Opinion guest column

How was your (hot) summer?

The necessity for climate action begs for a mother lode of invention

“How was your summer?” asked your friend or roommate, lab mate, coach, advisor, fraternity brother or sorority sister. As Head of Baker House, I also wanted to know about summers at Google and Goldman, in California and China, traveling, relaxing at home.

I’ve been on the faculty 19 years and this year I heard something different. Besides, “fine, busy, chill…” I’ve also heard “wow, it was hot!”, “super-hot,” and “tired of fires and floods.”  

Until recently, climate change was about the future: 2050, 2100, and beyond. It was speculative, somewhere else. You may have noticed; the future has changed. Back home, where your family lives, where you grew up, where you interned, where you traveled for vacation or work or research, the answer to “How was your summer?” has changed permanently.

If you were in California, temperatures around the state topped 110 degrees Farenheit (43 ºC); San Diego 117 F (47.2 ºC), UCLA 111 F (43.8 ºC). In the north, you had some things to contend with: 105 F (40.6 ºC) in San Francisco and the largest fire in state history, the Medocino Complex Fire, which started in late July and consumed 495,000 acres and was only just contained last week.

If you were in the western U.S., Denver tied a record high of 105 ºF. If you hail from the mid-Atlantic and southeast coast of the U.S., from Long Island down to the southern tip of Florida, you had sunny day flooding; also known as nuisance flooding that is getting worse, faster than predicted, driven by sea level rises of about one inch per year.

Or if you were hanging out on the beautiful beaches of southwest Florida, you had that awful and enormous red tide to deal with. Prompted by several factors, chief among them the concentration of nutrients from industrial scale agriculture, these kinds of algal blooms — and the massive die-off of fish and other sea life — will become much more difficult to prevent and control with rising sea temperatures.

Of course, what we notice over one particular summer is only a small part of the climate changes that are now all around us. Are you from the Midwest?  Between the 100th and 98th meridian lines (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas)? If so, you might know that the arid west is moving east. That is, the arid grazing plains of the west are overtaking the cornfields of the east and bringing serious worry to family farms and livelihoods.

The summer was a disaster to some regions completely unprepared for heat waves. In Quebec, where only 53 percent of households have air conditioning, 54 deaths were attributed to temperatures in the 90s ºF (low- to mid-30s ºC) with Montreal hitting 97.9 ºF (36.6 ºC). Forty percent of the deaths due to this heatwave in Montreal were women 60 years and older.

If you had the good fortune to be abroad, well, your summer in Scandinavia was hot and plagued by fires too. England posted one of the driest summers on record with London suffering through a heat wave. Many — too many to list here — monthly record temperatures were set in Amsterdam, above the Arctic circle, two dozen Chinese cities and provinces, and many more. Norway and Japan set new national high temperature records, and in the middle east, Quriyat, Oman recorded the planet’s hottest daily low temperature ever: 109 ºF (42.6 ºC).

So, by now you get my message. Our climate has changed, and now we have no choice but to contend with it. You likely already have this past summer. It’s as simple as that. No choice. It’s here, and it’s real.

And it will continue. It doesn’t take a hurricane to cause massive coastal flooding; if forecasts hold, as many as 20 North Carolina coastal communities may be submerged during the next 15 years. By 2100, the U.S. eastern seaboard may be under siege with 500–700 coastal communities inundated. By the way, many past forecasts underestimated the current rate of sea level rise to date.

I’ve written this piece for The Tech because I am addressing you — undergrads and graduate students, younger members of staff and faculty. You will live well into the second half of this century, and some of you may actually see the year 2100 given some of the more optimistic predictions on increasing longevity. You have lived your entire lives in a changed climate, and you will know whether there will be a complete loss of Arctic ice, massive calving of Antarctic ice shelves, disastrous sea level rise and coastal retreat, increasingly powerful storms, and more.

You will live to see what we do about it. You may be understandably cynical about the prospects for real action, but remember, we’ve logged some recent massive successes on other fronts. We pulled 1 billion people out of extreme poverty. We’ve gone a long way toward healing the ozone hole. We essentially shut down acid rain, and more. We can solve climate change.

You can start today. Go beyond meat — be smart about your electricity use; defend science; support a price on carbon — but don’t stop there. As an MIT student, ask yourself: how can your declared major invent solutions to climate change? AI for natural landscapes and agriculture that maximize carbon capture and biodiversity; engineering and design of net-zero carbon cities and aircraft; green chemistry for lower temperature industrial processes; genetic engineering for the next food revolution; dematerialized business models for an economy that fully values our natural capital. Imagine starting a viral campaign on social media that reduces global plastic pollution. Start a company to support the circular economy — make billions while securing the planet for billions. Ask your 8.02 professor — how can I learn what I need to make a difference?

Sound idealistic? You can believe so, but only until it all becomes critical. Then it’s just necessary. Do you think it’s necessary yet?

To know more, visit https://environmentalsolutions.mit.edu/ and the newly launched MIT Climate Portal at https://climate.mit.edu which will lead you to the many groups working toward a humane and sustainable future; MIT Energy Initiative, Sloan Sustainability Initiative, J-WAFS, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the Lorenz Center and others.

John Fernández ’85 is the director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative and a professor in the Department of Architecture. 

Update 9/27/18: edited the author’s bio to include his role in ESI.