Are we ready for continuing record-breaking warm temperatures and their consequences? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), March this year was the warmest since records began to be compiled in 1895.
A NOAA report says, “Record and near-record breaking temperatures dominated the eastern two-thirds of the nation and … more than 15,000 warm temperature records were broken during the month.
“The average temperature of 51.1° F was 8.6 degrees above the 20th century average for March and 0.5° F warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910. Of the more than 1,400 months (117-plus years) that have passed since the U.S. climate record began, only one month, January 2006, has seen a larger departure from its average temperature than March 2012.” (Read the report at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/)
This isn’t the first time NOAA has sounded climate alarm bells. In 2010, its “State of the Climate” report drew on data for 10 key climate indicators “that all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable.”
More than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries contributed to the report, which confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years. (Read the report at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100728_stateoftheclimate.html)
Following such an incredibly warm winter, in April the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report of its own, “Ready or Not: An Evaluation of State Climate and Water Preparedness Planning.”
The study ranks every state in a variety of categories and ranks their readiness for issues that continuing record-breaking temperatures could bring. (See the report at http://www.nrdc.org/water/readiness/water-readiness-report.asp)
After a year spent digging through laws, regulations and plans, the NRDC claims only nine states have “taken comprehensive steps to address their vulnerabilities to the water-related impacts of climate change, while 29 states are unprepared for growing water threats to their economies and public health.”
In an interview with Grove & Vegetable, Ben Chou, NRDC policy analyst and author of the report, discussed the study’s methodology, how the Southeast — particularly Florida — is, or isn’t, preparing for climate change and what can be expected in coming years. Among the Q&A:
How did you compile this? Did you go to each state and look at their laws? Methodology?
“It was a combination of things. Essentially, we were looking at whether or not states had a specific plan to prepare for climate change impacts. Nine states do have that sort of planning.
“We also looked at other planning at the state level — things like water resources planning, water supply planning, drought plans. We also looked at coastal hazard mitigation plans.”
Are there different gradations within the colors assigned to each state?
“There are. I think the criteria for each category are fairly general. We were trying to group states that were similar as far as the progress they’ve achieved or what they’re doing on the planning side. So, within each category there are some states ahead of the other ones.
“So, if you look at category 3, which is where Florida falls, they’re probably the most advanced of all the category 3 states. That’s because when they’re looking at climate change, it’s more than just one planning document.
“For example, Arizona is in category 3 as far as how it might impact wildlife species.
“In Florida, though, they’re looking at the various aspects of sea levels rising. They’ve considered that in the context of local community planning as well as how it might impact wildlife and transportation. So, they’re looking at it in more than just one area whereas other category 3 states are looking at climate change in one specific, limited aspect.”
Is the ultimate purpose of this study to prevent worsening of climate change or to prepare for the inevitable?
“At the global level I certainly believe we need to reduce carbon emissions. That’s something that can, in the long run, prevent the worst sort of climate impact with the highest degree of warming, the largest amount of change in precipitation patterns.
“But there are a lot of scientists who believe even if we do cut off all our carbon emissions today, there are still impacts we’ll see in the future. That’s because of the amount we’ve been releasing up to this point.
“So, the mission is two-fold: we need to cut our carbon emissions but also need to prepare for the impacts coming in the decades ahead.”
Can you talk about the checked boxes for Florida in your study? How did they earn those checks? [An interactive map can be accessed at http://www.nrdc.org/water/readiness/]
“For the ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Target/Goal’ check-box we were looking specifically at whether or not through an executive order by the governor or some sort of legislative act, the state has established a target or goal. Some states set it at a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. Some go up to 80 percent reductions by 2050. That’s the type of things we’re looking for in that box.
“For ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Strategy’ we were looking at whether there is a state-level task force or government agency that has come up with strategies to reduce the state’s carbon emission pollution, global warming gases, things like that.
“No states have a check beside ‘Full Adaptation Plan Implementation’ box. That’s saying ‘so you have a plan. How are you putting that plan into practice?’ A lot of states have plans but aren’t yet doing a good job of putting into practice the strategies they’ve developed.
“The ‘Comprehensive Adaptation Plan’ box is for category 1 states. That’s where they have a plan looking at impacts across a wide variety of sectors.
“Then, Florida has the ‘Limited Adaptation Activities’ box checked. That’s indicative of the fact of a few efforts at the state level to address climate change…”
What might Florida face in coming decades if these things aren’t addressed?
“Florida is considered one of the most vulnerable states to climate change. That partly has to do with the fact that it’s bordered on three sides by water.
“It also happens to be one of the most populous states. And something like 75 percent of the state population – over 14 million – lives in a coastal county. Those people are vulnerable to sea level rise and also tropical storms.
“I don’t think the research is quite settled on whether we’ll be seeing more hurricanes and tropical storms. But I think we could generalize that with warmer ocean temperatures and more moisture in the atmosphere, you could certainly see more extreme or powerful hurricanes and tropical storms.
“And in conjunction with higher sea levels, the storm surge will go farther inland and cause more flooding and erosion risk.
“In addition to sea level rises, there are also other threats like water supply challenges. With warmer temperatures there is greater evapotranspiration (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evapotranspiration) from surface water — and streams, lakes and rivers are an important source of water in Florida.
“And if surface water sources are declining or are less reliable and predictable, there might be a shift to greater reliance to groundwater resources. In Florida, there are already issues with some aquifers being over-utilized — more water is being pumped out than is replenishing the stores naturally.
“Also, more heavy rainfall events could increase flooding risks and water quality problems if pollutants are flushed into waterways.
“A big concern in Florida is the coral reefs off the coast. Those are not only an important ecosystem but are also important for tourism. As more carbon dioxide reaches the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs some of it. But it also creates a process in the ocean where the water becomes more acidic and, when that happens, it can affect organisms with shells that contain calcium carbonate.”
How did you find all the relevant state laws?
“It was a challenge and required a lot of research and a wide variety of sources. … It was about a year-long process.
“For some states it definitely isn’t as explicit as others using words like ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’
“I think in the Southeast, states that have looked at sea level rise haven’t seen it as a stand-alone issue. Instead, it’s a compounding factor in existing problems with coastal erosion and the like.
“In Louisiana, when they look at sea level rise it isn’t ‘this is something we need to address to protect against climate change.’ It’s seen as an impetus following the hurricanes and everyone saw that erosion is an issue and sea level rise is a part of that. South Carolina also has coastal erosion.”