UNITY — Feeling frazzled after the recent spate of temperatures in the 90s?

Unity College President Stephen Mulkey said heat waves, droughts, floods, tornadoes, wildfires and other extreme weather-related events are occurring at a statistically unprecedented rate in history.

“Science tells us that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is very real,” said Mulkey, who has a doctorate in biology and ecology from the University of Pennsylvania.

“As a citizen, I’m deeply troubled. It is my opinion that this is one of the gravest challenges we’ve ever faced.”

Mulkey, who started his job at Unity in July, was most recently director of the environmental science program at the University of Idaho.

His academic background includes advising the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida in 2007 and leading the collaborative development of climate change curriculum for classrooms in the intermountain West, a project funded by NASA.


Mulkey noted the difference between climate and weather.

Climate, he said, is a long-term weather pattern, for a decade or longer, encompassing a large region.

Weather is temperature, humidity, wind, rain, snow, sleet, flooding, blizzards and thunderstorms that take place in the short term in a small area.

According to the National Weather Service, the weather in July in Maine was hot; it was the hottest July on record at Portland International Jetport, and the warmest single month logged since 1940, when records started being kept at the jetport.

Widespread problem

As sweltering as Maine’s July temperatures were, they don’t compare to what residents of north Texas have been enduring.


As of Aug. 8, there had been 38 consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures in north Texas.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since June there have been wildfires and drought in Arizona and Texas, five deaths attributed to heat in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Maryland, major flooding along the Missouri River, flooding of the Souris River in North Dakota and three tornadoes in Massachusetts.

In April, more than 300 people were killed in four days when 334 tornadoes hit 10 southeastern states.

And that’s just in the U.S.

Worldwide since June, flooding in China, mudslides and flooding in Haiti and tropical storms in the Philippines have claimed more than 200 lives.

Mulkey also pointed to two 100-year droughts in the Amazon rain forest from 2005 to 2010.


A 100-year drought is one which statistically has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Both droughts were disastrous for trees, amphibians, fish and wildlife.

“It’s extremely difficult to say that recent extreme weather is not linked to climate change,” Mulkey recently tweeted.

Mulkey, who formerly was an associate professor of botany at the University of Florida, said 97 percent of climate scientists concur that emissions from fossil fuel combustion, aerosols, cement manufacturing, animal agriculture and deforestation are contributing to increased greenhouse gas concentrations and subsequent increases in the planet’s temperature.

The concentration of one greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in the Earth’s atmosphere is approximately 390 parts per million; Mulkey said that since 1980 the concentration has risen about 65 parts per million, or 20 percent.

During the 20th century, the surface temperature of the Earth increased 1.4 degrees.

Mulkey said scientists estimate that this century the temperature could rise 5 to 7 degrees globally and in double digits in the far north.


The effects could be considerable.

Climate zones, said Mulkey, are moving north at a rate that some trees and vegetation won’t be able to adapt to. Famine and overcrowding could result.

With higher temperatures, Mulkey said more people could also be exposed to tick-borne and mosquito-borne diseases.

Rising sea levels could flood millions of homes and businesses as well as destroy farmland.

Another view

Not all scientists agree with Mulkey.


Willie Wei-Hock Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has said that it is likely that solar variation, not humans, causes climate change.

But Mulkey called some of Soon’s research “the worst science” he has seen presented on climate change.

Mulkey said the 3 percent of scientists who claim the climate is not affected by human activity receive a disproportionate amount of media attention and because of that the general public may not be aware that most climate scientists are in agreement about climate change.

In a 2004 Science magazine article “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Naomi Oreskes wrote, “Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that assumption is incorrect.”

Her article said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society and other organizations agree that most of the Earth’s observed warming in the last 50 years is because of human activities that cause increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Mulkey said it’s like three doctors telling a patient that she has cancer and agreeing on treatment.


Then a fourth doctor tells the patient that she does not have cancer and that taking an aspirin will be sufficient.

“In my opinion, it would be foolish to listen to the fourth one,” he said. “We say what we know to be correct.”

Mulkey said it is important to identify funding sources of climate-change studies.

Fossil fuel industry impact

According to the June issue of Mother Jones magazine, some of Soon’s research disputing human-caused climate change has been funded by the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil. The story cited a Greenpeace Freedom of Information Act request made to the Smithsonian Institution about financial supporters of Soon’s work.

Mulkey said vested interests, including the fossil fuel industry, believe they stand to lose if governments tighten environmental regulations.


“I disagree,” said Mulkey, adding that calculating conservatively, the green economy could be as lucrative, if not more so, than a petroleum-based economy.

If the petroleum-based economy continues as is, Mulkey said, the entire planet will lose.

“Climate-change policy is the game of the century,” said Mulkey.

Mulkey said climate scientists are not experts in policy, but he believes they should have a seat at the decision-making table.

A worldwide approach, he said, is required to tackle the global problem.

“We have to come up with a solution as a species,” he said. “The longer we put it off, the more severe the consequences will be.”


Mulkey said collaboration across multiple disciplines is needed to solve environmental problems created by climate change.

Part of solution

According to Mulkey, Unity College is well positioned to be part of the solution.

“We’re a small, nimble institution,” he said of the private college founded in 1965 on 225 wooded acres on Quaker Hill.

Unity, which bills itself as “America’s environmental college,” seeks to explore the “long-term environmental needs of a changing world, how to prepare students to tackle 21st century global issues, and how to prepare students for promising environmental careers.”

Mulkey said, “My vision is to integrate science of sustainability into our curriculum at all levels.”


The 500 students attending Unity choose from majors that include adventure education leadership, conservation law enforcement, aquaculture and fisheries, environmental policy and law, and agriculture, food and sustainability.

Unity, Mulkey said, is striving to be the “greenest college campus ever.”

Toward that end, this fall it will open TerraHaus, a 2,000-square-foot residence for 10 students. It is the first American college residence designed to meet the Passive House standard; it is expected to annually use the equivalent of 80 gallons of heating oil, according to a blog about the house created and maintained, in part, by Unity’s director of the Center for Sustainability and Global Change, Douglas Fox.

The blog, terrahaus.wordpress.com, says “in zero degree weather, the heating load for TerraHaus could be met almost completely with a standard hair dryer.”

Ultimately, Mulkey said, to save the planet, humans need to look in the mirror.

“What motivates excess consumption? What constitutes a good life? We are a finite, very small blue globe …”

Beth Staples — 861-9252


Comments are no longer available on this story