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Water: California in a Global Context

Watch video of this event.

On February 2, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed Academy members and members of the greater Stanford University community to a panel discussion on the topic of Water: California in a Global Context. Panelists included: Christopher Field, Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University; Anna Michalak, Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University; Joya Banerjee, Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; Holly Doremus, Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, University of California, Berkeley School of Law; Isha Ray, University of California, Berkeley; and Annie Maxwell, Skoll Global Threats Fund.

The discussion served as the 2032nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2032nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In October, we inducted 10 members of the Stanford faculty into the Academy. With their election, there are now 224 current members of the Academy from the Stanford community.

This is the third Stated Meeting that the Academy has convened at Stanford in my 18 months as President. Most recently, we collaborated with Stanford Live to produce a deeply moving program last summer on “Writing on War,” with commentary from the former US Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and author and former Marine officer Phil Klay. The program was moderated by Academy Fellow and Stanford professor Scott Sagan, who is currently leading an Academy study on New Dilemmas on Ethics, Technology, and War. That study will produce two issues of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy, later this year.

Tonight’s program on “Water: California in a Global Context” follows another special issue of the Academy’s journal Daedalus that was published last summer. The issue, entitled “On Water,” was guest edited by two of our speakers this evening, Christopher Field and Anna Michalak, and copies are available outside. The essays describe how humanity’s need for water is inextricably linked to its need for security, energy, food, and community.

Yet at the same time, climate change, population growth, and economic development are placing unprecedented demands on this limited resource, and increasing the uncertainty associated with future demands for water and its availability. Our speakers this evening will discuss not only the global challenges related to water, but also some ideas and recommendations for water sustainability, and how these challenges and solutions map onto the water landscape in California.

The Academy’s interest in the status of America’s natural resources goes back to our earliest years. In fact, the first four American Academy studies, launched in 1781 in the midst of the Revolutionary War, all pertained to the description and uses that gifts of nature could provide to the emerging nation: from its soils and native crops to the medicinal properties of its plants and minerals.

The first volume of the Academy’s Memoirs, published in 1785, included reports on several natural phenomena, including, quote, “Several Remarkable Springs in the States of Pennsylvania and Virginia” by Continental Army Major General Benjamin Lincoln (also Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts); “An Account of the Springs and Wells on the Peninsula of Boston, with an Attempt to Explain the Manner in Which They Are Supplied” by Reverend John Lathrop; and “An Account of a Number of Medicinal Springs at Saratoga, in the State of New York” by physician Samuel Tenney.

Anticipating, perhaps, that some Academy members might question the emphasis placed on natural resources, the preface to the volume remarked that

“. . . it ought to be remembered, that one interesting pursuit of the Academy is the natural history of the country— a country, where the arts of defense and the means of subsistence have, hitherto, almost engrossed the industry of its inhabitants; where the fossil and vegetable kingdoms are yet unexplored, and perhaps, their most valuable productions still undiscovered . . .”

The preface goes on to say:

“A country comprehending several climates and a rich variety of soils, watered and fertilized by a multitude of springs and streams, and by many grand rivers, some of them admitting of a fine inland navigation—the citizens have great opportunities and advantages for making useful experiments and improvements, whereby the interest and happiness of the rising empire may be essentially advanced.”

So the Academy has long been interested in the question of how science can be applied to the management of natural resources. The question bears not just on tonight’s program, but also on a new Academy initiative on The Public Face of Science.

This three-year project will include an in-depth examination of how individual beliefs and scientific comprehension affect the public’s perception of and trust in the scientific process. We will also work with journalists to examine the role of the media in shaping the public’s perception of how scientists work, think, collaborate, and debate.

To look at how science informs policy and action, we will undertake a set of case studies of how scientists are consulted during public decision-making, for example as expert witnesses in the legal system or in responding to natural disasters and public health crises, such as Ebola or the current Zika virus outbreak. Major wildfires in the western United States (in 2009), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (in 2010), Hurricane Sandy (in 2012), the Oso landslide in Washington state (in 2014), and the western drought are a few recent examples of disasters that required integrated analysis and advice from experts in science and engineering to formulate an effective response.

I encourage you to send me your own thoughts and suggestions of topics the Academy should explore in our new project on The Public Face of Science.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Christopher Field, who will introduce the rest of the panelists and moderate tonight’s discussion. Christopher is the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University and the Founding Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

His research emphasizes field and laboratory studies of impacts of climate change, from the molecular to the global scale. From 2008 to 2015, he was co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which led the effort on the IPCC Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.”

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Christopher Field.

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