Wallace: Climate And The County

Los Alamos

Climate change is the most daunting challenge to humanity today – the impacts of human activities on our planet are extraordinary, and are driving changes in the biosphere at rates that have only been observed in the geologic record coincident with major extinction events.  Although the phrase “climate change” has a broad purview in the world of science investigations, the popular perception is focused on CO2 emissions and consequent temperatures  — in particular, “hot days”.  Unfortunately, this simple shorthand grossly misrepresents the much broader portfolio of change, including acidification of the oceans, melting of the ice packs, sea level rise, changing the nature of seasonal storms (in particular, storm frequency and severity), and reducing or driving migration of flora and fauna (this includes forests being replaced with grassland, and a measurable decrease in biodiversity).  These changes are not “opinion” but facts.  The science of climate change is actually fairly well understood:  the physics are very well understood, the chemistry moderately well, the feedback processes are an area of active research.  The work on climate change involves 10s of thousands of scientists, with results reported in journals like Nature (see an example from this month here  https://www.nature.com/nclimate/).  

Despite the extraordinary and clarion work that has been done on climate there is a constant loud clammer that attempts to discredit climate change and recast the human actions and reactions in mostly political terms. A senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania claims that CO2 is such a small consistent in the atmosphere that it is meaningless and is “pop science”.  Another candidate goes further and calls it junk science.  Still others claim that climate models are unreliable and “fake”, just attempts to make the Federal government larger and more controlling (for example, calls to eliminate the EPA).  Finally, there is the economic angle which says addressing the impacts of anthropogenic changes will stall the great engines of capitalism and should be addressed in the future when we have invented better technology.  These are the same arguments that allowed lead to be a deadly component of gasoline for 75 years (and caused a horrific rise in the lead level in the blood of children in this country), promoted cigarettes as healthy for 60 years, and stated that CFCs could not possibly cause a destruction of ozone in the stratosphere (the ozone hole).  

Addressing the impacts of anthropogenic activities on the planet is much bigger than a Manhattan project for climate. It is extraordinarily complicated, will be expensive, and probably most importantly, require thinking that is not local, or even regional – it is global.  And, all activities should be considered through this global view.  In our county elections the Los Alamos Resiliency, Energy and Sustainability task force report has become a hot button issue (pun intended) and one of the present county councilors has suggested that the report is a blueprint for a multi-pronged disaster:  power grids will fail, prices will skyrocket, and in the end the county will GAIN nothing.  The “nothing” here is because the county is too small to have any global impact, and besides, China and India are not behaving with global interests.  In fact, even having a LARES report is just virtue preening.

Addressing climate change is actually an example of “all politics are local”.  There will always be disagreements about the best way to address huge problems like climate change – and other issues for Los Alamos like fresh water supply – but those disagreements can still lead to solutions and progress.  In the most likely scenario of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 75 years the average temperature of the planet will rise 4 degrees C or about 7.5 degrees F.  This will not be evenly distributed around the globe, but it is possible to make some generalizations for Los Alamos in the year 2100.  Most of the trees not on watering systems in Los Alamos will be replaced by grasses or scrub oak.  Snowfall will be extremely rare.  The annual precipitation could be as low as 6 inches – high desert – and the Rio Grande will not flow beyond the Colorado Border.   Thinking of this future, at least discussing our lifestyles and choices today requires “virtue”.  When local candidates dismiss climate and environment as non-issues or somebody else’s global concerns they are sending a strong message about their true values.