Since development of the scientific method, scientists have maintained a moral obligation to warn societies about serious risks to health, safety and welfare, and to find solutions to those problems. In January, more than 11,000 scientists, myself included, unequivocally warned that we are facing a climate emergency with long term catastrophic consequences for us and our descendants.
With COVID-19, many understand there can be a lag between the point a person becomes infected and the point when they experience symptoms and maybe death. That is exactly the case with climate change. With our past and present uses of carbon-based energy we have now crossed into a zone of maximum risk. Today we have eight to 12 years to eliminate our carbon emissions or lock into an unstoppable catastrophe that will cause hundreds of millions of deaths and gravely disrupt life as we know it.
Eventually we will have a vaccine for COVID-19, but the only cure for climate change is to stop all carbon emissions. The climate change catastrophe will last for centuries. Although humans will adapt, there will be no recovery. Just like with COVID-19, this sounds extreme, and for some unbelievable or overwhelming. Yet, beyond doubt, this is what the best available science is telling us.
What about here on the Palouse? What is the climate of Moscow and Pullman expected to be like in the decades to come? To get a sense, I analyzed data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s general circulation model that projects climate into the future. Here are some highlights:
By the 2090s, average annual snowpack in the Lower Snake River Basin, which includes most of north Idaho, is expected to drop by 72 percent. Stop for a moment and think about what this means for the economic and cultural mainstays of our region — agriculture, fish, power generation and forestry.
Average winter precipitation is expected to increase by about two inches. But more winter precipitation is expected to fall as rain rather than snow, running off instead of recharging soil and aquifers. Summers are expected to be longer, hotter and drier. Springs are expected to come earlier and be shorter. A great deal of the annual precipitation is expected to occur as heavy rain in the fall.
Critically, the standard deviations of weather measures are expected to increase, meaning more extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms. The way in which seasons change, such as winter to spring or summer to fall, is expected to become more erratic. Weather in general is expected to become more variable, more chaotic.
Some changes are already underway. Idaho fire seasons lengthened by 47 days in the last 25 years. Snowpack has decreased, and early snowpack melting is more frequent. Peak streamflow associated with snowmelt has come earlier in the past 10 years. Stream temperature in the North Fork Clearwater River increased by about 1.5 degrees F since 1970. Closures because of fish die-offs and poor returns are more common. Smoke from wildfires have led to increases in respiratory illness in the region.
So how can we here on the Palouse do our part to get to 100-percent clean energy ASAP? The main thing is that each of us — all of us together — must replace our carbon-based energy with clean renewable energy within the next few years. Again, like COVID-19 where the only solution right now is social distancing, with climate change the only solution is to eliminate our carbon emissions.
Let’s get started with a clear plan we can all follow. The framework for that plan needs to be adopted by our city councils. The councils will need the support and involvement of citizens and businesses. Let’s get this plan in place and acted on. Much of this is already being explored by Moscow’s Sustainable Environment Commission. Our councilors and all of our representatives need to be pushing hard for the Carbon Dividend Act that Citizen’s Climate Lobby is leading.
With help from the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100% Clean Energy” initiative, more than 150 U.S. cities, large and small, have made a commitment to clean energy and are working toward it. More than 94 million Americans live in a community committed to 100-percent sustainable energy. The Moscow and Pullman communities have the talent, capability, and understanding of science to get this done. This is our moment.
Michael Jennings of Moscow, among other things, uses global-to-local climate data to help land managers understand how ecosystems are expected to respond to climate change in the coming decades.