Professor Reich on Climate Change

By Pat O’Regan

In a recent talk, as part of the Headliners Series at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Peter Reich laid out the case concerning climate change in Minnesota. No prosecuting attorney could do a better job. Two or three generations hence – perhaps sooner, the way it has been going – people can look back, if, in fact, nothing has been done, and starting soon, and say of the Professor’s lucid discussion, “Guilty as charged, Professor. We were the primary cause, and we failed to do anything about it. Too late now.”

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Photo credit: IonE

Professor Reich is a Regents and McKnight Professor of Ecology. Working at the University since 1991, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received the prestigious Cote de Ecology, the ecological sciences equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This, of course, is credibility in spades. When scientists like Professor Reich are convinced of climate change and the human role in its insidious advances, and when the conclusion is endorsed by all the major scientific organizations – National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, etc. – the debate has come to an end. It is past time to shift the focus towards action.

Overview

As discussed by Professor Reich, the current climate change situation looks like this:

We have been dumping 90 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every day, using the surrounding air, in effect, as our personal garbage disposal and thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect, which, by the laws of physics, causes warming. The amount of extra heat people add to the atmosphere every year is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs. This despoiling of the natural environment must have consequences. Worldwide, the past decade has been the warmest on record; 2012 was the hottest year in the U.S. on record, and since 1990 the temperature has gone up 2° F. The Greenland glaciers and Antarctic ice shelves have been melting apace, and half the Arctic summer sea ice is gone.

If not for the natural heat sinks of the land and sea, Professor Reich noted, the temperature would have already gone up a calamitous 7-15° F. In any case, at the current rate, the temperature will increase 12° F by the end of the century.

Interestingly – and ominously – as Professor Reich pointed out, the fate of the carbon pools on land ( tundra, bogs and marshes) will have more impact in the long run on the warming of the atmosphere than the burning of fossil fuels. That fate, of course, depends on global warming. The dreaded tipping point, therefore – the point at which climate change is self-propagating and unstoppable – may come from the rotting of the carbon pools due to the warming of the atmosphere. That rotting releases greenhouse gases (methane) which causes more warming and therefore more rotting in a perpetual feedback loop.

Even more ominously, our climate may be on a hair trigger. When we hit the tipping point, the change to the climate may be sudden and dramatic. In the past, the temperature has gone up as much as 20° F in as little as 50 years.

Effects

We will not be immune to the consequences of the warming. Every place on land is a terrestrial ecosystem. We live in an urban forest, which also will be affected by the warming.

Of course, as the Dr. Reich pointed out, we cannot ascribe any single severe weather event to climate change. But scientists now speak of an increased likelihood of these events. Quoting the local meteorologist, Paul Douglas, Professor Reich said that the current state of the climate is “weather on steroids.” It is unimpeachable science – since there is more heat in the atmosphere, severe weather events are more likely.

The litany of extreme events, taken together, is evidence itself of climate change:

  • 2012 was one of the worst years on record for fires. Fires are becoming not only more frequent, but more devastating. The Boundary Waters has had terribly destructive fires in recent years.
  • The frequency of 3” rain storms has increased 71% in the last decade.
  • In the same time, there has been more flooding, more windstorms and more tornadoes.
  • The effect of increased insect populations due to climate change on forests has been devastating. Forty million acres of forest have been lost to insects in British Columbia alone. The pine forest in northern Minnesota is at risk.
  • Because of the warmer temperatures, a number of invasive species have thrived and spread: ash borer, earthworms, buckthorn – all are expanding their ranges. They are no longer inhibited by the cold.
  • The outbreak of West Nile virus infections, including in Minnesota, abetted by the spread of the disease-carrying mosquito due to warming, was the worst on record in 2012.

“The intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfire and severe storms are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible.” – American Association for the Advancement of Science

Implications

All of this applies to Minnesota. But what about our state specifically? In addition to the extreme weather events – floods, droughts, windstorms – and infestations, as Professor Reich explained, what happens to the environment of the state will depend on the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. If the atmosphere becomes warmer and drier, we can expect Minnesota to be an oak savannah ecosystem. If it becomes warmer and wetter, we can expect a maple and oak forest. In either case, the pine forest, so distinctive of the northern part of the state will be decimated. Pine, spruce and aspen do poorly in warmer temperatures. Our lovely pine forest will be a thing of the past. But, it should be noted, the migration of species north will happen slower than the temperature change, leading to droughts, fires and insect infestations of dying vegetation.

So the state will change dramatically and in a way which wrecks the natural wonders of Minnesota and diminishes the quality of life of the people of the state. A lot of what we take for granted now – winter sports, for example – will be diminished or lost altogether. We will have to live with severe weather much more than now. Already, the last two years were the highest on record for the number of billion dollar disasters in the country. It’ll only get worse.

Always an optimist, Professor Reich pointed to the economic benefits of stopping the advance of Climate Change. The cost of acting is up to 3% of GDP, he said; the cost of not acting will be up to 9% of GDP – and a diminished quality of life. (The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change put these figures at 2% and 20%.) If you need an example that comes closer to home: if climate change is not arrested, the Professor said, you can expect the cost of homeowners insurance to go up 220% (inflation adjusted) in the next 15 years.

What to do?

So what’s to be done? We have to act now. Changes to the climate are more extreme and happening faster than most predictions. We’ve already dumped so much carbon into the atmosphere, if we reduced our fossil fuel use to 1950 levels, it would take 20-30 years to bring the level of carbon in the atmosphere back to a safe level (350 ppm). The farther we go down the path we are currently following, the harder it will be to turn things around. The cost of delay is to make the problem riskier and more expensive.

How to proceed? Basically, we have to increase our efficiency in the use of fossil fuels and decrease our use of them. One way to decrease our use, of course, is to increase the use of renewables; wind and solar, in particular. Reducing the greenhouse gas cost of agriculture is a key factor. Meat has a much higher carbon footprint, for example, than corn. The idea is to keep carbon on land, and out of the atmosphere.

But people being people, they need a reason to act. They have to see that what they do is something somehow beneficial to them. Well, as Professor Reich pointed out, it is. Reducing greenhouse gases is beneficial in a number of ways:

  • Economically: GDP can grow with renewables and without the costly overhead – extreme weather – of climate change. There need not be an inherent economic cost to reducing greenhouse gases. In fact, doing so can be economically advantageous. Germany, for instance, which has cut its carbon emissions in half, is doing better economically than many other countries of Europe that have done nothing.
  • Morally: We, who are causing most of the problem, are inflicting the consequences on the poorer nations of the world.
  • Physically: A small change in lifestyle to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels would be healthy. We’d be more active in a more salubrious environment; we’d eat a healthier diet; we’d suffer fewer adverse weather consequences.

We can be optimistic, Professor Reich insists, about stopping the encroachments of climate change. The chief offenders, of course, are the U.S. and China, aided and abetted by India, Russia and Brazil. But whatever other countries do, we should lead the way back from the prospect of devastation. The technology to solve this problem exists. What is lacking is the political will. But societal change can come abruptly. The change in the U.S. at the outset of World War II is a case in point.

As the Professor said, if we don’t act and soon, the measures we will be forced to take against runaway climate change will be draconian. If people would only see that Climate Change is the crucial issue of our time and determine to do something about it, we would solve the problem – and our lives, and the lives of future generations, would be immeasurably better for it.

Pat O’Regan is a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

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