FAIRFIELD — Humans have created a toxic climate cocktail that has prompted an increase in cancer, respiratory and neurological illnesses and diseases transmitted by insects.
Our behavior also contributes to the increase in drought, floods, storms and the upheaval in the ecosystem, said Paul Mayewski, professor and director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.
Mayewski was one of several experts on climate change who spoke Saturday at Kennebec Valley Community College during a symposium organized by the Mid-Maine Climate Adaptation Working Group.
The group comprises volunteers from the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition based in Waterville and the Running Start Institute, of Bath. Sustain Mid-Maine is a grassroots group that seeks to conserve natural resources, sustain a healthy environment and promote economic prosperity.
Members maintain the increased use of fuels containing carbon — oil, coal, natural gas and wood — produces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that heats it up and causes problems that include warmer oceans, atmospheric changes, rising sea levels, intense storms and reduced food production.
To avoid abrupt changes in climate, the panel said, people must change the way they live — weatherize homes, buy appliances that use less energy, drive less, recycle, educate themselves about how to prepare for climate change and work together to build resilient communities.
About 100 educators from colleges and high schools, government officials, students and others attended Saturday’s event, which focused on the impact of climate disruption on our health, the economy, extreme weather events, the sea level and our water supply.
Mayewski, a scientist and explorer, has led some 50 expeditions to remote regions of the world, including Antarctica. He has written two books, “The Ice Chronicles” and “Journey Into Climate,” authored about 350 publications and explored human impact on atmosphere chemistry, impact of climate change on past civilizations, modern and Antarctic Himalayan ice loss and abrupt climate change.
It is important, Mayewski said, to study places around the world and monitor continents, forests and lakes.
“In the institute, we believe very strongly in collecting data sets that provide us with long term perspective,” he said.
Humans have changed the natural system by raising levels of carbon dioxide, methane and other substances, creating tremendous instabilities, he said. It is a system dramatically different than anything humans have seen in the past, he said.
“I will make the case that for us, physiologically, to adapt as fast as they (changes) are coming at us is unrealistic,” he said.
Both Mayewski and George Jacobson, state climatologist and professor emeritus of biology, ecology and climate change at University of Maine, spent considerable time Saturday explaining the technical aspects of how climates have evolved in various parts of the world.
Jacobson said the warming is not producing all dire consequences, as we have longer growing seasons, but we must think about the changes and plan carefully.
“We should be making those decisions, taking into account the changes that are very likely to be underway,” he said.
The last real cold stretch of weather that Maine experienced was in 1934, according to Jacobson. Twenty thousand years ago, Maine and much of the northern hemisphere was covered in thick ice sheets — ice so thick that Mount Katahdin was under ice, he said. The mountain emerged from the ice about 15,000 years ago.
“Maine was definitely under ice and the world was a much different place,” he said.
At the start of the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere had 285 parts per million of carbon dioxide; that number was 378 in 2005; and 400 in May this year, according to Jacobson.
“We’re going up rapidly — very rapidly,” he said, adding that the scenario at the end of this century will include much higher parts per million.
“It remains to be seen how humanity will respond to this,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to solve.”
Mayewski said it is imperative that information about climate change be made as clear as possible to the public. But, he said, while the issue drew major media coverage for a while, it has declined the last few years.
“Coverage of abrupt climate change has literally fallen off the map,” he said. “The number of articles is very, very small.”
Iver Lofving of Skowhegan said a lot of people do not want to think about the reality of abrupt climate change. Mayewski said it is important to remind people that climate change is physical, biological and social; it affects our health and wealth on a local level.
Ernest Grolimund, of Waterville, said 30 percent of people in Maine now burn wood, a statistic that concerns him.
Mayewski said burning wood does produce pollutants and that is problematic; it also affects indoor air quality. But we have to be pragmatic, too, he said, as the average salary in Maine is relatively low and about $3,000 out of a $30,000 salary, for instance, is used to buy heating fuel. He said he thinks it is important to allow Mainers, in the short run, to heat their homes the way they want to but encourage them to insulate their homes and burn more completely. Ultimately, wind power will become important in that scenario, he added.
“Offshore wind power will clearly change the demographics of this place,” he said.
The daylong event also included a talk by Sean Birkel, a research assistant professor at University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.
Jennifer Kierstead, one of the event organizers, said more such meetings will be held over the next year and a larger regional forum will be hosted in 2015 for communities to plan for adapting to climate change.