Thomas R. O'Donnell

Climatologists offer evidence – and encourage action – on climate change

In Government on August 19, 2019 at 7:27 am
An aerial view of flooding at Camp Ashland, Nebraska on March 17, 2019.

An aerial view of the flooding at the Camp Ashland, Nebraska on March 17, 2019, after a Platte River levee broke. Nebraska experienced its worst flooding ever in spring 2019, something climatologists say is likely to become more common under global climate change. Credit: Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley, Nebraska National Guard, via photopin (license).

When you want to learn about climate change, talk people who study climate.

SciLine, the science information service for journalists, did just that. As part of a science essentials boot camp for political reporters, the nonprofit (associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science) gathered three state climatologists before a Science Center of Iowa audience earlier this month.

The climate mavens from Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina were unequivocal in their assertion that man-made climate change is real. Doubts among the public, especially farmers, are fading as bouts of extreme weather become more common, they said.

The three experts varied somewhat, however, in their thoughts on how we should respond to the climate change threat. And it seemed to me that the discussion mostly missed the point in a substantial way.

The three climatologists all hold doctorates in environmental science, atmospheric science or related fields: Kathie Dello from North Carolina (who moved into the job only weeks ago from a similar post in Oregon), Iowa’s Justin Glisan and Nebraska’s Martha Shulski. Miles O’Brien, a top science writer and PBS Newshour correspondent, moderated.

Dello and Shulski also hold academic posts at a state university. That helps gives them a layer of insulation from political forces that, I would argue, Glisan doesn’t have. He told the audience “I don’t feel impeded in my position,” but I think his status as a state employee may have influenced how he responded to some questions.

Climatologists are not weather forecasters, per se. Glisan is Iowa’s “weather archivist,” he said, tapping 147 years of observational data. Using historical information, he and other climatologists identify trends, verify records (such as July 2019 setting the mark as the Earth’s hottest month on record) and calculate odds of future trends.

Increasingly, those data point toward a warmer, wetter future, the panel said. In Nebraska, Shulski noted, the amount and timing of precipitation has changed, along with increased warming and rate of warming. In Iowa, Glisan said, precipitation has become more variable and its timing has shifted, with abnormally wet springs that delay planting, followed by dry, hot summers, and wet falls that impede harvest. Rains often are more intense, with two to three inches (or more) falling over short periods.

Hurricanes are the top threat in North Carolina, Dello said. The storms push saltwater up river estuaries, compounding the threat of floods and ecosystem damage. As in many things, poor people take much of the brunt because they live in inexpensive, low-lying areas, she said.

While they still hear from climate change deniers, the climatologists say most of the people they deal with regularly – especially farmers – recognize that something is happening. Years of repeated floods, interspersed with droughts, get people’s attention. Scientists and policymakers are “starting to put together a container of evidence that’s irrefutable,” Glisan said. He and Shulski said they hear frequently from folks who want to know how climate change will affect their land and their crops.

“They want some reassurance that … my crop’s going to come out all right. Or they just need somebody to talk to,” Glisan added. While he can’t make guarantees, he does provide callers information to help them make their own judgments.

Glisan backed the classic (and I would argue, largely mythical) view of Iowa farmers. They’re “resilient individuals. They don’t rely on anybody but themselves,” he said, downplaying the government programs – particularly subsidized crop insurance – many farmers do rely on (along with tariff-related cash payouts).

Glisan argued that farmers know how to cut carbon emissions, preserve water quality and conserve soil. They can play an important part in carbon sequestration, he noted. He’s right, but, again, it’s unlikely to happen at large scale without the government support he says farmers don’t like to rely on.

He also touted Iowa’s leadership in producing renewable fuel, adding wind generation and planting cover crops to hold soil and excess fertilizer and to sequester carbon. Between 2012 and 2017, there was a 256 percent increase in acres planted to cover crops, he noted.

I think he’s being too complimentary. Wind generation, on a whole, is a plus, and thank goodness Iowans have embraced its expansion – with a few exceptions. But the push to produce more renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol is problematic. To meet market demand, farmers are planting more corn, leading to increased chemical use (especially fertilizer), drainage tiling (leading to greater nitrate and phosphate runoff in groundwater) and production on marginal land. The incredible density of corn on acres also affects local weather (which Glisan acknowledged). The results aren’t all positive.

As for the assertion that cover crops have increased by 256 percent: What’s the base? Did it increase from 1 acre to 256 or from 100 to 25,600? As it turns out, the growth in Iowa was substantial, from 379,614 in 2012 to 936,118 in 2017 – actually a little less than 250 percent, by my math, but close enough. (The Iowa State University Extension Service puts 2017 cover crop planting at a lower 760,000 acres.) That is commendable, but in 2017 Iowa farmers planted an estimated 13.5 million acres in corn and an estimated 10 million in soybeans (PDF). At nearly 1 million acres in 2017, cover crops amounted to only about 4.2 percent of total corn and soybean acres.

I understand that Glisan mostly deals with farmers, empathizes with them and wants to support and encourage them. I appreciate farmers, who have tough jobs (in which making a profit often is difficult) and whose actions often are influenced by market forces and government incentives. Those forces and incentives, however, are not always in line with what’s best for the climate and the environment. I’m not sure it helps to downplay the damage agriculture can cause and emphasize the (so far) minimal steps some courageous farmers are taking to counter it.

In general, the climatologists said farmers and local governments are in the best position to take on climate change. Local and state solutions “are the ones that are going to stick,” Dello said. Des Moines city leaders, for example, are assembling a climate action plan. Shulski recently worked with 11 cities across a four-state region to incorporate climate projections into their planning – developing hazard mitigation and emergency operating schemes.

That’s part of what troubled me about the event: It seemed much of the discussion focused on responding to climate change, rather than on strategies to slow it. I’d like to see more emphasis on slowing or stopping carbon-generating activities, even if it means pushing farmers to change their practices. They can, indeed, be leaders in combatting climate change, but I doubt many will do it willingly – especially if doing so cuts into their already thin profits.

The argument that local governments can take the initiative in addressing climate change is valid, but to me it’s insufficient. Without national guidance and goals, plus state-level commitments, the results will spotty and, most likely, inadequate.

It’s not too late. “The train hasn’t left the station,” Dello said, but every day that passes brings potential disaster closer. As for what it will take “for the people making decisions to wake up? New people in their place,” she added.

Among the climatologists, Dello was the most passionate – and consequently got the most audience response.

We’re good at talking about preparing for climate change. Taking action is more difficult, she said. “Science isn’t enough, and if it were, we would’ve fixed this problem by now.”

“I’m angry,” Dello added later. “We’ve known about this problem and we haven’t solved it,” she said to applause. Climate change “is hurting people in a real way and it’s not going to hurt rich people. It’s hurting people in low-lying countries that just don’t have the power to deal with what’s happening to them, and that weighs on me.”

As O’Brien noted in summing up, the technology to address climate change “is all on the shelf. It’s just a matter of political will and some economic incentives.”

You can hear a complete recording of the discussion or read a transcript here.

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