UMass researchers explore practical aspects of climate change

As climate change threatens to alter more than just the planet’s coastline and ocean life, scientists and policy experts at UMass-Boston are studying how environmental problems intersect with national security risks.

The new Collaborative Institute for Oceans, Climate, and Security opened last month with the aim of addressing the challenges posed by the effects of global climate change. The group’s work focuses on human needs that may arise from a world where coastlines begin to move inland, wildlife starts to alter or die off, and new threats to national security open up. The human aspects of climate change are at the forefront of the institute’s mission.

“These changing climate and oceans will affect human security,” Robbin Peach, the executive director, said in an interview with the Reporter. “We define it as the ability to secure basic needs: shelter, food, fresh water, energy. Those needs are being compromised by changes in climate and that will, in consequence, affect national security.”

Problems associated with food supply, agriculture, wildlife migration, coastal security and other issues could be products of climate change, Peach said.

The effects may be felt here at home as well. Peach said that climate change would affect the entire East Coast through the rise of sea levels, salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies, and more violent weather.

“People in Dorchester will see abrupt changes in temperature which affect mostly the elderly and the very young,” Peach said. Researchers are using Boston as a model to explore how environmental pressures might affect urban American cities.

“Our campus is excited about the potential of [the Institute] to increase global understanding of these relationships and inform related policy decisions,” said UMass-Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley.

U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch, who has supported the institute in Washington, said the institute was “using ground-breaking approaches to design practical solutions to today’s pressing environmental challenges. “It’s an important mission and a perfect fit for our campus,” he said in a statement.

The new institute is located at the university’s Venture Development Center, an office and lab space dedicated to fostering start-ups and innovative programs.

UMass officials tout it as a first-of-its-kind program that is compatible with the university’s existing policy and management programs, as well as its infrastructure in environmental and ocean science.

The institute seeks to champion a process of collaboration between government, institutions, and other parties that will be responsible to society’s response to global climate change. As the institute points out, 53 percent of the U.S. population lives along the coastlines which are protected by naval bases threatened by changes is sea level. Climate change could also cause more violent coastal storms to surge into inland areas not usually affected by harsh ocean weather.

Once of the first projects the institute is looking to take on is a comprehensive climate assessment of the 49 marine world heritage sites, which include ocean locales deemed significant to global culture. “We’re in the process now of raising money to see how climate will change those marine world heritage sites and creating some adaptation plans they can use,” Peach said.