• Adapting as well as mitigating climate change
    March 21,2013
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    On March 16, Senator Bernie Sanders and activist Bill McKibben held a conference on global climate change. Such periodic updates are crucial because of the immense volume of new data and new reports. But I worry, on the basis of some of Sanders’ and McKibbens’ policy enthusiasms, that the pair may not be keeping up with current research. I am also concerned about their apparent belief that anyone who opposes their positions, especially their position on the need for immediate build-out of ridgeline wind, is a NIMBY or worse, a denier of the evidence for global climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    On the contrary, I feel that it is these two powerful men who are, apparently, denying the evidence. As they continue to support the speedy industrialization of Vermont’s ridgelines, they seem to be missing several points of paramount importance to Vermonters:

    The significance of adaptation as a response to climate change; mitigation efforts alone are not sufficient.

    The role of forests in both mitigation and adaptation.

    The peculiar vulnerability of rural communities to the negative impacts of climate change.

    I offer a few relevant highlights from recent research:

    Global temperature: The planet is warmer today than during 70 to 80 percent of the 11,300 year span of our Holocene epoch, according to a report in the current issue of the journal Science, which continues: “Of even more concern are projections of global temperature for the year 2100, when virtually every climate model evaluated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that temperatures will exceed the warmest temperatures during ...[the Holocene] under all plausible greenhouse gas emission scenarios.”

    Ineffectiveness of governmental efforts to decrease CO2: Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been steadily increasing over the last four years despite governmental attempts to restrain fossil-fuel emissions, according to The Earth System Research Laboratory. Carbon dioxide measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii jumped by 2.67 parts per million in 2012, an annual increase larger than any other since 1998.

    Irreversibility of climate change: “People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would go back to normal in 100 years or 200 years. What we’re showing here is that’s not right. It’s essentially an irreversible change that will last for more than a thousand years,” said Susan Solomon, an author of a report on climate change published in the 2009 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Need for mitigation and adaptation: Both mitigation and adaptation are essential, according to the Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment Report. (The draft document is open for public comment until April 12, 2013.) From the executive summary (emphasis mine): “The choices about emissions pathways fall into a category of response options usually referred to as “mitigation” — ways to reduce the amount and speed of future climate change by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases. The other major category of response options is known as “adaptation” and refers to changes made to better respond to new conditions, thereby reducing harm or taking advantage of opportunity.”

    The role of forests in adaptation to new conditions: The report continues “... in 2010, U.S. forest ecosystems and the associated wood products industry captured and stored roughly 13 percent of all carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S.” It adds the following projections (emphasis mine), “Forest health decline and an increase in forest disturbances on both public and private land are projected due to increases in wildfire, insects, disease, drought, and extreme events. At the same time, there is growing awareness that forests may play an expanded role in carbon management. Addressing climate change effects on forests requires considering the interactions among land-use practices, energy options, and climate change.”

    Vulnerability of rural populations: In the same draft report, the Advisory Committee addresses a matter of paramount importance to Vermonters: the heightened vulnerability of rural communities to climate-change risks. The committee sites several liabilities of rural populations, including the dependence on natural resources for both livelihoods and social structure and the likelihood of “physical isolation, limited economic diversity, and higher poverty rates, combined with an aging population.” Further, the committee notes that “Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts. ”

    A reading of current research suggests that Vermont’s leaders should promote adaptive as well as mitigation responses to climate change. They should champion preservation of Vermont’s forests and build community infrastructure and response capacity. They should limit costly mitigation efforts that work against these goals. Current research does not support, for example, the policy of allowing the wind industry free access to Vermont’s forested ridgelines, a policy that destroys important adaptive forest and that stresses communities for questionable goals. Vermonters should demand state policies in response to climate change that are based on sound current research and evidence. I hope that Senator Sanders and Mr. McKibben are listening.
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