Letter from the Director: May 2016

Solutions. What are the problems for which we want to provide solutions? In scientific terms there are no problems, only phenomena that arise in accordance with physical laws. The chemistry and physics of the atmosphere is not problematic in and of itself. It has been noted in various ways and by diverse voices that the earth itself does not care one way or the other whether or not oceans are becoming acidic, glaciers are retreating, and average global temperatures are rising. The problems are in relation to living organisms and the biosphere. Consequences of carbon emissions do matter as fish stocks are threatened, fresh water runoffs are reduced, and extreme weather becomes prevalent. Furthermore, extinctions and reduced biodiversity are certainly important not only in direct relation to the health of our species but as a matter of ethics as we continue to dominate the planet.

Evidence of the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of humans is exemplified by the extent of our settlement of the earth. We occupy every continent, including Antarctica. In doing so, we have become exquisitely attuned to our environment. This observation, made by Prof. Kerry Emanuel at a climate symposium at MIT, also reveals our weakness. Our settlements and infrastructure are critically dependent on the environmental conditions that led to our civilization, economy, and culture. Our buildings, water systems, agriculture, have been designed on the basis of a climate that has been dependably stable over the emergence of human civilization.

Today, we know the climate is changing before our eyes. The knowledge we have gained from one of the largest scientific enterprises our species has ever undertaken tells us that we can no longer depend on the constancy of our environment. The variability that is emerging poses grave risks to the systems and infrastructure that provide energy, food, water, and critical materials to populations around the world.

Today, we also know that the global economy is changing and enormous demographic and cultural shifts are steadily ushering in a new world. In the coming decades the urban population will increase by 3 billion. China’s population is aging and Africa’s will double by 2050. The Internet connects us in extraordinary ways and yet one in five people do not have reliable access to electricity.

Our goals for mitigating carbon emissions and moving forward to invest in adaptation cannot be decoupled from our responsibilities to address the needs of people to live under humane conditions and flourish. The challenges to be found in the developing regions of this world are sobering and so is the fact that more than 20% of US children live in families with incomes below the poverty line.

The success of COP21 should be coupled to the mandates of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our critical need to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change should align with our renewed efforts to address environmental justice, urban health, access to education and many other critical needs of people around the world. The Environmental Solutions Initiative operates through this vision by advancing science, engineering, policy, design, the humanities, and the arts toward a people-centric and planet-positive future.

It is commonly suggested that no other species has ever affected the earth and its systems as dramatically as humans. This is not true. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere is a direct consequence of eons of microbial respiration. Those ancient microbes produced the life-sustaining atmosphere that then enabled the forces of evolution and led to the explosion of biodiversity, including us.

Our species has the opportunity to learn from this deep history and through our own activities recreate this life-giving function. If countless ancient microbes generated an atmosphere that has led to our living world, we can certainly take on the challenge of regenerating a life-sustaining world that is humane and uniquely human. The sun’s energy is the light inside of you and me. Solutions begin with understanding our inextricable relation to the environment and our fundamental responsibility to improve human lives and steward all living things.

John E. Fernández, Director
May 2016
Cambridge, Massachusetts