Catalyst for Change

Eri Saikawa is bridging disciplines and bringing together experts to study the environment

Dark Horizon: Environmental sciences professor Eri Saikawa hopes new knowledge will brighten the outlook for the planet's future.
Kay Hinton

Most of the faculty in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences look forward to getting into the field, whether it’s to track wild primates through an African rainforest, chase after bumblebees in a Rocky Mountain meadow or just splash through metro-Atlanta streams to monitor mosquitoes and their larvae.

Eri Saikawa, however, loves nothing better than being indoors, battling computer-programming bugs as she wades into murky problems involving mathematics, atmospheric chemistry, and global environmental policy.

“I was never an outdoor person,” says Saikawa, assistant professor of environmental sciences. She smiles at the irony as she sits before her computer, wrapped in a comfy throw to ward off the fall chill seeping through the windows of her fifth-floor office. Using a numerical model, she is able to analyze the link between current emissions, air quality, and the climate to understand the impact of economic activities on the environment in different parts of the world.

Saikawa is an eclectic mix of interests, experience, and knowledge. Her research into public policy and the science of emissions linked to air pollution, ozone depletion, and global warming forms a patchwork quilt of expertise that covers many of the major environmental issues facing the world today.

Since she arrived at Emory last year, Saikawa and her colleagues have identified more than two dozen faculty and staff, from anthropology to sociology, from business to public health, whose work involves climate change.

“We’re hoping to knit this network of faculty together into a team at Emory,” Saikawa says. She would eventually like to see this network expand to include researchers at Georgia Tech and other nearby institutions.

“It’s really not possible to understand climate change from the standpoint of one discipline,” she says. “Our energy system is changing. Our air is changing. Our supplies of water and energy are changing. The way we use land is changing. Ecosystems are changing. It’s not just climate change. It’s really global environmental change, and change in one system affects another, and so on. We need to find ways to show how it is all connected.”

As a child growing up in Japan, Saikawa was drawn to reading and challenging puzzles. “I would go to a bookstore whenever I had the time,” she recalls of her elementary- and middle-school days in Tokyo. “I had a white board, and my father would give me interesting number-related problems to solve on it.”

She attended an all-girls school and remembers spending a lot of time in the library reading. One book that made a big impression on her was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the 1962 exposé on pesticides and pollution that helped launch the American environmental movement. “I was fascinated with chemistry and technology, and I decided that I wanted to apply it to solve global environmental problems,” she says.

Japan was testing linear motor trains that use magnetic force instead of wheels and fossil fuels for propulsion. Saikawa developed her own summer project, studying how the trains worked and analyzing their potential impact.

When she was thirteen, her father’s job took the family to London, where Saikawa spent her high school years. She returned to Japan and majored in chemistry and biotechnology at the University of Tokyo. “I was very naïve, and I thought that technology was going to solve all of the world’s problems,” Saikawa recalls. “But I realized that technology is mainly focused on making new products, not necessarily for social importance.”

She decided to combine her science background with knowledge of the policymaking process. She did an internship at the World Bank, earned a master’s degree at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and entered the PhD program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“I took a lot of political science classes, and it was mind-blowing,” she says. “There is a focus on security and war in international relations with little emphasis on the environment. While political science is all about generalizing, you really can’t generalize about environmental problems because they are all so different. It helped me understand why it’s so difficult to establish protocols.”

After twenty-five years of international efforts to address global warming, an endless series of high-level meetings has not changed the rapid growth in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The levels have ballooned from preindustrial levels of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 317 ppm in 1960 and 400 ppm at various points in 2013.

As growth in carbon dioxide emissions from the US began to slow, China’s exploded, going from 4.28 billion tons in 2000 to more than 10 billion tons in 2010. Scientific groups from seventeen different countries compile data for the United Nations Emissions Gap Report, which in 2013 warned that if these countries don’t fulfill their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the goal of limiting the global temperature rise will not be possible.

Carbon dioxide is just one greenhouse gas linked to a changing climate and human health problems. Nitrous oxide, for instance, is the leading cause of the depletion of the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the third-largest greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide and methane. Human activity, especially agriculture, has boosted the emission levels in recent decades. Livestock manure and fertilizers containing nitrates, ammonia, or urea generate nitrous oxide as they decompose. “Nitrous oxide emissions stay in the atmosphere for 125 years, similar to carbon dioxide. So it’s very important that we take action now,” says Saikawa, who began developing models for nitrous oxide emissions in her previous position with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Global Change Science.

Until fairly recently, the US was the main nitrogen consumer from fertilizers. China now holds the top spot, as its consumption went up 40 percent during the past ten years and US consumption declined. We should not, however, single out China when it comes to climate change, Saikawa says; there is plenty of responsibility to go around the globe.

Shortly after Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful tropical cyclone ever to make landfall, slammed into the Philippines, the 2013 meeting of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) convened in Warsaw. While no single storm can be attributed to climate change, most experts agree that extreme weather events will become more common as the average temperature of the Earth warms. Rising sea levels also will make many human populations more vulnerable to the impact of storm surges.

News of the devastation caused by Haiyan hung like a dark cloud over the Warsaw meeting, which concluded with a call for a universal climate agreement in 2015. Details are scheduled to be hammered out at next year’s conference in Peru, before a final agreement is tackled in Paris in 2015.

Emory is applying for accreditation as an official UNFCCC observer, so that students and faculty can attend the annual gatherings to present research and experience the process firsthand. Saikawa says that the university is well positioned to make contributions in the climate change arena, due to its strong interdisciplinary nature. Her classes on air pollution and research methods have drawn students not just from environmental sciences, but from a range of majors across the sciences and humanities.

“I push students who are planning to go into policymaking to understand the physical science, and I push the science majors to understand policy analysis,” she says. “You need a good grounding in both to make a difference.”

More people are beginning to realize that climate change is not just an environmental problem. “It’s all connected and there is no simple solution,” Saikawa says. “That is why there is a need for research.”

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