Planet in Peril

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz talks about the upcoming series examining climate change

On Monday, Jan. 25, the UA College of Science Spring Lecture Series kicks off at 7 p.m. at Centennial Hall. This year's topic is Earth Transformed, an examination of the impacts of climate change on the planet. The first speaker is Joellen Russell, an 1885 Society Distinguished Scholar and associate professor of geosciences in the UA College of Science, who will discuss "The Ocean's Role in Climate: Heat and Carbon Uptake in the Anthropocene." The series continues through March 6. For more information, visit

Why did you pick climate change as a topic?

We've been doing this series for 11 years and 10 years ago, the topic was global climate change. So much has happened that we thought it was important to show how the earth has really been transformed. Ten years ago, we were still debating it and now we're not.

There's a lot of political debate in this country about whether climate change is happening, or if man is contributing to climate change, but there's not much debate within the scientific community. What do you make of arguments that your measurements are all wrong or even that it's just a massive hoax?

It is now clear that the general consensus in the scientific community is that the climate is changing. We have all the measurements we need for that. It correlates beautifully with the industrial revolution and so on. We also have chemical fingerprints to show where the carbon from the CO2 is coming from. So we have everything we need as scientists to clearly show we are the culprits for this particular change. People like touse the fact that the Earth is variable and at one point or another the Earth has been a snowball—it's been frozen a few times in its history. It's been way warmer than it is now, when the dinosaurs were milling around. But it always correlates with CO2. At those times, when there were no humans, the CO2 came from burps from the ocean or volcanic emanations. There are all kinds of ways we can show what it was. But now we're clear that it's humankind. And in the end, we need to do something to reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. The sad thing about it is, there is a social justice component to climate change. A lot of people who are really getting dinged by the climate change are farmers in poor parts of the world where they don't have any more water and in other places where farms are being completed damaged because of floods they've never seen in the history of the place, and that is a shame.

Can you explain to the casual reader why releasing the carbon into the atmosphere is resulting in higher temperatures?

What happens is, radiation is trapped by CO2, and the energy that is trapped is emitted as heat. So it has a multiplier effect and that's why small amounts of CO2 can make such a big difference. We've sort of goofed as scientists by using the term "greenhouse gases" and trying to argue that the earth is kind of like a greenhouse, and the heat comes in and can't escape. It's way worse than that. It's that radiation comes in, gets trapped by the CO2, and the CO2 emits heat. So that is not exactly like a greenhouse, it's a multiplier. In the 1990s, [Biosphere 2] did some incredibly elegant experiments to see what the ocean in the Biosphere would do when you increase CO2. And as you increase CO2 to 400 parts per million, which is what we have on the Earth today, the ocean in the Biosphere Acidified, corals died, and they wrote some very important papers predicting exactly what's going on today.

Give me an overview of the lecture series.

We have speakers that are going to address the ocean, the atmosphere, food security and the ecosystems. Then we're going to get into health—does global climate change health patterns? Then we're going to get into what we're going to what can we do about it, so we're going to have an engineer talk about clean energy and carbon sequestration. And the last speaker will try to put it all together and summarize it for the public.

You start the lecture series on Monday, Jan. 25, with UA geosciences professor Joellen Russell, talking about the ocean's role in climate change. What will we learn there?

We don't pay enough attention to the oceans as laypeople, but in the end, the oceans are the things that mostly control global climate change. It's the biggest sink of heat, the biggest sink of CO2, it really drives how much CO2 is going to be in the atmosphere. And it also drives, because of the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere and weather.