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Guest column: Climate change will have lasting impacts on us

3:33 PM, May 16, 2013  |  Comments
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As I write this, tree swallows swoop overhead, goldfinches dine at our feeder and wood frogs drown out the birdsong with their spring calls. We're fortunate to live in such a beautiful place.

That makes it even more important that we understand how climate change will affect our area in the years ahead. "Wisconsin's Changing Climate," a publication of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, describes some of the effects (The full text is available at www.wicci.wisc.edu).

Let's begin with agriculture. Our growing seasons will be longer, which Wisconsin farmers will like, but, we'll have more heat waves and droughts like the one we had last year. Those will reduce our crop yields and stress livestock. We'll have more floods, which will require more replanting. We'll also have more vigorous weed growth due to higher temperature, more precipitation, and greater amounts of carbon dioxide or CO2 in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, that CO2 won't increase corn yields, because corn already has all the CO2 it can use.

If you like to fish, you'll like the fact that bass and channel catfish are among those predicted to increase. But 23 other species of Wisconsin fish are likely to decline. For example, walleye and northern pike live in the cold water at the bottom of lakes. When the water temperature rises, depleting the oxygen in this layer, they can't survive. We're predicted to lose 72 percent of our pike and 88 percent of our walleye. Last summer alone, thousands of pike died due to heat stress in Wisconsin lakes and rivers. More died this spring. Brook trout will probably disappear altogether from Wisconsin streams - along with 88 percent of our brown trout.

As I said, I love listening to wood frogs in the spring, but climate change also will kill a great many of them. They will disappear entirely in some areas and decline in number in other areas because of the water loss, increased amphibian diseases and the loss of snow cover that insulates wood frogs from cold temperatures.

Trees such as aspen, white birch, white spruce, black spruce, balsam fir and red pine will all suffer from climate change. Because all of these are at the southern end of their range, warm winters and summer droughts will stress them, making them more susceptible to insect damage and disease. Many species will probably not survive here.

Almost all climate scientists (99.9 percent) agree that people have caused climate change by burning fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gasses - the most important of which is carbon dioxide. This past week, there was an announcement that CO2 in our atmosphere had risen to about 400 parts per million or ppm. There's nothing magic about the number 400, but scientists believe that the safe upper limit for CO2 is actually 350 ppm, so we're going in the wrong direction.

In the past century, we've increased global temperatures 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That may not seem like much, but it actually is. A good way to think of it is to imagine taking someone's temperature and finding that it's not 98.6 but 100. What would that say about the person's health? And, what does it say about the health of our planet that the World Bank estimates global temperatures will rise 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century if we do nothing?

Scientists say the only way to stop that rise in temperature is to substantially reduce our CO2 emissions. The best way to accomplish that is to shift from using fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, to clean energy, such as solar and wind, just as the Midwest Renewable Energy Association has been advising for several decades.

The Citizens Climate Lobby recommends putting the power of the free market to work to solve the carbon problem. Congress would pass a revenue-neutral tax on carbon at the wellhead, coal mine or border for imported fossil fuels. That tax would start small and gradually rise every year. All the money collected would be returned to the American people to offset their increased costs for fuel. The tax would, however, reward those who use less fossil fuel and more clean fuel.

If you're concerned about the impact of climate change on your children and grandchildren, reduce your use of fossil fuels, join a group such as Citizens Climate Lobby (CitizensClimateLobby.org) and tell Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Ron Kind to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

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