Between the Lines: July-August 2007

August 1, 2007

What better time to contemplate a warming planet, the cover theme, than at the peak point of a Durham summer?

The writer, Jeffrey Pollack M.E.M. '02, has both a personal and professional stake in the subject. He grew up in Florida, and "the coast was prominent in my memories," he says. As a graduate student in environmental management, he concentrated on coastal issues. Now, he works as a liaison between scientists and policymakers whose backgrounds haven't steeped them in science. Part of the challenge with climate change, he says, is for scientists to extrapolate, communicate, and contextualize their findings, even as those findings don't necessarily proceed from certain knowledge.

Public attentiveness to a grand-scale environmental threat is one thing; understanding it is something else. A Newsweek poll this summer found that a huge percentage—some 83 percent—pegged a hotter sun as the chief culprit in global warming. But back in February, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that greenhouse gases have caused most of the recent warming. Duke climatologist Gabriele Hegerl, an author of the scientific study, said that without accounting for human activities, "we cannot really explain the observed climate changes."

Some day rising sea levels may project Manhattan into a version of Venice. A warmer planet will be uninviting in other ways. An article that appeared this summer in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that poison ivy—"the scourge of summer campers, hikers, and gardeners"—is growing faster in a carbon-dioxide-rich environment. The article pointed to Duke-led research from last year, which found that increased carbon-dioxide levels create a chemical change that results in a more potent form of urushiol. Urushiol is the oil carried in poison ivy that triggers an annoyingly itchy rash.

Life is going to be feeling warmer. And itchier.