by Dick Smythe
Despite the fact that some people continue to reject the overwhelming consensus among scientists that our air and waters are warming due to climate change, the American public is being exposed to more and more information daily about what is actually happening. What follows is a discussion of climate-change-related information – discouraging and encouraging – much of which may not be widely known.
On the negative or harmful side, we have the example of North Carolina. Its Coastal Resources Commission has predicted that sea levels may rise by as much as 39 inches by the end of the century. This rise will cause considerable coastal damage, including flooding of homes and businesses. Despite these predicted impacts, the state legislature has passed a law that bars all policies based on that prediction at the request of coastal developers who are concerned that this prediction would hurt real-estate values and drive up the cost of insurance, thereby harming their near-term business interests.
Gallup ran a series of surveys in 2018 asking Americans to name the “most important problems facing the country.” Although other surveys show that most Americans, regardless of political party, recognize that climate change is real, in the Gallup surveys, environmental issues never scored above 3 percent as being very important. Similarly, a Pew Research Center study in 2018 found that the public ranked climate change 18th out of 19 possible top priorities to be addressed by Congress and President Trump. This failure to recognize the seriousness of climate change – and the resulting low level of public support for action – is why we are not seeing any meaningful change in policy at the national level.
We have the results of a study published in the prestigious journal Lancet Planetary Health finding that at least one in eight deaths in India can be attributed to air pollution caused largely by burning fossil fuels, which is also causing climate change. That figure represents both an estimated 1.24 million deaths and the fact that three-fourths of India’s population is exposed to harmful particulates – also in part from burning coal – at four times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
Finally, there are climate impacts that don’t affect many people but are life-changing for other species and indicative of the many changes a transformed climate will cause. For example, at every life stage, salmon need clean, cold water. When water heats up, even by a few degrees, diseases set in. When water temperatures pass 77 degrees, salmon die. Last year, for the first time, scientists surveying Pacific Northwest salmon frequently came up with empty nets.
So why are salmon important? They are one of the most nutrient-dense foods available to humans. Moreover, on their journey out to sea and back, they feed not only humans, but bears, orcas and even trees. Salmon are at the center of ceremonies, art and the very identity of certain native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and California. When salmon are threatened, so are their cultures.
On the positive or hopeful side, we have the declaration of the eminent scientist E.O. Wilson, who stated in a recent interview, “Climate change is going to be stalled. We will slow, stop and reverse climate change.” The much-praised book Drawdown spells out strategies that could actually accomplish this incredibly important and optimistic objective.
Around the world, there is progress in many places in the effort to slow climate change. Iceland’s government has become the world’s first to rid itself of fossil-fuel investments. Beyond that, the amount of fossil-fuel divestiture worldwide now totals $8 trillion: a substantial increase from 2017. At the same time, coal plants are being shut down across the U.S. and the world at an unexpectedly high rate due to economic and customer pressures.
California continues to demonstrate responsible and pioneering leadership in dealing with climate change. The state has committed to generating 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2045, and its major utilities are already at more than 30 percent. California is the first state to require that new homes include solar panels. Other states are stepping up as well: Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have committed to substantial investments in offshore wind-energy production.
As we search for strategies to combat climate change, it is essential to recognize that, by some estimates, the world’s forests, if left intact, can absorb approximately one-third of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is that our planet’s forests, particularly tropical forests, are being rapidly destroyed.
This has to stop. Trees provide huge collateral benefits well beyond their central role in addressing global warming. They provide shade, which cools homes and reduces air-conditioning demand; they transform sunlight into food for insects, wildlife and people; they create wood for fuel, furniture and homes; when their leaves decompose, they leach chemicals into the ocean that help fertilize plankton, which form the basis of the ocean’s food chains; they filter water and air pollution, helping to safeguard human health; and they add immeasurably to the beauty of our planet.
More good news is that many nations are committed to reforestation through the UN’s Billion Tree Campaign. Pakistan alone plans to plant 10 billion trees to confront climate change. At home, lots of organizations – including the Nature Conservancy, the Climate Change Coalition and our Door County schools – recognize this imperative and are planting more trees every year. Much is being done, but much more is needed.
So, the good news is that actions to address climate change are being taken in many places, and there is hope that we can successfully confront this major challenge. The bad news is that although climate change and the harm it is causing are very real, on a national and global level, we, the public, are not demanding the political action necessary to protect our planet for future generations. As climate activists, our number-one objective should be to rally people of all political persuasions to join together to demand action.
Dick Smythe and his wife, Mary, live in Sister Bay and serve on the Climate Change Coalition’s steering committee. Smythe spent his professional career with the U.S. Forest Service, first as a research scientist, then in a series of administrative positions. His final position was director of wildlife, fish, water, soil and atmospheric science research for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County who address various aspects of the challenges and opportunities of climate change. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected]
SAVE THE DATE
The fifth annual Climate Change Forum, presented by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, will be held May 20 at Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay.