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Cooperating on climate change


MU geographers Mark Cowell, left, and Mike Urban work together to predict and demonstrate how a few degrees of climate change will affect the United States by 2100. In December, they traveled to Copenhagen for the United Nations climate change summit. Photo by Nicholas Benner

The United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen Dec. 7–18, 2009, brought together the leaders of 193 countries, concerned citizens and representatives from numerous nongovernmental organizations, as well as two University of Missouri geography professors.

Associate Professors Mike Urban and Mark Cowell attended the conference as observers with the Association of American Geographers. Their blog, “Geography, Climate Change and the Copenhagen Negotiations,” which documents their observations and reflections on the conference and a wide array of climate-related topics, has attracted a global audience.

“We started the blog because we thought it was really important to raise awareness and share the experience with our students, the MU community and other geographers,” Urban says. “Here in the U.S., citizens seem to be confused about whether climate change is actually real. We sat in on some briefings in Copenhagen, and it’s clear that climate change is happening at a much faster rate than scientists have predicted and, if anything, the effects of that change have been underestimated.”

Cowell admits that some of the public’s confusion stems from disagreement among scientists. “Disputes among scientists have been mischaracterized,” he says. “But science works because we challenge and are critical of each other. There’s as close to unanimity about climate change as you can get in science. Some of the details are uncertain and always will be, but the overall picture is clear.”

As a fluvial geomorphologist, Urban studies river mechanics and examines how rivers change over time. Cowell, a biogeographer, studies vegetation change in North America. The two now work together to predict and demonstrate how a few degrees of climate change will affect the United States by 2100.

“In some places it’s going to be relatively catastrophic,” Urban says. For example, they predict that by the end of the century, soil moisture levels in the Great Plains will decrease dramatically, generating drought conditions similar to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. “But in some places, there’s going to be relatively little change.”

Although Copenhagen failed to produce a legally binding agreement, Cowell and Urban are confident that the world will find a solution to the problem of climate change.

“It’s like someone procrastinating on a 20-page term paper,” Urban says. “They wait until the night before the paper is due and do it all in one night. It’s not going to be the best paper, it’s not going to be as good as it could be, it’s going to be a lot harder, but ultimately it will get done. There’s no room for an incomplete here.”

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