Human fossil fuel use and large-scale deforestation have fundamentally altered the global carbon cycle, resulting in an exponential increase in atmospheric carbon (greenhouse gases) from pre-industrial levels. It is broadly accepted that projected future increases in greenhouse gases will cause accelerating rates of climate change. This change reflects the interactions of social and biological/physical systems. Understanding these interactions is essential for society to make informed decisions about options for mitigating climate change. However, to develop such an understanding requires a synthesis of fields as diverse as earth systems history, ecosystem and landscape ecology, climate modeling, human demography, and economics.
For example, current knowledge of the carbon cycle and its influence on climate derives largely from paleoclimatic records from sediment and ice cores and an understanding of the interaction between vegetation and climate. The paleoclimatic data indicate that past warming events have sometimes occurred extremely rapidly, on the order of decades. What forces drove these events, and what is the present-day risk of a similar catastrophic change in global temperature under different carbon emissions scenarios? In turn, how can global carbon emission trajectories be predicted from the human demographic variables driving fossil fuel use in different social systems? What is the role of terrestrial ecosystems in sequestering carbon, and what role might land use practices in these systems play in mitigating fossil fuel emissions? Climate change is a large area of research, and the diversity of Brown and the Marine Biological Laboratory's existing strengths allow for investigation on many fronts.