching initiatives that build on the scientific and technological excellence of UCSD. To contribute to sustainability solutions, this science and technology must be integrated with research on social sciences, including economics, international relations and management. Continuous and comprehensive monitoring of biological, physical, chemical and social developments is
One area the Environmental and Sustainability Initiative will address is the increasingly global nature of air pollution, and in particular tiny particles called aerosols that travel from Asia to California in seven days and from North America to Europe in a similar amount of time. It has become imperative to examine how these global pollution particles combine with
Another area will focus on understanding the interaction between human activity and coastal city environments. Questions include: What are the environmental effects of growing human activities on coastal city regions and nearshore oceans? What are the effects of climate change on specific coastal regions, in particular sea-level rise and changes in storm activity?
The UCSD Environmental Sustainability Initiative also will help foster new ways of understanding the medical possibilities of environmental and ecological processes by harnessing the latest developments in genomics, the
Another significant component of the initiative will be the development of interdisciplinary programs and ideas that help transfer knowledge and educate people needed for resource and environmental management around the world – programs that cross-train students in biological, information and social sciences. Examples include marine biodiversity and conservation and
But perhaps the most important feature of the new initiative will be the creation of an international “sustainability network” that will focus on generating solutions to practical issues. Such a network would convey the implications of modern sustainability research to global leaders in science, technology, government and industry. Teams from around the world will develop and assemble the knowledge needed to provide support for real-world decision makers, whether in government, industry or non-governmental organizations.
A growing human population in the coming decades will alter the planet and test its ability to sustain changes that we can only now begin to comprehensively monitor and even comprehend. New questions and problems are certain to emerge as the human influence on the environment expands. Scripps and the rest of UCSD have the tools and technologies to address these issues
Charles Kennel is the ninth director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego.