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Reporter addresses climate change

| Thursday, February 27, 2014

Justin Gillis, an environmental reporter for The New York Times, said at a lecture in Hesburgh Library on Wednesday that he wants to awaken people to the urgency of the climate change.

Gillis, one of only six American reporters covering the climate crisis full-time defined climate change as “a big, slow-moving, long-term problem.”

“Scientists do not know with any great certainty what will happen if we continue on with business as usual,” Gillis said. “Scientists can tell us one thing with absolute certainty: That we are running a huge risk.”

He said rising temperatures in the Arctic Circle pose a huge risk for the future, but people fail to see the urgency of the problem, and fossil fuel emissions continue to rise at an accelerating pace.

“The government is not addressing the problem because they are not being pressured by the people,” Gillis said.

The potential consequences of the climate crisis range from bad to worse, Gillis said. At the lower end of the spectrum, people might have to flee rising seas, he said. On the upper end, a high portion of the Earth’s wildlife might go extinct and humans might reach a point at which they can no longer grow enough food to feed themselves.

According to Gillis, despite a national understanding that climate change is a pressing crisis, there is a lack of motivation to act. In addition, the climate story is not changing much, slowing the issue’s journalistic coverage, he said.

“The average reporter has real trouble understanding the science and getting the basics right,” Gillis said.

He said people will inevitably understand the immediacy of climate change’s consequences, but it is important to recognize this sooner than later.

“I fear it will not be brilliant journalism that finally awakens people, but a sense of danger,” he said.

Gillis said the best way to combat this problem is through education, and he called on college students to help.

“American universities have been the world’s leader in helping change this problem,” Gillis said. “You discovered it, and now you must help find a way out of it.”

The Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (ECI) is dedicated to the cause of climate change, providing money for faculty to spearhead research programs to solve complex environmental problems, according to their website.

The ECI funds research grants for undergraduates interested in climate change, and it is also connected to minors in sustainability, energy studies and science, technology and values, according to their website.

Gillis said it is up to the young people of today to take up the baton of climate change because the older generation has failed.

“To the young people in the audience: This is not a hopeless situation,” Gillis said. “As small as you may feel and as big as this problem may seem, you can make a difference.

“I find among young people a kind of clarity on the situation that is lacking in their elders.”

Gillis wrote a series on climate change for The New York Times called “The Temperatures Rising,” that is now available as an e-book. He said he is beginning a new series that analyzes whether or not mankind can undo the damage on the climate and how.

“It will critically vet six or eight of the major proposed sanctions on global warming,” he said.

In the meantime, Gillis said climate justice, a problem rooted in the fact that those people most directly affected by climate change are not the same people damaging the environment, intrigues him and his editors.

Gillis said the world’s poorest people, living in coastal places like the Philippines, are in line to be devastated by climate change, but the highest emissions come from urbanized cities.

Gillis said his biggest fear is people will not start learning about climate change and understanding the risks until it is too late.

“Collective action always begins with individual people,” he said.

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