June 2013 — Last month, climate scientists announced that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) had surpassed 400 parts per million, an alarming milestone since CO2 is earth’s most abundant heat-trapping greenhouse gas (GHG). A few weeks earlier, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reported on American attitudes on the issue. It turns out that only about 8% of Americans are genuine climate change skeptics. The rest of us are concerned, even alarmed, but mainly sitting on the fence, wrapped in despair because the evidence seems too abstract, the consequences too distant, and we just don’t know what to do.
What does global warming mean in our daily lives, here in the Catskills?
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has identified a range of impacts for the Catskills region now and over the next 50 years. We can expect increased flooding alternating with periods of drought, and a higher incidence of catastrophic events like hurricanes and ice storms. Weather-related disruptions of communications and travel will affect public safety and economic stability. Increased asthma, heat stroke, heart attack and vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease will stress our public health system. Agricultural impacts will include more spring frosts, reduced summer precipitation and heat stresses on farm animals, especially dairy cows. We may lose our iconic Empire and Macintosh apples. Invasive pests like the hemlock wooly adelgid and emerald ash borer are already affecting our forests.
Impacts will have a cascading effect. For example, as we lose our hemlock forests to the wooly adelgid, streams and lakes will become warmer, stressing our beloved brook trout by reducing the cold water refuges they need. This could have a disastrous impact on the $3.5 billion a year hunting and fishing businesses in upstate New York.
It sounds pretty dire, and what can we do about it?
Let’s focus on three key words. The first is mitigation – reducing the GHG emissions that cause climate change. The most important way to do this is to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewable sources like solar, wind and biomass as quickly as we can.
The second is adaptation – finding ways to reduce adverse effects. For example, we can make our houses cooler in the summer by insulating our attics, using reflective roofing material, and planting deciduous trees to provide shade in summer. In new construction, we can site houses to take advantage of summer breezes and passive warming in winter.
Effective adaptation efforts can also mitigate the causes of climate disruption. For example, as we use passive design and construction practices to help heat and cool our houses, or demand more organically grown local food, we also reduce energy demand and use of the fossil fuels and petrochemicals that cause global warming.
The third key word is resiliency, which describes the ability to recover from adverse events. In the context of climate change, we will build our resiliency by educating ourselves and becoming proactive, and by calling upon our greatest human asset, our ability to bring creativity and innovation to our problem-solving efforts.
What we eat, what we buy, who we vote for and what policies those leaders enact – our choices determine what kind of life we live now, and how future generations will fare. Our predicament is the unfortunate cumulative result of millions of incremental choices as well as regressive energy policy. The answers to the problem are also cumulative – small personal choices day by day, and big policy choices demanded boldly and implemented robustly. We will not get there by sitting on the fence or cowering in despair.