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Interview: The US government policy on greenhouse gas emissions has been a disaster during the last eight years!

By: Ahmadreza Tavassoli, Kourosh Ziabari


Professor Dara Entekhabi

Professor Dara Entekhabi is a word-renowned Iranian scholar of climatology and  The Director of Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and  Engineering who currently serves as the Professor of Civil and Environmental  Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


So far, he has won several international awards for his academic breakthroughs and discoveries in the field of climatology and environmental engineering from which the National Science Foundation (NSF), Presidential Young Investigator in 1991, Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Cav. Arturo Parisatti Prize in 1994 and  American Geophysical Union (AGU), Macelwane Young Scientist Medal could be mentioned.


Given the incremental geographical and environmental disasters worldwide and the growing concerns over the calamitous phenomenon of climate change, we interviewed Prof. Entekhaabi to elaborate on his ideas,  predictions and solutions for the current disease and also a variety of other topics related to the prospect of science in his home-country, Iran, the non-alignment of US to Kyoto Protocol etc.



Q: Dear Prof. Entekhabi, with a lot of thanks for your immense help and kindness, let's start with a general question, which the Iranian readers would be enthusiastic to know about. Does your nationality have any impact on your effectiveness in the workplace? Does anybody care about this at all? What about yourself? Do you try to obscure your nationality in order to keep a low profile or propagate it publicly?


A: Thank you for the opportunity to share some personal experiences and impressions with your readers. As you indicate I have been working in the United States for the last twenty years as an Iranian national. I think it is very important to make colleagues and co-workers recognize Iran national origin.  Iranian science community should of course have a strong base within Iran but it also needs to be represented on the international scene.  We now live in a globalized community where many nationalities are evident in leadership positions of major ventures and projects. The intellectual capital and resourcefulness of Iranian people should be evident on this international scene. So in response to your question, I recognize that my Iranian nationality should go hand-in-hand with what I do especially on international projects. 


Q: Dear Professor, nowadays we hear a stack of shocking news from different countries regarding the gradual extinction of various species of plants, animals and other natural resources due to some complicated reasons. How much culprit is the humankind about such a disastrous situation? Is there any practical way of shunning this irretrievable catastrophe?


A: There is an alarming increase in the extinction of species and loss of biodiversity.  Some of it is due to loss of habitat (land use change). Some of it is due to accumulation of chemicals introduced by humans. These chemicals accumulate as they go up the food chain. Some of it is due to un-sustainable resource allocation for human use and consumption.  Extinction of species is tragic in itself because it represents a permanent loss.  But there is dimension of this problem that affects human welfare and health. Loss of biodiversity reduces the resilience of ecosystems and makes them more susceptible to collapse and invasive species. Biodiversity is a important aspect of maintain ecosystem health. Agricultural ecosystems, lands used for food production and water supply, and all managed ecosystems do need biodiversity across species (from microbes to plants to animals). The chemical cycling in ecosystems is linked to biodiversity.


Q: One of your research areas is the dynamics of winter-time extra-tropical atmosphere and its predictability. Would you please elucidate this subject a bit more, and tell us if possible, that whether there is something distinctive with the "winter" that makes it an exclusive field of study?


A: Tropical climate prediction has advanced during the last two decades. It is based on increased observations and modeling capability. Tropical oceans and the atmosphere are very closely linked which makes them predictable.  Outside of tropics (higher latitudes) and especially in winter the atmosphere is a lot more turbulent. It has limits to prediction. Understanding and predicting mid-latitude (extra-tropical) climate is a challenge. Several months ahead prediction in these latitudes and in winter season has practical value. Energy demand is related to it.  During the last five years I have been working on the physical mechanisms that determine winter time climate regime. Snow turns out to be a big factor because the solar reflectivity of snow and bare ground are very different. When there is an early snow cover anomaly, the difference in surface heating is large. This affects the atmospheric turbulence that reaches into the stratosphere.  We are making predictions of winter climate that energy companies use for planning.


Q: Dear professor, another question is going to be about the Kyoto Protocol which is the most substantial treaty to define some flexible mechanisms for the stoppage of intolerable climate change. USA is the only country that although a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has neither ratified nor withdrawn from. The signature alone is symbolic, as the Kyoto Protocol is non-binding on the United States unless ratified. In the other hand, USA is the largest emitter of CO2 and greenhouse gases itself which is truly perilous for the future. What is your estimation about the energy policies of the US government and its non-alignment to Kyoto Protocol?


A: The US government policy on greenhouse gas emissions has been a disaster during the last eight years. At first the government policy was denial of link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Faced with overwhelming scientific evidence the government finally acknowledged the problem. Over the last the US has lost valuable time in investing in clean energy technologies and increasing energy use efficiency.  Fossil fuel companies especially oil companies have had a lot of influence on US fuel policy during last eight years. The new administration has very different policies on the topic.


Q: Industrialization is a ceaseless and progressive current which is neither logical nor feasible to be slowed down. But this progress has its own negative effects on our climate especially in the term of garbage production. Today, many of countries are suffering from the disadvantages of industrialization and thus losing their jungles, forests and natural resources gradually which is a terrible nightmare for the environment. Where is our responsibility here?


A: Industrialization and urbanization should not be equated with environmental damage. In fact there is good opportunity to make more efficient uses of resources and reduce waste.  The key is that any new manufacturing process or urban development should take into account the full life-cycle of material flows.  The environmental impacts of raw material extraction and transport, of manufacturing, of product distribution, of consumption and of waste disposal should all be considered at once.  This is called cradle-to-grave analysis. Where there is recycling it is often called cradle-to-cradle.  If done right there is no need to consider industrialization and the environment as conflicting.


Q: A problematic challenge for the environment today is the uncontrolled pollution of seas, water bodies and oceans. With the increasing amount of financial deals between the countries who are the demanders and suppliers of oil and petrochemical productions, we are facing the abundant pollution of waters with oil and its derivations. The disgraced incident leads to both the pollution of international water bodies and the extinction of underwater species. The difficulty goes more disastrous when an, for example, oil tanker drowns into the ocean or gulf, and all of its containers release into the water. Do you think there is any solution for this complexity?


A: That is one of the aspects of the environment. The environment does not stop at international borders. To manage the environment we often have to reach across shared borders. Sometimes it is regional like in the Caspian Sea or Persian Gulf. Sometimes it is global like greenhouse gas emissions. 


 Q:  Some of the climate and environment specialists propound the theory that the underdeveloped and non-developed countries have the least share in the climate change and global warming because of their slight role in the huge industrial projects and giant factories. Can

We accept such a notion, and if so, then should we keep them underdeveloped perpetually in order to avoid the expansion of pollution and recompensing the shortcomings of industrialized countries on the other hand?


A: I do not agree with notion that human welfare in some countries should be kept at low level so they do not become industrialized and big consumers of energy. The opposite, we should aim for increase human welfare in the context of environmental health. Developing countries can learn from the lessons of western industrial age and industrialization to take a better path towards economic development. The industrialized countries have made a lot of mistakes along their development especially regarding the environment.  We can learn those lessons and not repeat them.  We do not have to follow the same path towards the end.  Take the example of telephones. Industrial countries installed copper wire networks, then installed fiber optics, then cellular networks. One would not expect a undeveloped country to build its first telephone network using low-bandwidth copper wire. The lesson is learned and a cellular network is installed.


Q: At the time being, which modern methods of weather prediction are mainly prevalent in the developed countries, as you are in US, and how much it is proved that they are accurate in the results? Would you please elaborate a little about the latest improvements and discoveries in the field of weather prediction and the degree of accuracy which they provide?


A: Weather prediction is done through models of the atmospheric fluid flow including energy and water processes. At the same time the atmosphere is a chaotic fluid. This means that a small difference in the initial condition of two parallel predictions will take different trajectories over time.  So beside powerful models the key issue is how good the numerical weather model is initialized compared to the parallel truth. Errors in the initial conditions lead to lesser quality forecasts. During the last decade or so there is great increase in the amount of satellite data available for weather model initialization. There is also great cooperation among countries in sharing data. Weather prediction is a global problem and cooperation among countries in this regard is recognized to be to the benefit of everyone.


Q:  What are the most concerning challenges, for you and your colleagues, in the term of global climate transformation, water surface changes and land-atmosphere interaction, right now?


A: Global warming is certainly among the top problems.  The greenhouse gases that are added to the atmosphere because of human fossil fuel consumption do not get absorbed for hundreds of years. Our denial about the problem over the last decades when we learned scientifically about the consequences means that we are already late.  We need to catch up. We know well how greenhouse gases affect global temperatures. That is very clear and known for over 150 years.  What we do not know is the effect on the water cycle, water resources, and biosphere. That is a big scientific challenge today.


Another challenge is the other cause of global change which is as dramatic (if not more dramatic) than greenhouse gases.  Humans have changed the land cover and vegetation across the globe.  This releases as much greenhouse gases as burning fossil fuels. We need to manage our impact on the environment through better food production and land use practices. The challenge is model the environment such that human influence on it is part of the model. Because that is the fact, humans are huge agents of environmental change and biogeochemical cycles.


Q: Based on your observations and experiments, which drastic changes have been witnessed in the pattern of raining worldwide, specifically in the Asian continent? What the prospective anticipation of these patterns would be according to the instances and evidences which you

have gathered?


A: Precipitation has a lot of natural variability so detecting trends over the short periods when instrument records are available is very difficult.  But one thing that definitely has changed is runoff and streamflow from precipitation. We have changed the land cover and even urbanized major portions of the environment especially where there is concentrated population.  Runoff will change by very large factors (like half or twice depending on land use change).  So a few percent change in precipitation may not be the issue.  We see catastrophic losses due to floods and droughts these days. This is mostly because increasing populations and more concentrated populations (like in Bangaladesh or West Africa) are more vulnerable to flooding or drought.


Q:  Would you please explicate a bit on the numerous awards which you have been given, specially the Macelwane Young Scientist Medal? For which efforts and discoveries did they endow you with the honorable title?


A: I have been fortunate that colleagues have recognized my efforts but the best prize of all is to see students graduate and have successful and fulfilling careers.


Q:  And for the last question, we are eager to know whether you have ever designated your studies, research papers or experiments to Iran and its natural potentials of water bodies, atmosphere, environment etc? Do you think there is enough competences and capacities for a substantive and major scientific project to be carried out with Iran as its pivotal concern? Which schemes would you probably mention, if you were supposed to carry out a research e.g. on the periodic rainfall pattern of northern Iran?


A: I have recently focused on the Caspian Sea in terms of its climate variability, ecosystem health, and environmental quality.  It is a very sensitive region because it is a closed basin.  There is a lack of coordination among the neighboring countries in managing this fragile system.  I really hope that a project can be initiated that involves Iranian scientists in Iran institutions as well as institutions world-wide.  This can serve as a model for work on other aspects of the environment across Iran.  Installing larger and more dense networks for Caspian Sea and land environment monitoring, collection and analysis of satellite data and modeling the physics and chemistry would be the first steps.

... Payvand News - 02/09/09 ... --

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