A Climate Change Primer
By Jeremy Morrison
Last year, the federal government released the National Climate Assessment. The report outlined the potential climate-change-related impacts different areas of the United States can expect as well as recommendations on how best to prepare for the coming changes.
“Interestingly, it came out the day after Thanksgiving,” said Christian Wagley, a local environmental advocate, explaining how the report’s release was designed to get lost in the holiday weekend news cycle.
The 2018 report paints a future featuring more severe weather occurring with increasing frequency. It forecasts floods and heat and hurricanes. The cataclysmic predictions are available in chapter form or laid out on a lush, easy-to-read .gov website.
“It’s fairly general. It’s not like reading a scientific journal article,” Wagley said. “Really, anybody can read it and digest it. It’s very user-friendly.”
To re-broadcast the key findings of the climate assessment report, 350 Pensacola recently hosted a public forum which organizers dubbed a “teach-in.” Wagley, who moderated the event, connected the concept to the origin of Earth Day in 1970.
“They did an intensive teaching session about our planet,” Wagley said.
The local teach-in, held July 30 at the Studer Community Institute, featured four presenters who walked through varying aspects of the report.
Cooper Corey, a UWF junior majoring in natural sciences, presented an overview of the basic science behind climate change. The 20-year-old student is currently conducting climatological research on rainfall in the Southeast United States.
Toward the beginning of the presentation, Corey projected an image onto a screen of a chart depicting a sharp, angry-looking trajectory line racing northward along a graph.
“This black line is the increase in temperature from 1880 to 2020,” Corey said.
Attendees had already learned that between 1901 and 2016, the average global temperature had risen around 1.7 degrees and that it wasn’t natural.
“Rather, many scientists agree that human activities, primarily greenhouse gas emissions and land-use changes, are responsible for this,” Corey said, explaining that 16 of the last 17 years had broken the “warmest year on record” record.
And rising temperatures aren’t the only measurable impact of climate change detailed in the assessment.
“Besides just the basic temperature, we can see the warming just through the decrease of glaciers, snow cover, sea ice, pretty much anything that’s frozen,” Corey said, “and an increase in mean sea level around the entire world and an increase in heat extremes and severe precipitation events, much like what happened here in 2014.”
What About Water?
The areas of the National Climate Assessment dealing with water were outlined by Haley Matherly, a UWF grad student studying environmental science. Matherly, who is interning with 350 Pensacola, has recently been researching renewable energy issues and will make a presentation on the topic this month to the Pensacola City Council.
The grad student opened her remarks with a quote which described water as the “foundation of human and ecological health” and by referencing an earlier discussion concerning so-called environmental tipping points and explaining that there would be water-related issues regardless of any climate-change-related impacts.
“The assessment reports that our current water systems face considerable risk even without significant future changes in climate,” Matherly said. “Sometimes tipping points—arbitrary isn’t the right word, but sometimes we shouldn’t wait until we get to those levels. Sometimes the changes we’re seeing already are what they are despite future changes in climate.”
Listing off concerns like limited surface water, a depleting aquifer, and aging water and sewer infrastructure, Matherly said that such issues would only be amplified by climate change. She described scenarios where a changing climate leads to increased rainfall in some areas of the country and droughts in other regions and storm events involving heavy rainfall increase.
All of these intense shifts are expected to carry consequences on communities’ water resources.
“In most sections of the U.S., we are seeing more frequent and more severe climate extremes,” Matherly said. “These extremes occurring more often and more intensely deteriorate our water infrastructure. And when this is happening more quickly and more intensely than anticipated, this reduces communities’ resilience to change.”
Fielding questions from attendees, the grad student was asked by a young child why areas with too much water couldn’t somehow transport that excess to areas in need of water.
Matherly responded that water was “super heavy” and logistically tough to transport economically but said that some places in “desperate situations,” like areas of California, already do transport water from one place to another to accommodate.
“It’s sort of an extreme response because of how expensive it is,” Matherly said.
Nicole Grinnan, a research associate with the Florida Public Archaeology Network and public archaeologist with the state, delved into the climate assessment’s projections for coastal areas.
“We have so much going on in our coastal areas,” Grinnan said, going on to detail how 133 million people, or 42 percent, of the U.S. population lives along the coast. “That’s a big number.”
Along all of that coastline, with all of those people, are a variety of ecosystems and communal infrastructure. There are sandy beaches, rocky shores and wetlands. There are industrial ports, tourism destinations, military installments, real estate and fishing meccas.
All of this is impacted by climate change and issues like sea-level rise, tidal flooding, storm surge, erosion, saltwater intrusion, rainfall, river runoff, increased water and surface air temps, ocean acidification.
“As far as coastal environments go, they’re essentially being transformed, degraded and lost due to climate change impacts,” Grinnan said.
For example, and outlined in the assessment, between 2003 and 2009, an estimated 80,160 acres per year of coastal wetlands was lost. And 71 percent of that loss occurred along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
“So, the Gulf of Mexico coast is being severely impacted,” Grinnan said.
Recommended ways to address such coastal loss included the reliance on natural buffers.
“Like living shorelines,” Ginnan said. “Living shorelines is one of the best examples of those. Also, here in Pensacola, oyster reefs are another way we’re trying to mitigate these impacts.”
The loss of and impacts to coastal environments outlined in the assessment, Ginnan said, are likely to strain already existing societal issues, causing further stress for already stressed populations like the elderly and the poor or rural communities or subsistence communities.
“Essentially, what they say is that climate change impacts are going to exacerbate preexisting social inequities,” she said.
Eventually, conversations will need to be had in some coastal communities about how best to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Already, a Native American tribe in Louisiana has been granted funds to be used if a changing environment alters their world beyond repair.
“They were actually one of the first groups awarded money by the federal government—it was about $48 million—to implement a resettlement plan for the future if their community is severely impacted by climate change and sea-level rise,” Ginnan said. “Things like this are going to become more common.”
Impacts on Agriculture
Paige Plier, an environmental specialist for the state and a board member for the nonprofit The Moore Center for Marine Conservation, addressed the final overview–climate change’s impact on agriculture.
“This involves all of us, and it is going to affect all of us because we need food to survive,” Plier said.
Plier explained how climate change, with its rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, will impact various aspects of the agricultural industry. There will be changes concerning the location of certain crops and when they’re planted and how much they yield. There will be impacts on crops, livestock and fisheries.
“Agriculture is a very tedious process, and it’s done under certain conditions particular to that kind of crop,” Plier said, “specific conditions like the conditions of soil, temperature, atmosphere, hydrology, the air. So, it’s all a delicate balance what we have right now.”
He added, And it’s been that way for hundreds of years, but what we’re saying is that these are about to change and that balance is going to go through a shift.”
One of the more dramatic impacts of climate change where agriculture is concerned involves the changing seasons. Projections of “an additional couple of months of summer in the future” would have noticeable effects.
Ultimately, Plier said, the assessment recommends considering how best to adapt to the varying changes expected and also stresses the need to focus on the issue of food security.
“If our food supplies are threatened and food scarcity becomes more of a reality, how are we going to deal with that?” Plier asked. “Seriously, we’ve been, like, sitting comfy. We need to start thinking about some of these things.”