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2009 Annual Lecture Series

Lecture Summaries
June 8-12, 2009

Monday, June 8, 3:30 p.m.
Chasing Nitrogen Atoms: The Global Nitrogen Cycle
William Schlesinger, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies


William H. Schlesinger will not find answers to his questions in a laboratory. “It’s ecosystem science at its largest scale,” he said, “The planetary system.”

Schlesinger, the president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, spoke Monday at the Metcalf Institute’s Annual Public Lecture Series. His talk, Chasing Nitrogen Atoms: The Global Nitrogen Cycle, focused on the biotic and human contributions to the nitrogen cycle.

Because of the scale of his work – the entire planet – modeling is an essential tool. There are no replicate planets to study, no smaller-scale systems to observe. Instead, Schlesinger said, he uses all of the available data and looks backwards to see if he can accurately describe past conditions.

Using simplified, one-panel cartoons, Schlesinger explained to the audience of scientists, journalists and members of the general public, the natural components of the nitrogen cycle – plants, bacteria, and lightning. The picture became more complicated as he added human contributions – such as coal-fired power plants, cars, and fixed nitrogen compounds, used for weapons and fertilizer.

Schlesinger emphasized that the cartoons were good for more than a chuckle; they were a useful tool for communicating complex scientific issues – to journalists and the public. Schlesinger, who has testified before U.S. House and Senate Committees and worked with policy makers, said that the first thing a policy analyst will ask is “what difference do humans make?”

“These diagrams can show that clearly,” he said. “And when simplified enough, they’re kind of useful for the journalism world as well.”

But the crux of Schlesinger’s talk was one question: Where does the nitrogen go? Human activities have been increasing levels of nitrogen, so where is this excess being stored?

Schlesinger proposed five possible pathways to explain the fate of the extra 150 teragrams (or 10^12 grams) of nitrogen that humans apply to the earth’s surface each year, beyond the pre-industrial levels of the element.

  • Some nitrogen (about 9 teragrams, Tg) is stimulating the growth of plants, and not just in agriculture. Schlesinger said nitrogen used in farms might also escape, ultimately ending up in forests.
  • Some nitrogen (between 30-40 Tg of the human input) is going into rivers – Schlesinger estimates that the amount of nitrogen being added to rivers and oceans has roughly doubled with the addition of human activity.
  • Although there is very little scientific literature to confirm the amount of nitrogen going into groundwater, Schlesinger assumes that all nitrogen found in groundwater (estimated at 15 Tg/year) is the product of human activity.
  • Denitrification (by which inorganic nitrate is converted to gaseous nitrogen), such as happens in wetlands, is another important pathway for nitrogen. Although it is difficult to accurately measure denitrification rates because of the large background of naturally occurring gaseous nitrogen in the atmosphere, Schlesinger estimates that this process accounts for 17 teragrams of nitrogen.
  • Referring to recent estimates, Schlesinger also cited atmospheric transport to the ocean as a pathway for 48 Tg of nitrogen per year.

After all is said and done, these five sinks for nitrogen do not quite match the total human-mediated nitrogen inputs, Schlesinger said. He went on to note that 249 Tg of nitrogen/year can be accounted for out of the total of 295 Tg entering the land-based nitrogen cycle each year. Still, he said, accounting for 84 percent of the total terrestrial nitrogen budget is “pretty good,” considering the uncertainties inherent in this kind of global scale estimate.


Tuesday, June 9, 3:30 p.m.
Thresholds of Climate Change in Ecosystems
Colleen Charles, U.S. Geological Survey


A dry season, overgrazing, flooding – each of these conditions can lead to changes in an ecosystem. But with the increasing instability of our climate system, a succession of changes can drive a domino effect, propagating changes that may be irreversible in certain ecosystems.

Colleen Charles, of the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke Tuesday at the Metcalf Institute’s Public Lecture Series. Her talk, the “Thresholds of Climate Change in Ecosystems,” emphasized that while we don’t know what conditions lead to such a tipping point, it is important that scientists attempt to find where these thresholds are to improve management strategies and to identify the ecosystem impacts of threshold changes.

For the purposes of the report, which Charles worked on with 16 authors for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, “ecosystem threshold” is defined as “the point at which there is an abrupt change in an ecosystem quality, property or phenomenon, or where small changes in one or more external conditions produce large and persistent responses in the ecosystem.”

Although we understand how some direct human stressors – such as cropping, irrigation, etc. – can affect an ecosystem, the addition of another layer of instability, such as that caused by climate change, can change the picture dramatically, “helping that ecosystem [to] quicken its pace along the trajectory of meeting its threshold,” Charles said.

To help policy makers and management agencies plan for the possibility of reaching ecosystem thresholds, the report makes policy recommendations for the period before a threshold is reached, during a threshold, and after the ecosystem has transformed.

Before a threshold is crossed, Charles said, management agencies should first and foremost support research to better identify and understand the factors that lead to ecosystem tipping points. But in the face of inevitable shifts due to climate change, managers also should improve their adaptive capacity to prepare ecosystems for the pending changes, in an effort to increase the systems’ resilience to change. Management agencies should also try to reduce those ecosystem stressors that are within their control.

During a threshold event, projections can prove valuable in determining how the goods and services of an ecosystem may be affected. A threshold event is also a good time to promote institutional changes in management that will help an ecosystem adapt and survive the changes.

Once the threshold event has taken place, the obvious challenge will be adjusting to a new ecosystem; but it is also a good opportunity to look back and use the experience as a learning tool for other ecosystems. In the end, the adaptive management method is about learning, and evolving. And we have much to learn, Charles said.

“The bottom line is we really don’t know a lot about thresholds,” she added. The report identified important next steps, including the identification of processes and indicators of threshold change and the expansion of management approaches to regional scales, in order to match the likely scales of ecosystem change.

To read the report, which includes additional policy recommendations, visit


Tuesday, June 10, 3:30 p.m.
Will Our Coasts Survive Climate Change?
Christophe Tulou, Resilient Coasts Initiative


We hear it after so many natural disasters – floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, hurricanes – “We will rebuild!” But is that the smart thing to do from an economic perspective?

Christophe Tulou, co-director of the Resilient Coasts Initiative, talked to a group of journalists and scientists at the Metcalf Institute’s Annual Public Lecture Series Wednesday. The Initiative is a joint project of the Heinz Center and CERES, with the goal of bringing a broad coalition of coastal interests together to build consensus on the adaptation measures needed to address coastal hazards, especially those related to climate change impacts. For 20 years, Tulou said, he has been watching the cycle of development, disaster and rebuilding. It appears that he has come up with a magic bullet solution for keeping homeowners out of harm’s way in vulnerable areas:

“Don’t build there.”

Of course, things are never that easy. And the scope of the problem is vast. By the middle of the century, Tulou said, there are expected to be about 200 million “climate change refugees,” people who have lost their homes due to changes in their environment brought about by climate change.

This includes, but is not limited to, coastal regions, which are already subject to sea level rise from the natural force of land subsidence, but face even more drastic changes if sea levels rise at the rates projected as a result of melting ice sheets. And this rise is not only a concern if the worst case scenario of a five meter (~16 foot) increase in sea levels comes to pass: an increase of only 30 centimeters in sea level would increase the risk of flooding 5 to 6 times.

But climate change alone is not the reason that financial losses due to natural disasters have been doubling every 10 years since the 1960s, Tulou said.

“It’s where we choose to grow,” he said. “And where we choose to invest. Where we choose to live … where we choose to spend money.”

As of 2007, coastal properties along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of the United States were insured for about $9 trillion dollars. But these coastal values are grossly overrated, Tulou said, when you consider the various risk factors in these areas. Getting all involved parties – property owners, politicians and insurers – to agree on the true value of coastal properties will be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, Tulou said, there are several ways to lessen the financial blows dealt by nature. First and foremost, we need better information about climate change; better data for more accurate predictions. Also, coastal towns need to initiate risk-based zoning laws and consider no-build ordinances, or development rights purchasing programs.

Cities and towns also need to strengthen infrastructure along the coasts, decentralizing energy production and delivery, making it less susceptible to failure. And private insurance needs to become a viable player in the process of making coastal cities and towns more resilient. Governments also need a way to help implement these changes without putting an unbearable burden on the poor.

A list of “to-dos” is a start, but implementation will prove difficult, Tulou said, and not only because so many of the changes are controlled by different levels of government or the private sector.

Another of the bigger cultural blocks to implementing this blueprint for coastal resilience is the perception of “beach-front property” as something to be desired.

“We can more effectively deal with policy issues when the value of coastal property comes down,” Tulou said. “When people realize it’s not … valuable just because it’s on the coast.”


Thursday, June 11, 3:30 p.m.
Is Journalism Dying? The Future of News, Journalism, and Journalists
Tom Rosenstiel, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism


There’s good news and there’s bad news, but the point is, there is still news and people still want access to it.

The good news, Tom Rosenstiel said at Thursday’s Metcalf Institute Public Lecture, is that the audience for news outlets – traditional news outlets – is growing. The bad news is that for traditional news outlets, a bigger audience no longer means a bigger revenue stream. Rosenstiel regularly monitors these trends as Director of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism, based in Washington, D.C.

“Journalism’s challenge is not fundamentally an audience problem,” Rosenstiel said, “It’s a revenue problem.”

Advertisers no longer need newspapers to reach an audience because there is plenty of free or cheap advertising available online. And even newspapers with successful Web sites only make about 10% of their revenue from the Internet.

“And they can’t figure out a way to make that grow anymore,” Rosenstiel said.

There are some indicators, however, of what direction the traditional news outlets will have to go in order to turn profits that come close to the ones they have made in the past.

One of the changes in how news outlets represent themselves online is in the direction of the flow of information. Instead of trying to draw readers into a Web site – and charging them once they get there – news outlets are focusing on pushing content out onto the Web.

They are also forging partnerships with other news and information services. “Do what you do best and borrow the rest,” Rosenstiel said. And public participation is growing, with the encouragement of some news outlets. Both of these circumstances are putting more power in the hands of individuals, shifting it away from journalistic institutions.

These changes will force traditional news outlets to change how they perceive themselves. No longer “gatekeepers” of information, Rosenstiel said, there are a few new roles that journalists can play in the 21st Century:

  • Authenticator: How much of what is found on the Internet is true? Traditional media can remain a place for facts, helping readers know what is true and what is not.
  • Sense-maker: “When information is in oversupply, knowledge is harder to create,” Rosenstiel said. One Web site says that a new piece of legislation is bad. Another says it’s good. But what does the bill actually say? Traditional media can help explain the world around us without simply abiding to an ideology.
  • Watchdog: As it’s been in the past, traditional media can still serve as a watchdog, it can help shape dialogue and hold people accountable to their actions.
  • Smart Aggregator: There are currently a variety of news aggregation sites, such as Yahoo and Google News. But these aggregators can return a daunting 2,000 stories per query, Rosenstiel said. Traditional news outlets can skim through those stories, presenting readers with a smaller number of relevant articles.
  • Forum leader: Traditional media Web sites can help guide public conversation and provide a space for the conversation to take place.
  • Role model: As more members of the public find themselves in the role of journalist – snapping photos on a mobile phone, or writing on a local blog, trained journalists and traditional media institutions can help them into the world of journalism.

Rosenstiel affirmed that there is still a place for traditional media, but is there a way to fund these outlets? He has several suggestions for new financial models:

  • Cable model: Ad a fee to an existing bill – an Internet bill, for example – that covers a user’s access to news content.
  • Retail mall: Have media outlets create a virtual space for communities with links and information about local goods and services and an online marketplace with the revenue from transactions and business going toward the parent news outlet.
  • Niche products: Industries pay a lot of money for specialized information about their field. Successful news outlets may end up covering just Washington, or just the pharmaceutical industry, or just the Parks and Recreations Department.
  • Challenge aggregators: Anyone can opt out of Google. If they chose to, news organizations could all pull out of this largest news aggregator, making the news searchable on a new search engine, funded by advertisers and unavailable to other Web sites.

So there’s good news and bad. But, Rosenstiel said, the bad news isn’t nearly as bad as the industry had been predicting. People thought the public was going to flee traditional journalism in favor of blogs and aggregator sites.

If the future that we had imagined had actually happened, Rosenstiel said, “the news industry wouldn’t have a chance.”


Friday, June 12, 11:00 a.m.
Predicting the Costs of Climate Change
John Reilly, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, M.I.T. Sloan School of Management


How much is mitigating climate change going to cost? How much will it cost me? How much will it cost you? Our country? The world?

These are big questions that invite many methods for calculating solutions … but no answers, John Reilly said. Reilly, Associate Director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at MIT, was the final speaker at the Metcalf Institute’s 2009 Annual Public Lecture Series.

He covered possible mitigation scenarios, possible costs, and possible benefits. In the end, there is no magic bullet.

“But if we can’t get the absolute best policy,” he said “we shouldn’t throw in the towel and give up.”

Reilly identified a long list of complicating factors that make it difficult to make economic projections of climate change mitigation plans.

A cost benefit analysis becomes increasingly difficult when the entire world has to be taken into consideration. “We’re not just comparing a few people down the street,” Reilly said. Cost benefit analysis of climate change policies need to take international considerations into account.

While some economic effects will link directly to financial markets – energy policy, for instance – many effects of new policies will manifest in non-market spheres, such as uninhabited rainforests. We don’t have a good idea how the market and “non-market” services are related, and what financial gains or costs are associated with the non-market services provided by ecosystems.

“Fundamentally,” Reilly said, “we don’t know how integral some of those things are to the economy.”

Another complication arises from the long staying power of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Modeling the future becomes difficult when, even if we stopped emitting today, there is an inertia in the global climate system that cannot currently be predicted. “We’re trying to understand a world that’s obviously very difficult to understand. That uncertainty runs deep,” he said. Trying to formulate policies where virtually all of the variables and risks are unknown is, realistically, a nearly impossible task.

Despite the challenges, Reilly and the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change have created some models to start to figure out what the costs of climate change mitigation will be.

Using colorful pie charts that look like roulette wheels – which were developed when the Wall Street Journal asked for a simple visual that readers could understand – Reilly demonstrated that the model results are stark. With no mitigation policies, the median global temperature increase we can expect is 5.2 degrees Centigrade by 2050, with a chance of reaching a 7-degree rise.

With different policy implementations, we can possibly reach safer levels, within the 2-3 degree C range, but we wouldn’t be out of the woods.

The costs will be significant, but manageable, depending especially on how the burden is distributed. Many developing countries, such as China and India, have been calling for the developed world to make the first move, and possibly to subsidize their mitigation programs.

A 70/30 percent burden share of the mitigation costs – with the developing countries paying 30 percent and the developed countries contributing 70 percent – would put a much greater proportional burden on the developing countries in terms of the losses in their GDPs.

Another option would be for the developed nations to share the entire bill equally, allowing the developing nations to avoid paying the costs of mitigating climate change. In this case, the developed nations would lose about 2 percent of their GDPs initially, reaching about 10 percent by 2050.

“It’s not going to wreck the economy, [but] it’s going to cost something,” Reilly said. Reilly was adamant that the public should be fully aware of the costs of mitigating climate change, despite concerns that people have resisted paying more for domestic programs, much less subsidizing other countries.

If policymakers insist that a mitigation program won’t cost much, “and people find out it does, then it’s going to cause backlash.”

Ultimately, Reilly said, these models and forecasts are not going to tell us what to do or how much it will cost. And in the end, the optimal policy will not come from one single model. “It’s kind of a dream idea that we can even calculate the optimal model,” he said.

But his work can add relevant information to the public debate about climate change, mitigation and costs. “Really,” he said, “what we do has to be a negotiated discussion where the public participates.”

Reilly ended on an optimistic note. He added that even a limited climate mitigation policy is better than nothing. “If we can’t get the absolute best policy, we shouldn’t turn in the towel and give up.”