To curb our extreme weather events, lower CO2 emissions

March 7, 2013 

I want to highlight three conclusions of the 2009 U.S. Global Change Research Program's study, available on line and from Oxford Press.

First: "Humans have adapted to changing climatic conditions in the past, but in the future, adaptations will be particularly challenging because society won't be adapting to a new steady state but rather to a rapidly moving target. Climate will be continually changing, moving at a relatively rapid rate, outside the range to which society has adapted in the past. The precise amounts and timing of these changes will not be known with certainty."

Second: "Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses. Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone."

Third: "The climate effects of reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived gases do not become apparent for at least several decades."

This last point means that even if we start seriously reducing our greenhouse gas emissions now, it will not spare us increases in extreme weather events next year or five years from now: the work we do lowering emissions now will pay off in future decades.

We cannot avoid experiencing the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that will result from the greenhouse gas levels currently in the atmosphere — the results of our increased emissions in recent decades.

A draft Climate Change Adaptation bill introduced by then-Sen. John Kerry and others in December references 14 extreme weather events that occurred in the U.S. during 2011 that resulted in more than $1 million in damages each and caused a combined death toll of hundreds of people. Last year was similar.

Less than three months after the widespread havoc wrought in New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy, a record-breaking snow storm with hurricane-strength winds of up to 80 miles an hour brought another round of havoc to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and other parts of the East Coast.

In the aftermath of Sandy, public officials experienced great pressure to release disaster funds to help people on the Long Island coast rebuild things exactly the way they were before the storm. It is hard to figure out how to do things better if you wait until after the storm and people are desperate and angry.

That's the bad news and the realistic warning. But the (relatively) good news is that we in Kentucky will probably not be as badly impacted by the results of climate disruption as many other parts of the country and the world.

We are not on a coast, so rising sea levels are not going to be a problem and we don't get more than the pale after effects of hurricanes. The Ohio and Kentucky rivers put us in relatively good shape for water, although the pattern of rain may shift toward the fall.

True, drought will be an increasing problem, and farmers in the state will need to make some changes in the crops they try to grow.

The incidence of diseases borne by mosquitoes and other insect will increase with the increasing temperatures, as will air pollution. But these will also be increasing problems in most other parts of the world.

Also, like most places, we will experience increasingly frequent and prolonged power outages as falling trees and ice resulting from high winds and storms down power lines.

We have to be awake enough to analyze the changes we need to make in things ranging from flood insurance, to building codes, the location of power lines, the capacity of the stormwater system, the preparedness and capacity of first responders and hospitals, and on and on. There are new jobs to be created dealing with some of these needs.

But the main point is simple and unavoidable: The harder and smarter we work to deal with the foreseeable increase in severe weather, the less we will suffer.

Rick Clewett, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University, is a conservation advocate.

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