PUBLISHER"S NOTEBOOK: Despite complexity, data shows climate change is here
Thursday, June 12, 2014 6:56 AM
It wasn't until December 2008 that the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the United States had been in a recession since December 2007. The delay isn't unusual. Throughout recent history, economists usually don't realize we are in a recession until long after the fact.
It isn't just in the social sciences that realization lags behind reality. There is a somewhat similar trend in the hard sciences.
Although we have heard about the dire consequences climate change will bring, the threat was always off in the future in distant places - coastal flooding or extermination of polar bears as examples. However, last month, a study, known as the National Climate Assessment, prepared by a large scientific panel from various disciplines and industries, showed climate change has already made quite an impact in the United States, including our locality in Minnesota.
"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," the scientists declared in the report.
For example, since 1991, the frequency of heavy rainfall events in the eight states between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes is up 37 percent compared with the 1901-1960 period. We've seen it here - massive rainfalls hitting small geographic areas in the last decade, flooding cities and damaging roads. That's among the changes that climate scientists have long predicted would result from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Evidence of climate change now appears in every region and impacts are visible in every state in the United States. Consequences specific to Minnesota include such iconic species as moose, walleye and even trout, which are showing stresses from climate change.
For solutions, it may be wise to take a look at our economic ecosystem to see what happened in society when we finally learned we were in a recession.
On a personal level, many individuals altered their habits. For example, the personal savings rate increased from less than 3 percent of disposable income in 2005 to 2007 to almost 6 percent in 2010. Also, in recent years, for the first time since 1940, the total amount of consumer credit outstanding declined.
Individuals know what to do when finances get tight. When the decisions shift from individual pocketbooks to the national economy, which is so complex that it takes a year or so for economists to even realize we are in a recession, the answers aren't apparent and the solutions aren't universally supported.
The more global solutions, such as the Wall Street bailout and a stimulus package, have been targets of criticism from many people. One study showed the decline in public support for government solutions to social programs declined significantly during the time government programs targeted the last recession.
In personal responses to threats to our ecosystem, many individuals would consider themselves active environmentalists. Local examples are numerous.
Most of us recycle now. Clean-up days focused on the environment in which individuals do their part to clean up the water and land have been increasing in number and participants. Abuse of a Fillmore County recycling site created a loud outcry from local residents as have similar abuses at community compost sites.
However, broader approaches, such as federal targeted responses to the recent climate change report, are already drawing criticism. For example, a call for stringent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency has received pushback from rural entities.
The Minnesota Rural Electric Association warned the administration's action could undermine the competitiveness of Main Street and further erode many families' standard of living.
"New EPA regulations that add to the price of electricity have serious consequences for our communities, jobs and families," said Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in a statement.
However, the alternative also has consequences for rural Minnesota.
"The most devastating predicted impacts of climate change for rural communities will be intensity, frequency and duration of extreme weather events, intensified droughts and floods, soil erosion and temperature changes that decrease crop and livestock productivity," reports the Center for Rural Affairs, a private, non-profit group. "Drought, pests and wildfires threaten forests, too. It's clear, climate change is compromising rural livelihoods and the vitality of rural communities."
It's easy to deal with trash in our own backyard, just as it is easy to deal with financial conditions in our own household. Global responses to economic crises or natural crises become trickier, partly because the components are so complex it is difficult to see a direct cause and effect.
Scientists can't tell us exactly what is happening as a result of climate change. The extremes in weather caused by climate change aren't always apparent and aren't always distributed evenly - we had an unusually cold and snowy winter in Minnesota last year while other locations had record warmth or drought.
That may lead many people to be skeptical of proposed solutions. However, doing nothing will compound the problems that we are already seeing.
Awareness and individual conscientiousness isn't going to be enough on its own to alter this global condition. Like it or not, a federal, or really, global, solution is needed, even if the ramifications on our day-to-day life are more apparent than the consequences of climate change.