Climate change is here, it’s happening and it’s affecting America in countless ways, according to a roster of experts who spoke during the first day of the National Adaptation Forum on Tuesday at Union Station.
Climate change caused by human activities — principally the burning of fossil fuels — is not just revealing itself in such phenomena as the mega-drought gripping Southern California or historic levels of snowfall that buried the Northeast last winter, according to Katharine Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.
“At some level the extra energy in the atmosphere is influencing all weather events,” Jacobs told a group of journalists attending a seminar on climate and the news sponsored by the Metcalf Institute. And while human-caused climate change does not trigger all unpleasant weather, “climate change is significantly affecting the magnitude of many of these things.”
The adaptation forum, held every two years, focuses on ways that states, counties and cities can respond to the plethora of impacts linked to climate change, from rising sea levels, to depleted aquifers and shrinking mountain snow packs, to the increasing severity of forest fires and East Coast hurricanes.
Because partisan politics has paralyzed Congress and kept it from meaningful action, the mantle has fallen upon local governments to take the lead in protecting themselves. Cities in particular are leading the way because the effects of climate change are “not hypothetical to them,” Jacobs said. “They are seeing sea levels rise and seeing the damage from coastal storms.”
The operative word for Tuesday’s sessions was “resilience.” Speakers used the term over and over to describe the mindset communities must develop to deal with a wide range of climate impacts.
“Resilience isn’t an act that’s easy to measure,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s a state of mind.”
The people who spoke during the conference evinced an attitude of can-do pragmatism, leavened with realism. In the western part of the United States, where drought and depleted aquifers have caused upset natural eco-systems, efforts are underway to fight back by restoring forest meadows, “so they act more like a sponge,” said Molly Cross, of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Get more of that water to percolate into the soil, and percolate more into water supplies.”
Other efforts are underway to preserve forests by the favoring of tree species likely to thrive in a warmer, drier climate. So if a fire destroys white pine trees, replace them with yellow birch trees, Cross said.
“So they’re helping shape the future trajectory of the forest system,” she said.
Edward Thomas, president of the National Hazard Mitigation Association, said America faces a grim future if big steps are not taken now to build coastal infrastructure that can withstand natural catastrophes, such as intensified hurricanes, arising from climate change.
“Build safely, build properly,” he said. “Prevention is the best form of disaster relief.”
Moreover, a huge financial bonanza beckons as communities across America spend trillions of dollars to protect themselves form rising coastlines, floods and hurricanes.
“It’s not too late,” Thomas said. “We have a huge opportunity. Just now we have to come together.”