"Most of you are probably more aware of climate change than anyone in the past," Atherton told the full house, members of the Danville-Alamo branch of the American Association of University Women.
She joked that half of them probably drove a Prius. Ever since the former vice president's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," climate change has saturated public consciousness. It prompted an enormous "green" movement and a super-heightened environmental awareness.
Atherton spoke about the causes and consequences of climate change - a term she prefers over global warming since its effects go beyond rising temperatures.
For example, it can cause floods, droughts, changes in rain patterns and even cooling. However, scientists have found that the overall global temperature is rising, and will continue to rise.
"Even if we do everything we can right now we're still faced with almost a 1 degree Celsius increase by 2100," Atherton said.
That's about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and that number is modest. In certain regions the temperature increase would be much higher.
The biggest driver of climate change is the greenhouse effect, when gases in the atmosphere trap energy from the sun, warming the Earth's surface.
Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas that gets the most attention, Atherton said, hence all the buzz about CO2 emissions and reducing your carbon footprint.
But there are other greenhouse gasses contributing to the problem, too, such as tropospheric ozone, methane and nitrous oxide. There are some very tangible effects of the warming Earth. Glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate, causing ocean levels to rise.
Closer to home, there's the issue of the Sierra snow pack, which provides much of California's water during the dry season. If more water falls as rain rather than snow, the dwindling snow pack could pose serious problems for the state's water supply.
Also, scientists say that melting ice in the Northwest Passage - a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic - may cause the shipping route to be fully navigable within a few years.
"Which brings about one of the things about climate change: It's not bad for everyone," Atherton said.
For instance, a farmer in Canada probably isn't going to be upset that it's a few degrees warmer outside, she said. "The fine line is, what is good and what is bad? And who decides?"
After bestowing a wealth of information on climate change on the women at the meeting, Atherton turned the focus to "what can we do about it."
"I think solar (power) is becoming more and more attractive to people," she said. "As they make that cheaper and cheaper we really owe it to ourselves to invest in that."
Wind energy is also gaining momentum, as are hybrid cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs, geothermal power, and alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol.
Still, only 7 percent of the energy in the U.S. comes from renewable sources, leaving lots of room for improvement, Atherton said.
"There's a lot of good minds doing a lot of thinking on this, and hopefully we'll make it better for the next generation," she said.
Atherton's studies contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The group shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore - whom she calls Albert - for its efforts to spread knowledge about climate change and identify the measures needed to counteract it.
More information on the topic can be found at the group's Web site, www.ipcc.ch.
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