Climate Champion

Fire insurance? Check. Climate insurance? Not yet. Nobel Prize winner Terry Root says it’s time for that to change

By Josie Garthwaite

Biologist Terry Root investigates how climate change affects wildlife. (Photo Courtesy Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University)

Al Gore may have grabbed the headlines for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but he actually shared the award with the thousands of scientists who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Stanford University biologist Terry Root, a lead author on the group’s most recent two reports on global warming, was brought on board for her expertise in finding large-scale patterns and connections between animal communities and climate change.

The latest IPCC report highlights several of Root’s findings, including the discovery that animal and plant species are shifting their ranges toward the poles and higher elevations. And over the last 30 years, seasonal events like blooming and migration have occurred about 5 days earlier with every passing decade. Plenty spoke with Root about her work on the panel, where the planet’s headed, and what we can do about it.

Why use wildlife as a litmus test for climate change?
We can use plants and animals to show us that humans are causing climate change, and that it’s not natural. One of the reasons I did this study is because thermometer readings were all showing warming, but satellites weren’t. Everybody knew the satellites were wrong— that there was some mathematical error—but there were a lot of naysayers. The temperature was going up so rapidly that species couldn’t stay up with it, and I said, “Well, hell, we can look at plants and animals. They’re not going to lie.”

Is the debate on climate change settled?
There is absolutely no way that someone can say the temperature is not going up—because it is. They can argue about how much is due to humans. But if you have any sense, you will realize that we are using the atmosphere as a free sewer. We have so much gunk up there, and the theory fits perfectly. But some people don’t want to believe that we can hurt something as big as the planet. So there are people who will never believe it—just like evolution. But I’m hopeful that the general public will believe a body of 5,000 scientists that have received the Nobel Prize, versus six or seven naysayers.

What can an individual take away from the very complex IPCC reports?
The fact that rising temperature is going to disrupt the balance of nature. And that we risk damage to our ecosystem services—like the insects that pollinate our crops. You’re tearing apart these animal and plant communities. You’re reformulating them, and it’s going to be very dramatic. If the average temperature goes up to 2 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels, 20 percent of the known species will be slated for extinction. Will they go extinct right then? No. We have a lot of what we call ‘functionally extinct’ species now—species with too few individuals to stave off extinction. If we don’t go out with our U-Haul trailer and get them and move them someplace else, they’ll disappear.

Is there anything that non-scientists can do to change the course?
Oh my god is there a lot they can do! It’s just like voting. People say, ‘I don’t have to go vote; it’s just one vote.’ That’s a bunch of crap. If you change your light bulbs, if you reduce the amount of traveling that you do in your car, if you insulate your roof, if you paint your roof white—get up there and paint it white—it will change.

Now that the last IPCC report on climate change is finished, what’s the next step?
Getting the word out to the public. Then people can get policymakers to treat this as a real issue. We have a higher probability now of really damaging the earth than we do of having a fire in our own homes. We all have fire insurance, but we’re not doing very much to provide some insurance for the earth. I think the people who walk the earth right now are probably the most privileged people that will ever be on the planet. But because we have an ethic of just throwing things away, it’s not going to last. But it can change. By and large we have dramatically reduced smoking, which shows that we can change. But we have not had the leadership. We need someone who has the power to lead the charge on global warming.

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