UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at NYU
I always thought it would be strange to be president of some prominent organization, be it a corporation, an NGO, a university, or a nation. It seems like a life packed with back to back meetings and speeches, campaign stops and fundraisers, and it makes me wonder: when do these people get to do actual work? It’s hard to imagine any of them writing a paper, building a spreadsheet, or digging a hole. Of course, there’s an upside to such a profession: influence. When the president speaks, people listen.
The air was thick with influence last night at NYU, as the presidents of 4 Ivy League Schools, the Secretary General of the U.N., and a smattering of academics gathered to talk about climate change. I’ve long suspected that there’s an inverse relationship between the rank or “importance” of people in a room and the substance of what they’ve got to say, but that rule would probably have been disproved last night.
Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University geophysicist and member of the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change, was the keynote speaker who gave attendees the 45 minute skinny on the latest climate change science. His message was just plain alarming. There hasn’t been this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 20,000 years, he said. And although the range of temperature increases identified by the IPCC as likely to occur by the end of the century ranges from one to six degrees, there are significant changes associated with fairly mild warming. With warming of between 1.5 and 3.5 degrees, for example, things like wholesale melting of the antarctic ice sheet and the extinction of 30% of all species are suddenly on the table.
The outcome of this conference is fairly fluffy; it may include a declaration or a report of some kind, but that’s optional. What seems more significant to me is the fact that these presidents could really get radical at their own universities. Last night I heard NYU President John Sexton repeat the assertion, made by many IPCC scientists in the wake of their latest report, that we’ve essentially got 3 years to hedge ourselves against catastrophic climate change. These are changing times, but whether the times are changing as quickly as the climes remains to be seen.