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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Most Important Dimension: You

Timothy Warren

Global climate change is one of the greatest stresses to our planet and its inhabitants.  Our planet’s atmosphere has filled with carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide at unprecedented rates over what is no more than an instant in our geological history. These gases efficiently trap heat from the sun, leading to an increase in the temperature of our planet and acidification of our oceans with a myriad of both predictably dire as well as unknowable outcomes. And we are at the heart of it. These gases directly result from human activities that we collectively deem necessary for life and tend to increase as more and more populations across the globe enjoy a higher standard of living.

It is clear that there is no magic bullet to solve this crucial challenge, for it is one of many dimensions: scientific, technological, economic, social, political, ethical, and many others. Our planet’s future—and that of its inhabitants—crucially depends on the complex interworkings of all of these approaches to the problem of climate change. Truly effective solutions, those which measurably slow, stop, or even reverse climate change while respecting the complex needs of our society, will be exceedingly hard to identify, implement, and sustain.

Yet the sheer complexity of the problem and the diverse areas of expertise needed to address climate change ensures a role for each one of us concerned about the future of our planet, regardless of our specific training.

In my professional life as a chemist, I work closely with talented and motivated students at Georgetown to directly address what are admittedly granular pieces of the climate change puzzle. I train students in the synthesis of organic molecules used as building blocks to pharmaceuticals and advanced materials needed by our society, but with the challenge to make them in a sustainable, energy efficient, and environmentally benign manner. I seek to understand how simple nitrogen compounds that are pumped into the ground as fertilizers interconvert with one another to release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. And I am truly tantalized by the prospect of discovering a new paradigm for the sustainable synthesis of ammonia—the basic component of fertilizers—that would dramatically lower the carbon dioxide and methane footprint of this chemical that we must produce on a massive scale to feed our planet.

But it is my work with the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI) that connects what I was originally trained to do with an appreciation and respect for the diverse perspectives which must go into the synthesis to affect real change. GEI is a collection of faculty, students, and staff who bring specific areas of expertise and interest in the environment, yet who recognize that the solutions to these most pressing problems inherently require a multidisciplinary approach. It is incredibly stimulating to work with so many faculty leaders, motivated students, and inspired staff who lend their energy and expertise so that together we can be part of the solution to such global challenges.

If you are concerned with climate change and related environmental challenges, let the most important dimension to this problem be you. 
Trust that your talents and hard won specialized training may be joined with those of different academic backgrounds and professional experience, united by a common passion to help our planet be a healthy host to humankind.

Timothy H. Warren is the Richard D. Vorisek Professor of Chemistry and co-chair of the Georgetown Environment Initiative.

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