By Martin Kirk
How should we prepare for the future?
This question has never been more important. The world, as we are all no doubt feeling, is a tumultuous place right now. We live daily with the sort of dramas that in other times would have been shocking if they occurred annually. It‘s exhausting. And yet, however much change is happening in the present, all the evidence suggests we are at the beginning of a period of significant upheaval, not the middle, and certainly not the end.
One area where the writing is clearly on the wall is the changing natural environment. Climate disruption, the dramatic and significant loss of species and habitats, ocean acidification, the clogging presence of plastics everywhere from city streets to the bellies of shrimp at the bottom of the Mariana trench, are all symptoms of a global ecosystem under immense stress. An ecosystem that is changing rapidly around us, in ways both obvious and obscure.
The last few months have seen a number of major studies released on where all this is leading. The most directly relevant for the Hudson Valley was the government’s 4th National Climate Assessment, published in October. Leaving the White House to one side, this is the collective view of the federal government. It is endorsed by 13 federal bodies, including the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy and State, as well as those agencies perhaps more traditionally associated with such questions, like NASA, the Smithsonian, and the EPA.
This article is about its predictions for our region but to really understand these, we should see them in full context. And to do that, we must start with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The first thing to recognize about the UN’s IPCC is that it is an inherently conservative body. It was designed that way because it was known just how profound and challenging the changing climate would be for policy makers; going public with anything but the most robust and proven science could risk severe political backlash.
It turns out that even this wasn’t protection against organized denialism. No science has proven up to that task, arguably because facts and evidence are less convincing to some than tribal allegiances. But the depressing upshot is that, because of this inherent conservatism, we now face a situation where the full reality of what we’re confronting is more difficult to see than it needs to be.
But even the conservative IPCC is starting to shed its reticence. The most dramatic example of this was its report in October declaring that we have just 12 years left to dramatically reduce our fossil fuel use or face global ”catastrophe”. How much is dramatically? They say it means reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. Which, when put in historical context, looks like this: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1EkPbna6VApBjgq-Pw6UMIue5IGTPNz_v
This is the context that helps us read the National Climate Assessment clearly. It shows that unless we see dramatic and unprecedented action pretty much everywhere, very soon—which is hard to imagine under the current administration—we are likely facing the upper band of temperature change.
For our region, that means some of the following, according to the federal government. This is a snapshot, far from exhaustive.
First thing to know is that we’re not getting off lightly. In fact, quite the opposite. As the report states: “The Northeast has experienced some of the highest rates of sea level rise and ocean warming in the United States, and these exceptional increases relative to other regions are projected to continue through the end of the century.”
Beyond that, the report has five key messages for communities across the Northeast:
Key Message 1: Changing seasons affect rural ecosystems, environments, and economies.
This region is heavily reliant on the seasons. The economy was built for one pattern, and that is now changing significantly. We could be talking as much as a month’s difference in when seasons start and end. Forests are already responding to the ongoing shift to a warmer climate, with changes in the timing of leaXf out, plant-animal interactions, and other essential ecosystem processes.
There is some seemingly good news in the fact that we may see some increase in carbon sequestration—i.e. carbon being taken from the air and deposited safely underground through natural plant processes—as warmer temperatures and more rain stimulate more dense forest growth, but whatever benefit is seen from this is more than outweighed by opposite patterns elsewhere, and specific regional negatives, such as:
Warmer winters contributing to earlier insect emergence and expansion in the geographic range and population size of important tree pests, like the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, and southern pine beetle
Increases in less desired herbivore populations, with white-tailed deer and nutria (exotic South American rodents) already being a major concern in different parts of the region
Species such as moose, which drive a multimillion-dollar tourism industry, are already experiencing increased parasite infections and deaths from ticks, and this will likely increase.
Key Message 2: Changing coastal and ocean habitats, ecosystem services, and livelihoods.
When it comes to coastal communities, the clear expectation is that, “the ocean over the Northeast Continental Shelf will experience more warming than most other marine ecosystems around the world.” Species vulnerability to changes of this sort mean that “approximately 50% of the commercial, forage, and protected fish and invertebrate species on the Northeast Continental Shelf will be highly or very highly vulnerable to climate change.”
These waters are also particularly vulnerable to acidification because of natural low-oxygen conditions and freshwater flows from rivers, which are expected to increase. The nutrients in these waters promote the growth of algae that release carbon dioxide, which further contributes to acidification, as they decay. This is a feedback loop; something climate scientists the world over are watching intently as they have the potential to trigger truly rapid change, as effects multiply each other in exponential ways.
Key Message 3: Maintaining urban areas and communities and their interconnectedness.
This is where the glorious history of the region starts to work against us somewhat. As the report states: “Much of the infrastructure in the Northeast, including drainage and sewer systems, flood and storm protection assets, transportation systems, and power supply, is nearing the end of its planned life expectancy…In order to make Northeast systems resilient to the kind of extreme climate-related disruptions the region has experienced recently—and the sort of disruptions projected for the future—would require significant new investments in infrastructure.” Failure to address this, the report says, will “result in lower quality of life, economic declines, and increased social inequality.”
Key Message 4: Threats to human health.
By 2050, average annual temperatures in the region are expected to increase by 5.1°F (2.8°C) under upper band scenarios. This will lead to substantially more premature deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency department visits. For example, we can expect approximately 2,300 more excess deaths per year from direct heat related causes alone. Other impacts include:
More deaths a year from ground level ozone pollution
More frequent and severe wildfires
Longer and more intense pollen seasons
Increase spread of marine toxins and pathogens
Increased gastrointestinal illnesses due to heavier rainfall as sewage systems are overloaded.
Key Message 5: Adaptation efforts.
And here, finally, we land on some hope. The region has been far from idle in the face of these threats. As the report says, in glowing terms, “communities in the northeast are proactively planning and implementing actions to reduce risks posed by climate change.”
They are absolutely right. Kingston, for example, has a strong track record and pretty big ambitions. The City won a Bronze Climate Smart Community award in 2014 for progress made—“the highest level achieved by any municipality in New York.” And then, not content to rest on their laurels, the City adopted Resolution #179 in 2017, committing to “100% Clean Energy by 2050.” To cap off a big year, 2017 also saw the City become the first in New York to be designated a Clean Energy Community. The Kingston community deserves much respect and kudos.
The question that constantly needs asking, though, is it enough?
As we learn more about what we’re facing, the answer, unfortunately, has to be no. Everything that has been and is happening can be deeply impressive (and it is) and still not be enough. The “100% clean energy by 2050” goal, for example, ranks amongst the best in the country and yet still falls short even of the demands of the conservative IPCC.
The key concept for us all going forward is resilience: Our ability to withstand changes and shocks. How can we make everything from the energy grids to the farming economy less vulnerable? How do we prepare for more migration into and around the region? How, even, do we prepare for some of the truly worst-case scenarios, barely even touched on in the government’s report: what happens, for example, if we see a sudden drop off in insect numbers, as they have in Germany, and all the potential that has for disrupting the agriculture industry upon which most of the region relies?
The sensible approach to uncertainty is surely to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Given that time is money, the smart option is to minimize delay and maximize action.