Drought, wildfires, intense storms and rising temperatures–thinking about climate change can be overwhelming. It’s why international climate activist Greta Thunberg is using her new book, “The Climate Book,” which releases on Oct. 27, to educate people and give them hope for the future, with the help of scientists and scholars, including a couple of Northeastern’s finest.
Northeastern professors Mauricio Santillana and Jennie C. Stephens are two of the more than 100 experts Thunberg has gathered to help share their expertise on how to combat climate change. Santillana is a professor of physics and network science, while Stephens is a professor of sustainability science and policy. Although they approach climate change from different fields, they are united in their insistence that climate change is a pressing issue that must be tackled with speed and ambition.
“Most of the authors in this book embrace a transformative lens,” Stephens says. “At this point we’re not talking about small, incremental changes. We’re talking about a bigger transformation of society that’s needed.”
Santillana, who co-authored his chapter with John Brownstein, Derek MacFadden and Sarah McGough, drew on previous research about the effect climate change has had on antibiotic resistance. His work drew Thunberg’s interest because of how it illustrates the subtle impacts of climate change, Santillana says.
Antibiotic resistance has been increasing, making it more difficult to fight bacterial infections with medicine like penicillin, which was long thought to be a “magic bullet,” Santillana says. In part, this has to do with the frequent use of antibiotics on humans and on animals that eventually become food, but Santillana says he and a team of researchers discovered that, in the U.S., antibiotic resistance differs based on region.
“The South has seen a larger prevalence of antibiotic resistance and the North not as much,” Santillana says. “We hypothesized whether it could be where farms were located, but at the end of the day when we combined weather data from the models that reconstruct weather in the past–the ones that we use for weather forecasting–we realized that there was a very strong correlation between places that were experiencing warming and antibiotic resistance.”
Santillana and his team later looked at 20 years’ worth of data from Europe and found a similar trend: Antibiotic resistance occurred more quickly in warmer places.
By illustrating these findings in Thunberg’s book, Santillana wanted to “go beyond the usual side effects that we know well about global climate change.” The impact of climate change on public health is still being unpacked, but what’s clear to Santillana is that antibiotic resistance “is one of the symptoms that happens as a consequence of a larger system.”
“The lesson here is that there are other ways in which the consequences of climate change will bite us, so it’s important to not look the other way and to do something and own our role in this ecosystem and to be more responsible–for the sake of our generation but more so for the sake of future generations,” Santillana says.
Stephens focused her chapter on opposing another approach to climate change. Geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, is the large-scale intervention in and manipulation of Earth’s climate system to slow climate change. It’s a “technical fix” that has given Stephens cause for concern, she says.
“It has this technological optimism, even a colonial, problematic power structure about who would govern it, who benefits and who gets screwed with it,” Stephens says.
The chapter Stephens co-authored with Niclas Hällström and Isak Stoddard takes aim at climate change solutions like geoengineering that Stephens says distract from broader systemic changes, like ending reliance on fossil fuels. In order to make these changes, Stephens argues for a climate justice approach that makes transformative changes while taking into account global inequities.
“We’ve been ineffective in addressing the climate, in part because a lot of the proposals of what to do are quite narrow and technocratic and they don’t integrate or aren’t based on who the most vulnerable people are,” Stephens says. “How do we invest in new ways and redistribute power, literally and figuratively, so that our climate solutions don’t exacerbate inequities and disparities?”
Proposed solutions like geoengineering are a form of technological optimism that recreate systems of inequality by creating another mechanism to concentrate power in the hands of those who already have it.
Stephens called these approaches forms of “climate isolationism” that view climate change as a problem to be fixed as opposed to a complex system that needs to be handled with care and focus. Stephens points to solar geoengineering, which would inject aerosol into the stratosphere to cool the planet, as an approach that has garnered support with little regard for its systemic implications.
“One of the many problems with that is the benefits of cooling the planet would not be equal, just as the warming of the planet isn’t affecting everyone equally,” Stephens says.
It might seem like a simple change, but stratospheric aerosol injection could have disastrous effects on precipitation systems, disrupting seasonal rains and agricultural systems in the process.
“Given the complexities of the climate, it is so dangerous when scientists adopt a simple engineering approach assuming ‘This is the problem so we’re going to fix that narrow problem,'” Stephens says. “There are cascading negative social impacts of having that narrow, linear technocratic view of what the problem is. This approach is antithetical to what we know about how systems work, especially Earth systems.”
Despite their different fields of study, both Santillana and Stephens are using “The Climate Book” as an opportunity to educate readers with the conviction that with knowledge comes power.
“What I’m hoping is that we all acknowledge the role we have had and we still have and become more proactive,” Santillana says. “Being aware of that empowers us as humans to react and try to curb the way in which we are basically dumping pollution into the atmosphere and other resources like water.”