George Mason University’s Ed Maibach likened the intricate challenges facing the planet in stemming global climate change and the loss of biodiversity to a Gordian knot, but both he and fellow Distinguished University Professor Tom Lovejoy remain optimistic that both goals can be accomplished.
The two global icons in their field spoke frankly during Wednesday’s Mason Science Series appearance at the Country Club of Fairfax called “Sustaining the Planet for Our Children and Grandchildren.” Their unscripted 40-minute conversation included their views of what must happen globally if the world is to prevent a “cascading series of public health catastrophes that will be a pox on humanity for generations to come.”
The two Mason scientists, who spoke before roughly 40 people before opening the floor up for questions, were lauded by Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, the event’s moderator and the dean of the College of Science, as “two of the highest caliber individuals any university could have.”
Both Maibach and Lovejoy acknowledged the inherent challenges ahead, but said they remain confident that humanity would meet those challenges when presented with indisputable facts.
“Layer on top of layer on top of layer of human decisions went into creating those problems,” said Maibach, a communication scientist who is a University Professor of Communication and the director of Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We’re looking for opportunities to slice through the Gordian knot, or at least start to unwind it. It’s hard because the problems have so many levels, and they’re so intertwined, but that’s the work that must be done to start to create a different path.”
Lovejoy, a renowned conservation biologist who is a University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy within the College of Science and the science director of Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth, is often referred to as the “godfather of biodiversity” and first coined the phrase biological diversity in 1980.
He said it was imperative that everybody do what they can in moving forward and not obsess over the past.
“When you look at the mix at what we’ve done to the planet, you could spend a lot of time getting really down and really gloomy,” said Lovejoy, who received science’s top honor earlier this year when he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. “There’s no point in spending a lot of time wallowing and despairing about that. The really important thing to do is find ways to make it come out better.”
Both Maibach and Lovejoy agreed that scientists must do a better job of explaining without scientific jargon what dangers lie ahead and the roles all people can potentially play in help to avert future climate disasters.
“The reality is that all life is built on carbon,” Lovejoy said, “and when it’s destroyed, that carbon goes up into the atmosphere and raises the level of greenhouse gases. It’s really very, very simple.”
Change has historically begun one person at a time, and both scientists still believe it can happen again. But that change must start now, they added.
The College of Science hosted the event in partnership with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.