Skip to main content

How does climate change impact you?

​Climate change — two words that stir up passion on either side of the issue among scientists, politicians and the common man. But what does it really mean? Climate change is the theory that man’s contributions to the environment are leading to more extreme temperatures and weather conditions that have resulted in the melting of polar ice caps, the current drought in California and detrimental effects on the health and well-being of humans, animals and plants.​

Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Washington University in St. Louis, researchers in all seven schools are studying climate science from myriad perspectives, from medicine to anthropology to business, not just in Engineering. As leaders in their fields, they see how climate change is impacting the parts of the world they study so closely. Here, we present those perspectives in the faculty members’ own words to allow readers to consider these viewpoints when thinking about climate change.

T.R. Kidder, Maxine Lipeles, and Anjan Thakor

T.R. Kidder, Maxine Lipeles, and Anjan Thakor

Anjan Thakor, PhD

John E. Simon Professor of Finance, Olin Business School

While the vast majority of experts seem to agree that global warming is occurring, there seems to be some disagreement over the causes. Is this a man-made phenomenon or is it attributable to solar activity? This question is important because it influences the potential remedies we might adopt to deal with the issue. As an economist, that question is less interesting than how global warming, assuming it is part of a sustained trend, will affect the global economy. I will identify a few areas in which we are likely to see changes.

Farming: Global warming leads to more extreme weather patterns, which makes traditional farming more challenging. This will accelerate the development of alternative farming technologies as scalable choices for farmers. Food will become more expensive, but prices will stabilize over time, and we will consume more organically grown food that has travelled shorter distances to reach us.

Drinking water: Although a large fraction of this planet is covered by water, only a small percentage is available as fresh drinking water. Extreme weather patterns associated with global warming lead to more frequent droughts and floods, exacerbating drinking water shortages. Traditional farming consumes huge quantities of fresh water. We will see the development and commercialization of new technologies that not only promote vertical farming and water conservation, but that also extract fresh potable water from human waste, using other byproducts for fertilizer.

Growth of securitization in financial markets: Many of these new technologies and firms will be financed in the capital market through innovative securitization techniques that will permit individual and institutional investors to invest in companies that are commercializing these new technologies and will enable these companies to raise financing from the capital market. Consequently, the capital market will experience rapid growth.
Thus, while it is common to view global warming as a threat, it will also prove to be an opportunity. It will lead to an explosion of new technologies, change the way we farm and eat, and lead to the emergence of many innovative financial instruments that will provide a plethora of new investment opportunities and hedging/risk management opportunities for farmers and firms.

Maxine Lipeles, JD

Co-Director, Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic and Senior Lecturer, School of Law

Based in Washington University’s School of Law, the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic has a dual mission of providing pro bono legal and technical assistance to non-profit organizations and offering hands-on educational opportunities to students. Each semester, students in law, engineering, environmental studies, medicine, public health and other programs participate in the clinic for academic credit.

The clinic handles matters involving air and water pollution, land disposal and contamination, energy and sustainable development. It assists clients in a wide variety of contexts, including participating in the development of new and amended regulations and legislation, assisting with shareholder advocacy and resolutions and strategic planning. In the process, the clinic is training the next generation of environmental professionals.

Several of our cases on behalf of a variety of clients involve the coal plants that ring the St. Louis metropolitan area. Those cases focus on ensuring that the plants comply with all applicable requirements governing their air and water pollution and waste products. Other cases involve air pollution generated by large Metro East facilities, upgrading Missouri’s water quality standards and protection of wetlands and floodplains.

Many clinic alumni credit it with helping them to launch a variety of careers as environmental and energy professionals, including at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and renewable energy companies, among others.

T.R. Kidder, PhD

Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, and Professor of Environmental Studies, Arts & Sciences

A pressing question in climate change research involves understanding how human societies respond to and adapt to changing climatic conditions and their consequences. One way to better appreciate the possibilities of human responses to climate change is to explore and understand how people in the past reacted when confronted by similar stresses. Archaeology is one way to peer into the past to see how changing climates affected human societies.

Archaeologists are uniquely poised to use the sweep of human history as one tool to measure what happens when climates change and when environments respond to these changes.

We are not in the business, though, of using the past as a predictive tool. What happened in the past won’t tell us what will happen in the future, but it does allow us to see some of the envelopes of possibility for human action and reaction.

My work explores how changing climates affect small-scale hunter-gatherer societies in eastern North America and large, complex civilizations in China. By investigating how different types of societies, each with different social structures and economic-political practices, we can begin to tease out from the historical and behavioral record what sorts of responses happened and their successes and failures. Our work has important implications because it is very evident that climate change itself does little to alter human social systems. Climate change is felt through and moderated by a variety of human social institutions — political, social, economic, religious and ritual, among others.

Future research, informed by an understanding of past human practice, needs to focus on how these social systems engender responses to changing climates and which among the myriad possible responses might be most suitable for a given social system.

Williams, Gehlert, Powderly

Brent Williams, Sarah Gehlert, and William Powderly

William Powderly, MD

Director, Institute For Public Health, J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine and Co-Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine

There is considerable evidence of both direct and indirect consequences for human health from climate change. In particular, there is a wide range of infectious diseases that are influenced by changes in climate and weather. Currently, climate determines the range of the vectors of many vector-borne infectious diseases; as current warming trends continue we are seeing evidence of vector-borne infections in parts of the world where they have previously been unknown or uncommon. Some of the best evidence for the effect of warming comes from changes in the altitude at which certain vector-borne diseases can be transmitted.

Mountain ranges provide an excellent opportunity for assessing biological changes associated with global climate change. The temperature cools rapidly as one rises in altitude, and consequently, the ecosystem can change from deserts to tropical to polar without significant change in latitude. Warming results in a shift in susceptibility to vector-borne illnesses. Examples include dengue fever and malaria outbreaks in areas that previously were inhospitable to the anopheles mosquito and the malaria parasite. There is also evidence of changing risk of infectious diseases associated with warming in previously colder latitudes, such as tick-borne infectious diseases.

The severity of weather may also affect risk of outbreaks of infection. We have long known that outbreaks of diarrheal illnesses have been correlated with heavy rainfall and flooding, and global climate change has clearly been linked to more episodes of extreme weather, which can in turn affect the timing, the intensity and the exposure of outbreak-associated infectious diseases.

In the late 1970s, medical experts confidently predicted the end of infectious diseases as a major human threat. Since then, we have had an era of emerging, reemerging and resurgent infectious diseases globally. However, climate changes, global warming and other weather-related extremes have played and will continue to play an important role in the emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.

Sarah Gehlert, PhD

E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity, The Brown School and School of Medicine

The impact of climate change on population health and social behavior has received much less attention than has its more immediate impact on crops, soil and other aspects of the environment. These more distal impacts are more difficult to measure, because they may occur over long periods of time, yet they must be considered to fully understand the effects of climate change and to design interventions to halt it.

Weather patterns that result from climate change, such as heavy rainfall, prolonged heat and drought, heavy winds, tropical storms and coastal flooding, are linked to increased rates of vector-borne infectious disease, allergies and asthma. Higher temperatures also can produce water shortages and wildfires. These disproportionately affect persons marginalized by poverty, as well as the very young and old, the disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities, thus contributing to increasing health disparities seen in the United States and around the world. The effects of drought, storms, wildfires and flooding challenge the ability of marginalized persons to consistently obtain affordable, healthful food, adding to their overall burden of disease from stressors that increase risk for chronic illnesses.

Preventing the deleterious effects of climate change relies on public awareness and collaborations between public health officials and other policymakers, scientists and community stakeholders. Successes such as those of the Inuvialuit people of western Canada, who have tracked climate change, varied the species that they hunted, and developed new ways to share food and other resources, provide hope.

Brent Williams, PhD

Raymond R. Tucker Distinguished I-CARES Career Development Assistant Professor, School of Engineering & Applied Science
My research is focused on determining the sources and fate of natural and human-influenced emissions of gases and particles in our atmosphere and investigating their associated health and climate impacts. You often hear how increased greenhouse gas emissions act to warm our atmosphere, but particles in the atmosphere also play a major role in altering our planet’s energy balance. Particles directly absorb or scatter sunlight and alter cloud formation and cloud properties such as reflectivity and lifetime.

Due to variations in the physical and chemical properties of atmospheric particles, which change with particle source type and aging in the atmosphere, we are uncertain about the particles’ impact on the climate. Combustion-related soot particles are detrimental to human health and cause atmospheric warming by absorbing sunlight, making it a clear choice to reduce emissions of these particles. However, scientists estimate that when averaged worldwide, particles have a net cooling effect on the planet, acting to partially counter the warming effect from greenhouse gases.

This creates a dilemma for our decisions to curb other human-influenced emissions of particles without an accompanied decrease in greenhouse gases. All of these particles have the ability to negatively impact human health, but some of these non-soot particles actually act to increase sunlight scattering and cool our planet. Our research goals are to learn more about how particles are impacting our climate, which will assist in understanding how our climate would respond to changes in particle emissions.

Himadri Pakrasi, Ray Arvidson, and Bruce Lindsey

Himadri Pakrasi, Ray Arvidson, and Bruce Lindsey

Himadri Pakrasi, PhD

Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished University Professor, and director, I-CARES, School of Engineering & Applied Science and Arts & Sciences

Across the university, faculty, staff and students are deeply engaged in issues related to climate change. Multidisciplinary teams are challenging our understanding of the anthropogenic impact on our world by using advanced techniques to fully understand the footprints of ancient civilizations. Faculty, staff and students are engaging with industry, using university investments in off-campus housing rehabilitation as real-world natural laboratories to test innovative designs that will bring us closer to net-zero energy and water use.

And teams are seeking to better understand natural processes, developing knowledge that can be used to increase the effectiveness of solar energy production and, in the longer-term, to use plants and microorganisms as green production sources for chemicals and fuels.

Under the umbrella of I-CARES, the university continues to invest significantly in institutional resources such as the Tyson Research Center, Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU), McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP), Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) and the Washington University Climate Change Initiative (WUCCI) to provide critical infrastructure for these endeavors.

Tyson was officially welcomed as a Smithsonian Institution Forest Global Earth Observatory. CCCU won a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop advanced oxy-combustion technology. MAGEEP contributed to the October 2014 McDonnell Academy Fifth International Symposium that addressed the role of great research universities in issues related to aging; food, water and climate change; energy and the environment; and public health. PARC successfully received renewal funding of $14.4 million to develop more efficient biohybrid and bioinspired systems for efficient utilization of solar energy. And our newest signature initiative, the WUCCI, was launched with workshops on public health and agriculture in the Midwest.

Ray Arvidson, PhD

James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, and director, Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory, Arts & Sciences

The Pathfinder Program in Environmental Sustainability allows a relatively small group of incoming freshmen to enroll in courses that relate to regional to global-scale changes associated with anthropogenically-induced greenhouse warming. Topics include the physics of greenhouse warming, expected changes to Earth’s water cycle and ecosystem and likely consequences for mankind.

Discussions focus on the natural climatic excursions from “snowball” Earth to times when polar caps did not exist, demonstrating the wide range of past climatic conditions that existed before humans populated the Earth. We then raise the question, “Why should we be worried about current greenhouse warming, given the huge natural excursions evident in the geologic record?” The answers focus on the tight coupling between the current climate and water cycle and national economies, highlighting the importance of a stable agricultural system, particularly for developing countries. The intent is to have the Pathfinders understand the causes and consequences of greenhouse warming and thus become informed and active participants in developing methodologies and policies that will be needed to meet current and upcoming climate-related problems.

Bruce Lindsey, MArch, MFA

Dean, College of Architecture/Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, and E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Climate change will play out most dramatically in cities. As widely reported, the world is now more urban than not, with more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in cities and growing at a rate of about a million people a week. By 2050, 70 percent of the population will live in cities, with the largest percentage of that growth in the developing world and in the informal settlements of cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. Here are some other reported statistics: Cities use 75 percent of the planet’s resources but occupy just 3 percent of its landmass; and 75 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by cities.

Now, here’s the good news: Eighty percent of future economic growth is projected to be in cities, and the world’s 40 “hyper cities” (20 percent of the world’s population) account for 66 percent of all economic activity and about 85 percent of technological and scientific innovation.

I am proud that Washington University is home to the second-oldest urban design program in the country. Some of the most significant and celebrated urban designers have either graduated from the program or served as faculty members. Building on this rich history, we are launching a doctoral program in sustainable urbanism in 2014. Through this first-of-its-kind program, we can bring emphasis on health and resiliency — the ability of cities and citizens to equally flourish and recover in the face of a rapidly changing and unequally resourced world. Given this, the design of cities will be our best hope for both the mitigation of our contributions to climate change and our adaptation to these changes, which by definition is a creative process.

Engineering Momentum is published by the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis. Unless otherwise noted, articles may be reprinted without permission with appropriate credit to the publication, school and university.