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Olympics offer model for climate change response

by Joan Conrow

The Olympics have long been the forum where every nation puts forth its best, in hopes of bringing home the glory and the gold.

Just imagine what we could accomplish if we applied the same competitive spirit, the same emphasis on excellence, to addressing the climate change challenge.

That concept wasn't lost on the Olympics' organizers, who took advantage of the opening ceremony to expose some 3.3 billion viewers to the grim realities of global warming. A video showed how rising sea levels will inundate key cities around the planet, including Rio de Janiero, which is hosting the Games.

Other events showcased the critical role that forests, such as the Amazon, play in absorbing the human-generated carbon dioxide that is driving up the planet's temperature. Each of the 11,000 competitors planted a seedling upon entering Maracanã Stadium on opening day, with the trees destined to become the Athletes’ Forest in the Deodoro region.

The Games, with their poignant opening ceremony, coincided with the release of the annual “state of the climate” report, which is prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in collaboration with hundreds of scientists representing 62 countries.

This newest report is especially troubling, finding that Earth experienced record high sea levels, ocean and air temperatures, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and extreme weather events in 2015.

Scientists already are predicting that at least some of these thresholds will be broken again in 2016, which is shaping up to be the hottest on record.

The world's oceans are currently about 70 mm higher than when satellite measurements began in 1993. They're continuing to rise about 3.3 mm annually, and even faster in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.

Arctic ice levels are shrinking, ocean temperatures are rising and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increased 2.2 ppm over the previous year. These high CO2 levels serve to trap more heat, further exacerbating warming. The world average is now hovering at 339.4 ppm, while monitors at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recently topped the symbolic 400 ppm level for the third year in a row.

In short, the report delivered a sobering message: The impacts of global climate change are playing out before us in real time.

We’re in the thick of it, and we must act.

Academy Award winning actress Dame Judi Dench reinforced that theme in her opening narrative at the Rio Games:

It is not enough to stop harming the planet; it is time to begin healing it.

This will be our Olympic message: Earthlings, let’s replant; let’s save the planet.

Biotechnology promises to play an important part in that re-greening scenario.

Genetic engineers and thousands of average citizens are already cooperating to restore the iconic American chestnut, which has been ravaged by blight.

Other researchers are working to genetically engineer crops and food animals with a smaller carbon footprint, as well as plants that can tolerate soil salinity, drought, disease and weather extremes associated with climate change.

The Cornell Alliance for Science is working to share the inspiring stories of these unsung heroes and build a global network of science champions to support them.

Successfully addressing the climate change impacts associated with agriculture requires a global scientific — and human — effort that demands of us all the same sort of dedication, persistence and commitment characteristic of Olympic athletes.

We no longer have the luxury of sitting with spectators on the sideline. 

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