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Editorial: Climate change is here

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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It wasn’t that long ago that the effects of climate change, referred to then as global warming by nonscientists, were something that “our children” would need to worry about. The argument espoused by progressives such as Al Gore and climatologists studying these long-term changes was that we needed to start fixing our problem with greenhouse gases now so future generations could have a healthy planet.

Not only did that message turn out to be ineffective in causing policy changes, but as it turns out, it wasn’t as dire as the reality.

A new White House report shows that climate change isn’t some future problem that can be kicked down the road. It’s happening now, and the effects are being felt all over the world. Whether through extreme weather scenarios such as floods and wildfires or through less dramatic but equally devastating droughts and heat waves, climate change is starting to wreak havoc.

The report follows a conclusion reached last month by an international panel of scientists finding with “near certainty” that human activity is the cause of most global temperature increases in recent decades and dismissing the notion that a recent slowing in global warming is anything but a short-term fluctuation in a long-term pattern.

Though the effects of climate change are currently seen most in other regions, the Midwest has also been affected. Most of the problems will appear in the coming decades. In the near future, rising carbon-dioxide levels and a longer growing season will result in a higher yield for some crops, but the massive changes caused by global warming will soon catch up with Iowa’s agriculture and environment.

These changes, the report says, will manifest in the form of increased stress to Midwest ecosystems in the long term, resulting in a loss of agricultural productivity. The composition of forests is at risk, as well as the quality of air and water with more heat waves, increased humidity, and increased rainfall and extreme flooding. Crop and livestock production will fall as climate-induced changes in weeds, diseases, insect pests, and other stresses are unleashed on farmers.

No national polls on attitudes toward climate change have been conducted since this report has been released, but if surveys from last year are representative of public thought today, Americans are in serious need of a wake-up call. Only 40 percent of Americans thought global climate change was a major threat to the country in a Pew Research Center survey published last year. That’s the lowest percentage in all 39 countries surveyed. More than 50 percent of Canadians and Germans thought climate change was a threat, and more than 70 percent of Japanese citizens did.

More recently, a Gallup poll conducted in March found a third of Americans were concerned about climate change. Oddly, pollution of drinking water and air and the loss of plant and animal species were cited as a concern by more of those surveyed, despite these issues going hand-in-hand with (and are sometimes a direct result of) climate change.

These discordant views signal that Americans, focused more on recovering from a struggling economy, have given little thought to the ramifications of energy production and fossil-fuel dependency. And because many of the effects of the climate change taking place are irreversible, we’re past the point of no return.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are ways to mitigate the coming damage that policy leaders hope to focus on as the White House publicizes the report, mainly new energy policies that will reduce our environmental footprint. That’s especially relevant in the Midwest, with greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent higher than the national average. It’s time to get serious on these policies.

We might be too late to stop climate change. But we can still guard against the worst of it.


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