Ky.'s climate change could bring poverty or growth

ctruman@herald-leader.comDecember 9, 2009 

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Depending on the speed and direction of climate change in Kentucky, the state could move toward increased poverty or see an opportunity for economic growth, according to a group of state and national experts meeting yesterday at the Kentucky Science & Technology Corp.'s climate change conference.

No one was predicting exactly what Kentucky's weather will look like. But, however it changes, the state could wind up even poorer, as energy costs rise, the coal industry withers and Kentucky's poor wind up in even more dire economic straits, said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

Or — in a scenario suggested by Kris Kimel, president of the Lexington-based science and technology group in a meeting at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort & Spa — the state could land in a sort of economic catbird seat as a place with limited climate change and could benefit if it enhances education and infrastructure to gain businesses that other states lose.

Either way, Kentuckians need to expect more dramatic weather in coming years.

The challenge, said Stuart Foster of the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University, is predicting when the state will have extreme weather. In 1951, Grayhawk, in Western Kentucky, experienced a record 23 days below zero, while Shelbyville had a reading of 37 degrees below zero in 1994.

Greensburg's temperature hit a record high of 114 degrees in 1930. And in 1974, Kentucky was Tornado Alley, experiencing at least 26 tornadoes, including three in Pulaski County in one night.

Since 1970, Foster said, there has been a "clear upward pattern" in Kentucky temperatures. Nonetheless, he said, "If you think this is bad, wait."

Climate change hasn't been dramatic in Kentucky just yet, he said. Most notably, spring and fall temperatures are getting warmer, and the amount of fall precipitation is increasing.

But Kentucky's citizens could suffer more visibly, and sooner, from a likely spike in energy prices spurred by increased environmental concerns and investments in alternative energy sources.

"We're at the intersection of poverty and environmental degradation," FitzGerald said. He said higher energy prices could force some of Kentucky's poorer residents into homelessness and spur the exit of industries that came to Kentucky simply because of low energy prices.

But Kimel suggested that if the state positions itself well for the exodus of business from states that are hit harder by climate change, it could benefit.

These are long-term changes. One expert, Radley Horton of The Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, discussed coping with changes that might occur nationwide by 2080, when there may be a five- to six-degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperatures.

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