Post Climate Change Denial
It's great to see climate change in the news as if it is settled science (it is), but it is possible that we have moved beyond climate change denial to another place of willful ignorance: blaming environmentally destructive events such as floods exclusively on climate change. Sensationalist headlines imply that storms and floods are caused by climate change, while more thoughtful articles remind us that they are only exacerbated by climate change. Few explain that disasters like the bad flooding we've seen in the Midwest and Appalachia in the last few years have also been worsened by human activities more observable than increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases.
Floods have always been a reality wherever water flows. Climate change makes storms stronger and there is no doubt that more rain falling in shorter time periods is a factor in flooding. But blaming flooding solely on climate change works to obscure other contributing factors that could be remedied more easily than climate change.
In West Virginia, entire mountains are destroyed to uncover coal seams. In lowland areas, land is plowed and often left bare in winter, increasing run off speeds and decreasing soil's ability to hold water as organic matter is lost. With development comes more pavement and more rooftops, channeling rainwater more quickly into waterways. Trees are removed which means fewer leaves to intercept and slow down raindrops, and less moisture sucked up and transpired back to the atmosphere. All these factors, plus the fact that we still allow building in flood plains, contribute to destructive floods.
By suggesting that climate change is the only driver of catastrophic flooding, we're letting those who implement bad land practices off the hook. And worse, we're missing huge opportunities for mitigation strategies that can be put in place locally, without international climate agreements and global cooperation.
The double threats of climate change and biosphere destruction are part and parcel of the same fundamental problem: viewing the natural world as a resource for us to plunder as we wish with no regard to consequences. We can't successfully address one without addressing the other. If a magical solution to climate change suddenly appeared, humans across the globe would still be at risk from the effects of environmental devastation.
A systems thinking approach to the problems we face suggests plucking the low hanging fruit as the best way forward to protect lives, property and the natural world. Solving the problems described above requires simple policy changes, not rocket science. Outlawing mountain top removal mining, protecting and restoring wetlands, and offering incentives to farmers to practice no-till and cover cropping would be a good beginning. Any novice environmentalist could easily expand this list with simple methods to mitigate the effects of extreme rain events.
The beauty of it is that taking these common sense steps to protect ourselves where we are, also helps fight climate change. We need to stop burning coal. We need functioning ecosystems such as wetlands to heal the water cycle which is intimately connected to climate. We need sensible agricultural practices that feed us while sequestering carbon. In the long term, protecting and repairing ecosystems will result in lower GHG emissions and greater capacity for resequestation of carbon.
Another positive aspect of tackling local, solvable environmental problems is that it opens up a space for diverse groups to work together. Crotchety old farmers who are uncomfortable talking about climate change will probably be amenable to working together on ways to keep their topsoil from washing away. Identifying common ground and getting to work on practical solutions is more important than getting everyone to agree on theory.
I've already spent way too much time writing instead of doing. Time to get back to pond digging.