EHS’ take on the climate crisis: how our environment affects us

February 25, 2019

cover art by Tiffany Qian

California wildfires: climate change or something else entirely?

California residents were faced with a brutally hot summer this year, one that was far from ordinary. There remains some debate, however, about whether climate change is the cause for the catastrophic weather.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the temperature of California has risen, by about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895. Additionally, according to Michael Anderson, California State Climatologist, the last five have included some of the most record-breaking heat years since people started keeping track of temperature 124 years ago.

Furthermore, California has already been experiencing heavy drought and very windy conditions in recent years, resulting in massive forest fires not just being a possibility, but an ongoing reality. According to California state officials, the current death toll from the most recent fires is at 84 lives. Additionally, over 10,000 buildings were destroyed, and 52,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. Air quality has also plunged because of forest fires, as California government officials stated that the air quality there had dropped well below air qualities of heavily polluted China and India. Government officials suggested that people in California should stay indoors and wear heavy-duty face masks when forced to go outside.

While it is widely agreed upon by a majority of the scientific community that a major cause of the wildfires were very high temperatures, there remains a large debate over whether the California wildfires were caused by climate change or not. According to the National Academy of Sciences, climate change is a major reason behind about half of the drought in California that researchers have been seeing an increase in since the 1970s. Furthermore, climate change can cause more lightning strikes and generate higher winds and arid conditions which are prime suspects of wildfires. Moreover, spring snow melts much earlier in California now, meaning that lands in California have more time to dry out.

According to Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Penn State University, “We’re not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur. What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme.” For example, more arid conditions and heat in California will cause more intense fires, Mann said. These are what California residents have been seeing in the Thomas Fire and the Mendocino fire, which was the most intense fire ever recorded in California history.

According to Meteorologist Rob Marciano, California experienced an unusually long heat wave, even for July standards, last summer. Many of the nights that wildfires broke out the temperatures were well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, which according to Marciano, presents an undeniable link to climate change.

However, while many people and experts are convinced that the California wildfires were caused by excessive heat, there is a sect of skeptics who believe that the wildfires were actually not caused by climate change, but instead poor forest management, lack of water in the area Many people who live in California have believed for a long time that the massive 33 million acres of forests in California are managed very poorly. California congressman Tom McClintock stated that “Forty-five years ago, we began imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible.” He later reported that federal authorities have not done enough to implement ways to lessen the effects of dangerous wildfires. Federal regulation was passed in 1910 that mandated all wildfires to be put out instantly and was revised in 1970 allowing some forests to burn themselves. However, many people and experts suspect that this regulation is causing forests to become overgrown, and making new wildfires significantly more extreme.

It will always be widely debated on whether or not climate change has been causing these wildfires, as there is solid evidence for both sides of the argument. Even without knowing the exact cause, it is still important for people to be careful of forest fires.   

Changing global climate presents potential for effects close to home

Minnesota’s weather is changing. As the state’s climate is altered, the plants, residents, and animals are affected. Climate change could be the cause of this extreme weather and its subsequent effects.

Humans are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere due to a variety of causes, especially through deforestation and driving vehicles. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the increase has led to the Earth’s warming. In Minnesota, the climate has warmed one to three degrees Fahrenheit in the last century.

The high carbon dioxide concentrations will likely shorten the snow season and consequently shrink time for winter recreation. According to the EPA, since the early 1970s, winter ice coverage in the Great Lakes has decreased by 63 percent. If winters disappear, the Minnesotan identity may simultaneously vanish.

It is possible that such a situation could occur. According to MinnPost, “Minnesota temperatures may increase 12 to 15 degrees by the end of the century,” Lee Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, said. If Minnesota were to warm by 15 degrees, the state would feel more like Kansas.

The fluctuating temperatures in Minnesota corroborate how global warming has led to extreme weather events. According to Lakeshore Weekly News, from 1951 to 1980, temperatures could fluctuate from 13 degrees below average to 15 above. For the last 30 years, the range has fluctuated from 12 below to more than 21 above.

The warmer weather will result in both negative and positive effects on Minnesota’s agriculture. According to the EPA, the rising temperatures have increased the growing season by 15 days since the beginning of the 20th century. While global warming extends the frost-free growing season, it changes crop yield. According to the MinnPost, Northern Minnesota crop yield could increase by nearly 40 percent. However, in Southern and Central Minnesota, the average yield for crops could be 20 to 30 percent lower.

Despite possible short-term economic benefits caused by climate change, the agriculture business would suffer financially nationwide. According to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) news, crops that once could not grow farther north than Iowa have successfully grown in Southern Minnesota. While it’s an example of how warming temperatures have benefited Minnesota, the question arises: what happens when organisms run out of northern space? For instance, polar bears live in the Arctic circle and therefore, cannot merely travel north. “Basically if you looked at a map, take the habitats and shift everything north,” AP Environmental Science teacher Eric Burfeind said.

The increasing rates of precipitation and temperature may harm Minnesota’s water quality. According to the EPA, the Great Lakes are likely to warm another 3 degrees to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 70 years. The warmer waters will cause more algal blooms. During the decomposition of the blooms, the algae consume dissolved oxygen and thus, damage aquatic life and water quality.

Additionally, rising water temperatures will change fish habitat. Habitat for warm-water fish such as bass will increase, while the habitat of coldwater fish will decrease. For instance, in Minnesota, the population of walleye, a coldwater fish, will likely suffer. “As lake temperatures increase, the amount of the dissolved oxygen in the lakes will decrease. Walleyes are dependent on high levels of dissolved oxygen and their populations will be decimated,” Burfeind said.

Similarly, the warmer temperatures may harm Minnesotan trees. According to MPR news, increased precipitation and temperatures have made aspen and tamarack trees more susceptible. While these tree populations decline, the oak, hickory, and pine trees could increase according to the EPA.

In contrast to other states, Minnesota will not be greatly affected by wildfires, hurricanes, or tornadoes. Despite smaller environmental consequences, those extreme events caused by climate change will still cost Minnesota financially. For instance, President Donald Trump signed a Hurricane Harvey relief package. The relief efforts cost taxpayers billions of dollars, including Minnesota residents.

Other costs include a loss of Minnesota life. A warmer Minnesota will drastically change farming practices, the renowned harsh winters, plant and animal survival, and human recreation. The costs will result in an unrecognizable Minnesota, perhaps a Kansas.

Conflicting interests means climate reform is on hold

Despite recent months of activists’ marches and bombshell scientific reports, the US Congress still has passed few pieces of legislation targeted at fighting the effects of climate change. President Trump, as well as the currently GOP held Congress, remain burdened with industry ties and a base of climate skeptics, preventing legislation from being politically viable in the status quo.

In modern-era US politics, many of the most important policy initiatives have been passed unilaterally through executive order. This means that the president has great power in shaping foreign policy. In the case of President Trump, this has allowed him to take a stance on the climate change debate by taking the US out of one of the most critical attempts to curb climate change. In June 2017, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which had provisions that would enforce lower carbon footprints for all member countries. Trump famously explained his reasoning by saying he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Because political ideologies are fundamentally about which issues one prioritizes, the GOP base prefers protecting jobs and economic growth in the energy industry over implementing climate protection regulations. In fact, Trump made reinvigorating the coal industry a key goal during his campaign, and according to CNBC, has added 2,000 jobs to the industry since entering office. Because the conservative ideology generally opposes regulations on the basis that they stifle economic growth, the Republican base will stay opposed to climate change reform. Since politicians are elected to represent an electorate, they have a duty to abide by these policy preferences.

Another key reason the base does not support climate protection is a general attitude of skepticism. In an October interview, Trump said, “I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back.” This attitude is reflected among the majority of conservative Republicans, whose party currently controls the House and Senate. According to a recent Pew Research poll, only 11% of conservative Republicans say scientists are right about climate change. This skepticism allows inaction on the issue, and a belief that the effects of climate change will go away soon.

However, the tables seem to be turning on this issue. The GOP is increasingly supporting the science behind climate change as the effects become more and more clear around the world in the form of catastrophic disaster events like Hurricane Harvey and the Camp Fire that have become more common due to climate change.

Going against his party, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo has introduced legislation to implement a carbon tax. While the bill likely will not pass into law, this demonstrated a shift to Republican engagement and action on the issue. US News reported that constituents are leading the way, with moderate and young Republicans much more concerned about the reality of climate change than the older, conservative wing of the party. If this trend continues, combined with the fact that the 2019 House session will hold a Democratic majority, it is increasingly likely that environmental legislation will stand a chance on the Congress floor soon.

Albeit, the perennial reason for the absence of reform is the powerful hold that lobbyists have on Washington DC. Open Secrets, a site aiming to promote transparency in congressional lobbying, reported that the oil and gas lobby has given a total of $99,341,774 to 184 different Congress members in 2018. In 2016 alone, then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan received $697,258 in oil and gas lobbying donations. It isn’t just one-sided; Democratic members of Congress also accept thousands of dollars of donations. Because lawmakers have a financial incentive to protect the welfare of the oil and gas industries, they have more of a reason to oppose sometimes invasive environmental legislation. For some, these donations mean whether or not they get reelected and therefore are important to their ability to get positive work done in office.

Because of a Republican base fundamentally opposed to regulations and the tight grip of energy lobbyists, climate change reform has not stood a chance in a Republican-led government. However, as Democrats take office and as Republicans undergo an attitude shift, new legislation may make its way into law in the future.

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