Selin ’96 Shares Climate Change Solutions at All-School

A political junkie during her time at Andover, Noelle Selin ’96 never imagined herself diving into the scientific field. However, 17 years after her graduation, she is combining science with her passion for politics to help solve today’s global environmental problems.

As the second and final speaker in the 2013 Kaleidoscope All School Meeting (ASM) Series, Selin, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems and Atmospheric Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), proposed a “win-win” solution to health and climate problems caused by air pollutants, as outlined in last week’s presentation by Bruce Anderson ’90.

“I like to refer to [the climate change problem] as a ‘Common Resources Problem.’ The idea behind the ‘Common Resources Problem’ is that I get all the benefit when I turn on the light bulb, but the burden is spread across the world,” said Selin.

She stressed the importance of understanding all components of the “Common Resources Problem” in order to come up with a plausible and effective solution.

Referring to a report published last year by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Selin said countries must devise an interdisciplinary solution to simultaneously reduce air pollution and restore the climate.

“No one solution is the magic bullet that’s going to create this low-carbon future… The [possible solutions] just help us take the first steps in the [short term] to transitioning to a low carbon economy,” Selin said.

“I always try to trace the data through the whole chain to understand the problem better: from policies to emissions, emissions to concentrations, concentrations to impacts and impacts to policy responses,” she continued.

The escalating amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere has damaged both the climate and human health. Out of the 56 million deaths every year, over 7 million are attributed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, said Selin.

The majority of the world’s population lives in a small part of Asia, where the CO2 emission per capita is much lower than that of the United States, Australia or Saudi Arabia. Thus, the majority of the world’s population is bearing the brunt of an environmental problem that they did not have a large part in creating.

Approximately 1000 gigatonnes of carbon can be burned and released into the atmosphere before Earth’s temperature rises by two degrees, a critical point that scientists agree could drastically affect life on Earth. Of the 1000 gigatonnes, 531 have already been released, according to Selin.

“Two degrees [difference] has been agreed upon as [the marker of] dangerous climate change. All sorts of unacceptable consequences kick in after an increase of two degrees, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification,” said Selin.

Among other projects, Selin is currently working with colleagues from MIT in Saudi Arabia to collect data and develop a plan to aid the transition into a post-fossil fuel economy.

At MIT, Selin specializes in atmospheric chemistry modeling to aid decision-making regarding air pollution, climate change and pollutants such as mercury. Yesterday, Selin traveled to Japan to attend the signing of a global convention on mercury. She received her PhD from Harvard University in Earth and Planetary Sciences.