Monday, February 16, 2009

Conference tackles environmental issues

“Global warming was quaint,” according to one speaker at Friday’s “World in Conflict” conference, held at Duke’s French Family Science Center. He meant that global warming was only the start of the various environmental problems that will soon plague our planet.

These problems were the focus of the conference, which dealt with the issues of water, energy, and biodiversity specifically. Each was the subject of separate expert lectures and discussion periods.

The water panel included Dr. Avner Vengosh (Nicholas School), Dr. Martin Doyle (UNC-CH), and Dr. Chris Knightes (EPA), moderated by Dr. Peter G. McCornick (Nicholas School). Each gave a 20-minute talk about subjects ranging from American river management and mercury pollution to water supply disputes in the Gaza strip.

The biodiversity panel included Dr. Wallace J. Nichols (Ocean Revolution), Felipe Carazo (the Nature Conservancy), and Michael Totten (Conservation International) [see his presentation on SlideShare], moderated by Dr. Randall A. Kramer (Nicholas School). These three speakers focused on the current state of the natural world, the success of current conservation efforts, and the way forward.

The energy panel included Bill Powers (Border Power Plant Working Group), Sheri Willoughby (World Wildlife Fund), and Evie Zambetakis (the Brookings Institution), moderated by Dr. Dalia Patino-Echeverri (Nicholas School). This panel discussed local and renewable energy sources, both their benefits and deficits.

The conference also featured keynote speaker Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute and author of several books. Following a short introduction by Dr. Emily Klein, Safina lectured about the immense impact humans have had on the world’s oceans.

“Every place people have gone, they have changed the ocean.”

The problem, Safina says, is that people “don’t think of fish as wildlife.” When the oceans span the majority of our planet, it doesn’t seem like anything could harm them. But the vast interconnectedness of the world’s oceans make them especially vulnerable to change. Today, many ocean organisms are suffering in light of overharvesting, ocean acidification, habitat damage, and invasive species.

Safina grew up by the ocean, and says he witnessed the decline of marine animal populations firsthand. This loss is what drove him to devote his life to ocean conservation.

“It’s okay to use the ocean-- it’s not okay to use it up,” Safina said. “This is not the relationship with the world that we want, but it is the relationship that we have.”

In spite of humanity’s devastating impact, Safina emphasized that the ocean can recover-- if the right actions are taken. This spirit was emblematic of the entire conference.

“Don’t ask yourself whether you should be optimistic or pessimistic. Just be inspired, and ask yourself how can we all use our individual talents to make things better?”

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