No time to backtrack on climate


What will be great for mosquitoes and ticks, potentially disastrous for reindeer and hard on Kentuckians who have asthma and other breathing disorders?

The answer is changes in climate that already have occurred because of heat-trapping gases put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution by power plants, gasoline vehicles and other human-made sources.

President-elect Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” but the evidence of global warming’s very real effects keeps piling up, from the Arctic to Kentucky, at an even faster pace than scientists have predicted.

Cloaked in darkness, the Arctic is now experiencing a spell of extraordinarily warm winter temperatures, and the extent of Arctic sea ice is the lowest ever recorded.

Sea ice reflects heat from the summer sun back into the atmosphere. The loss of ice contributes to warming oceans, as seawater absorbs heat, and the warming effect is multiplied in a feedback loop as ocean temperatures have climbed. “Such changes mean that a system that was once a vast air conditioner has started to turn into a heater,” explains Peter Wadhams, professor emeritus of ocean physics at Cambridge University, who says that with the loss of polar ice we also are losing a force that has stabilized and regulated our climate for thousands of years.

The threat to reindeer and the people who depend on them is that unseasonable rains, spurred by warmer seas, will freeze on top of snow. Reindeer and other animals cannot break through the ice that forms over snow to reach the plants that make up their diet. Siberia has experienced reindeer die-offs.

Closer to home, a study by University of Louisville professor Keith Mountain predicts warmer, wetter weather through 2050, based on an analysis of Louisville temperature and precipitation records going back to 1917.

As one result of shorter, milder winters, “all aspects of biological life can be expected to begin earlier and last longer, affecting the environmental stability that we have come to expect,” Mountain told The Courier-Journal’s James Bruggers. That includes disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks and invasive plant species. Hotter, longer summers will mean more days of smog, exacerbating breathing problems.

On the brighter side, evidence also is piling up that we can curb the production of heat-trapping gases without drastically changing our standard of living.

Politico recently reported that the electric sector has already met the 2024 goal in President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and its 2030 target for reducing coal use, according to government data compiled by the Sierra Club. The credit goes not to the president’s plan, which the courts have put on hold, but to the widespread transition by electrical utilities from coal to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.

While natural gas may be kinder to the climate than coal and serve as a bridge to a cleaner energy future, it’s not the answer to controlling climate change because of the large amounts of methane, also a heat-trapping gas that gas and oil production puts into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, wind and solar accounted for two-thirds of all new U.S. power generating capacity in 2015 and are fast becoming as cheap as fossil fuels.

Climate instability will inevitably bring more economic and political instability around the world, as people flee drought, floods and famine. Trump would be smart to abide by the historic climate accord reached a year ago in Paris by the world’s nations. Avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change is reason enough to support the Paris accord, but firmly establishing this country as the world’s leading energy innovator would help Trump deliver on the booming economy he has promised.

Lexington Herald-Leader

comments powered by Disqus