American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2012

By Luisa Cristini, PhD, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Last week I attended the Fall Meeting 2012 of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, California (USA). It’s an annual appointment that, together with the European Geosciences Union General Assembly every spring in Vienna (Austria), represents one of the world’s most important meetings for geoscientists. Over 20,000 presenters from all disciplines convene to talk about Earth, planetary and space sciences, to discuss common research interests and start collaborations across international boundaries.

It’s the first time that I’ve participated in this conference and I’m immediately overwhelmed by the many sessions ranging from biology to chemistry, to oceanography, to atmospheric sciences, to vulcanology, seismology, cryosphere, geophysics and many more. Oral presentations, poster sessions, workshops, panel discussions, art installations, video displays, luncheon meetings, evening receptions and social events (many happening at the same time!) fill all the rooms and halls of the Moscone Center and fill every minute from 6 AM until late in the night each day. Besides being an extremely important chance to learn new things and keep updated on the latest science, this conference also provides me with a nice occasion to meet friends and former colleagues. Receptions and other social events offered by the various institutions present at the conference are good places to continue the discussion, network and catch up with people I know.

I choose to focus on interdisciplinary and applied topics that I find more stimulating than specific sessions, most of which were related to climate sciences. Many of the presented studies, however, open more questions than they answer, so at the end of the conference I feel like there is still a lot to do, to investigate, and to understand. Data and results are presented in an “emotionless” way, some however are terrifying (given the current CO2 emissions and the fast rate of ocean acidification in some eighty years we won’t have any more corals?!). Some of the numbers, trends, and key messages that appear on the big screens in each conference room or auditorium are so serious that I wonder why the whole world is not looking at this conference with despair.

Throughout the week I attend sessions on education, global environmental change, natural hazards, public affairs, and the “Union” sessions, hosted directly by the AGU and covering topics of general interest. Below, I try to summarize them.


A series of talks addresses barriers, misconceptions and progress in improving climate literacy. The discussion focuses on how people perceive risk related to climate change and on the role of religious beliefs and political affiliation in this perception. Does education influence the perception of climate change-related risks? How can scientists use clearer language? Who do we listen to when we want to know more about climate change? Environmental education is more effective when people are engaged in hands-on activities towards conservation (just like the Gamiing Nature Center does!). Scientists should never put themselves at a higher level and lecture from above, but instead make connections with people’s daily life to explain concepts and support their statements with examples.

Global environmental change

One of the busiest, this session hosts talks and posters on how to achieve a sustainable future and explores the links between climate, resources and development. The quantification of the effects of emission targets is attempted. Due to greenhouse gases emissions being higher than projected (because countries who promised to cut emissions did not actually cut them), apparently it’s not possible anymore to constrain the global temperature rise within two degrees centigrade. What will happen over that threshold? A booklet from the National Research Council explains the impacts by degree of warming.

A speaker opens her presentation by noting that this conference takes place at the same time as the UNFCCC climate change conference in Doha, Qatar, where policy-makers and world leaders are discussing climate adaptation policies and trying to agree on emission targets and commitments. Ironically, some of the world-leading climate scientists are here in San Francisco instead of sitting at that table on the other side of the world. No wonder the Doha conference closes with no agreement or practical action, as we find out from the news at the end of the week.

Some presentations focus on the uncertainty in climate change. Uncertainty has two different aspects for interdisciplinary science: 1) Analytical and numerical uncertainty, such as variability of observed results compared to simulated, how we estimate model bias or errors and the difference in model outcomes that do and do not include critical processes (e.g., cloud parameterization in atmospheric models) in their framework. 2) Qualitative uncertainty is significant component of our understanding of issues like evaluation criteria that can be used when implementing new policy or infrastructure and social/cultural responses to new and existing policies. In projecting future climate, major uncertainties concern natural climate variability, feedback processes, limitations to scientific knowledge, emission scenarios, response of the climate system and its subcomponents, and the fact that many numerical models are used for climate projections, which sometimes do not give the same results. How to deal with each of these uncertainties remains an open question.

Several talks in this session focus on climate change impacts on agriculture, water resources, and energy. How can we adapt to the projected impacts? How can we make these resources more resilient? All these resources and sectors are linked to human wellbeing. How then will  our wellbeing be impacted by climate change? What changes will we need to make in our daily life to adapt to climate change? Is it possible to make choices that favor sustainability (and our wellbeing)? The discussion seems to focus mostly on water, the key sector to which all others are connected. How can we provide fresh, clean water to the world’s increasing population? How can we reduce our impact on water resources in the area where we live? Do we know where our water comes from? Do we know the name of the watershed where we live? How can we reuse wastewater? How can we reduce water pollution from agriculture and increase water quality? Each case is different and each and every one of us has the power to make the difference in some way.

Natural hazards

A session of particular interest for my current research, this one focuses on risk reduction in areas prone to disasters. Talks and posters analyze earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, but also climate-related hazards that can be exacerbated by climate change: flooding, storms, heavy rainfall events, landslides, and drought. The whole spectrum of natural disaster is discussed, from low-frequency/high-impact (e.g., earthquakes) to high-frequency/low-impact (e.g., drought) events. How can we improve resilience of environment and communities?

Public affairs

In another very interesting and attended session, the presentations investigate the relationship between science and the public. What are denial and manufactured doubt and how do they oppose science in the 21st century? What is the role of scientific societies, such as the AGU, in improving public opinion on climate change? Christine McEntee, AGU Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, tries to answer.

How should scientists address science denial? Examples are evolution, climate change, and vaccination: in these cases and others, scientists and educators are confronted by organized campaigns to spread doubt, denial, and rejection of the scientific community’s consensus on central scientific principles. To overcome these threats, scientists not only need to spread scientific knowledge, but must also address the social drivers of science denial.

The issue of climate contrarianism is addressed: conspiracies, movable goals (i.e., trying to shift the aim of a discussion), and cherry picking (i.e., choosing only particular, controversial points, leaving out the central argument) are explained as strategies used by deniers (a fresh example is given by a skeptical blogger who published parts of the upcoming IPCC AR5). As it is pointed out, deniers are often highly educated and with scientific background (most of the time, however, they are experts in disciplines very different from climate or Earth sciences). Therefore they are able to give plausible answers to open questions and inculcate doubt. This is why it’s crucial for climate scientist to be able to communicate their results in a clear and undeniable way. On the other hand, the public and whoever is interested needs to ask reputable institutions and experts when in doubt. Check out my blog “Beat the skeptic” for some resources.

The link between democracy, climate deniers and commercial interests is considered and how the latter have influenced the dialogue on climate change. Can freedom of opinion be brought up when talking about (climate) science? How are some industries trying to direct public opinion to protect their economic interests? The case of tobacco is still fresh in the memory of most participants.

Fortunately, agencies providing climate information services are becoming more numerous. They can support communication and adaptation strategies providing a bridge between climate scientists and public.

Union lectures

I find these lectures the most interesting and stimulating as they are longer than in the other sessions (30 min versus 15 min) and therefore explain the studies more in detail. They are also very interdisciplinary and merge natural and social sciences. The lectures are also followed by a panel discussion where the panelists and the audience have better chance to discuss certain issues more deeply.

A panel discussion focuses on quantitative modeling of social and environmental systems. What will be the human dimension of environmental change? What are the sectors of human society most vulnerable to climate change? A speaker presents a way to quantify the economic value of ecosystem services humankind benefits from (i.e., the multitude of resources and processes that are supplied by natural ecosystems such as clean water and waste decomposition). If the ecosystem is damaged by climate change or our overexploitation, the services that ecosystem provides will need to be provided by someone/something else. At high cost. Therefore it actually makes more sense to invest money in conserving an ecosystem rather than pay for the service that it already provides us at no cost.

The most interesting lectures in this session are, in my opinion, those that explore the links between climate change and urbanization and food production.

Karen Seto and her urbanization and global change group at Yale University forecasted the global human expansion and the direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools. Human population is not only increasing very quickly (we are now 7 billion and will be 9 billion by 2050), but is also moving to the cities thereby increasing urbanization. The problem is, however, that most of the cities that are experiencing population growth are not able to host the new people and their infrastructures are becoming inadequate. This is especially the case in Asian metropolises. Also, this migratory flow has a huge impact on the natural ecosystem of both the rural areas that are left behind, as well as on the newly occupied areas surrounding the city.

The increasing population adds challenges to climate change for agriculture and food production. Food challenges include: the need to feed everyone on the planet and the fact that future demand needs to be met while maintaining a viable planet.

Currently 40% of Earth’s land ecosystem are used for agriculture or urbanized, with wheat and rice alone providing half of the world’s calories. How can we assure food security and environmental conservation at the same time? Five steps are suggested: (1) stop deforestation, (2) sustainable intensification (i.e., increase food production in the areas that are already producing through efficiency-increasing practices), (3) reduce the use of water and chemicals, (4) rethink diets and biofuels encouraging the consumption of locally-grown and seasonal products, and (5) reduce waste.