State coming to grips with climate change -- Gazette.Net


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Twenty-one dead. About 2 million people without power. Buckled pavement on a major roadway — U.S. 50 in Prince George's County. Cracked Metro rails.

Such was the fallout during a recent 12-day span following the quick, but violent, June 29 storm and deadly heat wave that hit the region.

According to climate scientists and a number of state officials, the events of the past two weeks are consistent with what Maryland faces as a result of climate change.

“Fires, drought, more extreme weather events — this is what it looks like,” said Zoe Johnson, program manager for climate policy in the Office for a Sustainable Future with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The recent heat wave “shows us ways we're vulnerable now.”

State officials will review the recent events to see what steps can be taken to prepare for the future, she said.

In fact, state officials began planning adjustments to climate change in 2007, when the Maryland Climate Change Commission issued its first report. Most of the work has concerned rising sea levels, attributable, in part, to climate change, and what it will mean to low-lying areas of Maryland — particularly along the Eastern Shore, state officials said.

The sea level already is rising, Johnson said.

“That's a slow, steady problem. We'll lose wetlands,” she said. “It'll exacerbate shore erosion problems. But it'll really be seen during a coastal storm event. That's really been a focus of ours.”

But the recent extended heat spell, with more than five days in a row of temperatures higher than 95 degrees and 10 days higher than 90 degrees, has demonstrated other issues that climate change will bring to the state, Johnson said.

Temperatures on rise

Although climate scientists say there are too many variables to say with certainty that the current weather directly is related to global warming, the numerous days of extreme temperatures in Maryland and other parts of the country, as well as the drought and wildfires in the West, are all consistent with the effects of gradually warming temperatures from climate change.

“You can't point to one individual event and say that's a result of climate change,” said Antonio J. Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. “What you can say with extreme confidence is this is what it will look like in the future.”

The forecast models for climate change consistently have predicted there would be more extremes in temperatures and storm events, he said.

Although there are some who doubt the validity that climate change is the result of human-related activities, Busalacchi said the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in agreement that it is.

“There are those who deny it because they don't want to believe it. It becomes a matter of ideology because the facts get in the way,” Busalacchi said. “There are legitimate policy issues about what to do, but my job is to state what we know and what we don't know.”

House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby said the planet's climate has constantly changed — from Ice Age to warming periods.

“I have no idea,” O'Donnell said when asked if he believes climate change is occurring. “I look for the scientists to tell me.”

Asked if he believes the scientists who say global warming is being caused by human activity, O'Donnell said, “It's a theory right now and we're waiting to see. I don't believe the science is settled.”

Still, after Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said at Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting that a more resilient electric grid would be needed to withstand extreme storms that will be caused by climate change, O'Donnell told the Washington Examiner that O'Malley was more 'Looney Tunes' now than ever.”

“He's trying to pull a storm out of where the sun doesn't shine,” O'Donnell told the Examiner.

Climate change models in the 1970s underestimated the effect of greenhouse gases warming the environment, but updated models have shown the effects are occurring, said Phillip A. Arkin, director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“People didn't think about what would happen in 2010 or 2020. People thought it'd happen in the second half of the 21st century,” Arkin said.

As for climate change deniers, Arkin said, “If you have a firm belief that global warming isn't occurring, then facts are irrelevant to you.”

Potential floodsIn low-lying areas along the Maryland coast, the state is working with the federal government to inform local authorities of new maps showing areas that could flood, particularly during storm events such as hurricanes, said Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Administration.

“Certain areas may be subject to flooding that 50 years ago would never have been but 20 to 30 years from now will be,” McDonough said.

One step the state should take in the short term to adapt to climate change is to require utilities to bury power lines, said Busalacchi, who also chairs the Joint Scientific Committee of the World Climate Research Programme and is chairman of the U.S. National Academies' Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate.

Other changes need to be looked at as well, Johnson said.

The state needs to reconsider road-building materials so it can avoid a repeat of the wide buckling of U.S. 50, which occurred after several days of “heat-upon-heat,” Johnson said.

The heat was blamed for a kink on Metro's Green Line that caused a train derailment; other cracks have been found in the rails.

“We're starting to see the change and it's becoming more and more visible that we need to take action to mitigate the effects,” Johnson said.

State officials also are encouraging officials in urban areas to promote growing plants on roofs and shade trees along streets to help cool cities.

“Even if you can lower the temperature by a degree or two, that can make a difference to the populations such as the elderly and those with underlying ailments,” Johnson said.

“These are good, sound strategies that we're promoting,” she said.

Tackling the issue of climate change makes sense from an environmental and economic standpoint, according to a study released Thursday by Environment Maryland, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies on environmental policies.

Maryland and other states that signed on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to cut carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to global warming have seen faster economic growth than other states, according to the group. O'Malley signed a law in 2009 to cut state emissions by 25 percent from 2006 levels by 2020.

“Promoting clean energy technology and innovation is the best way to prepare Maryland for future economic success,” said U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Dist. 3) of Towson.

The Environment Maryland study estimated 36,000 jobs had been created from work at power plants to cut emissions to construction of renewable energy sources such as solar panels.

“We've made great progress, but with global warming and fossil fuel dependence continuing to threaten Maryland and our neighbors — and with even greater emission reductions needed in the years ahead — we need to redouble our efforts,” said Tommy Landers, director of Environment Maryland.

cford@gazette.net