Oklahoma bears the scars of the Dust Bowl paradoxically, celebrating the courage and perseverance of those who lived through it and simultaneously obsessing about whether lingering impressions from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath sully the state’s image. But we’re all clear on one thing: The Dust Bowl remains in the state’s collective memory as a cautionary lesson about our relationship to the land.
Now, almost 80 years after that record-breaking catastrophe, a wealth of scientific studies and 97 percent of scientific experts say Oklahoma and the world face yet another ecological challenge, climate change, that — like the Dust Bowl — is caused in part or in whole by humans.
Unlike that earlier disaster, however, the effects of climate change are hardly limited to state or regional boundaries.
Arguing vs. action
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, considered by many to be the pinup guy for climate-change deniers, has long refused to accept the findings of thousands of scientists from around the world. Perhaps due to his influence in his home state, a majority of Oklahomans appear to share Inhofe’s opinions rather than the peer-reviewed science — although there is some evidence that may be changing.
In a poll conducted last year by SoonerPoll.com, two-thirds of Oklahomans interviewed think human activity may be partly responsible for climate change. Only 8 percent think human activity is solely responsible for any change in the Earth’s climate.
Despite a strong consensus among scientists that climate change is occurring and is primarily due to human activity, political rhetoric on the topic continues unabated.
Implications in Oklahoma
The effects of climate change appear to be well under way and are projected to grow. A nonprofit advocacy organization, The Natural Resources Defense Council, cites sources ranging from the U.S. Global Change Research Program to the American Lung Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in enumerating the climate change-related risks in Oklahoma:
temperatures rise, droughts become more frequent, depleting drinking
water supplies, lowering crop yields and worsening water quality.
—Periods of extreme heat are likely to increase in frequency, duration and intensity.
—Intensified rains and storms damage infrastructure and cause injuries, illnesses and deaths; floods and rising streams can carry disease-causing pathogens into water supplies.
—Smog grows and plants produce more pollen pollution, worsening respiratory health threats. —Conditions such as changing heat, rain and humidity help spread infectious diseases by allowing vectors and pathogens to come into closer contact with humans.
—Threats escalate for extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts.
The Oklahoma Climatological Survey (OCS) was established by the state Legislature in 1980 to provide climatological services to the people of Oklahoma. Its Mesonet Ticker, an email newsletter with a wealth of weather and climate trends and info, is penned by Gary McManus, associate state climatologist.
“For Oklahoma, the concern with any sort of climate matters are how does it affect our extreme weather and how does it impact our water in the state,” he said.
“Extremes are how most people experience a changing climate, whether it’s increased frequency or severity of drought, more heat waves or more wildfires. Those are the real economically damaging things we see when we look through the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”
Limiting risk and damage
Local and state adaptation and mitigation planning can help limit risks, damage and the long-term costs of responding to climate-related impacts. Fourteen U.S. states have completed a climate action plan, with another 12 states at some stage of doing so. Although the Sooner State is not currently one of them, the OCS and Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program hosted a climate-adaptation planning workshop in Oklahoma in December 2009 that included participants from 17 state agencies, 10 American Indian tribes, three cities and two federal agencies.
Among them was the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, (OACD), a private nonprofit created in the wake of the Dust Bowl to address natural resource problems on private land through locally led voluntary cooperative initiatives.
Clay Pope, OACD’s executive director, said the organization approaches climate change as a natural resource problem.
“Whether you’re talking about soil erosion, water quality or endangered species, our job is to help people solve that problem,” he said. “What we try to do is find ways to help producers mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.”
The OACD does that through programs such as ECOpass, which helps incentivize farmers and ranchers to maintain best-management practices that protect the watershed. Pope cites no-till farming, improved pasture management and drip irrigation as proven ways to manage and conserve resources and emphasizes conservation measures have the added benefit of offsetting the effects of climate change.
“Every time you turn the ground, you lose a one-half to three-quarters of an inch of moisture. With a farming practice like no-till agriculture, you can sequester up to half a metric ton of CO2 per acre per year and start restoring that organic matter back into the soil,” said Pope, a Geary farmer and rancher.
“That not only increases the productivity of the soil, but it helps offset climate change. Oklahoma has always had extreme weather, but as we have more of it, we have to adopt practices ... that enhance the soil’s ability to hold moisture.”
In 2010, the U.S. Department of the Interior established eight regional Climate Science Centers to provide scientific information, tools and techniques to anticipate, monitor and adapt to climate change. Two years later, one of the centers, a consortium called the South Central Climate Science Center (SC-CSC), moved into its new digs on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman.
Funded by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the SC-CSC is focused on the needs of stakeholders. Its partners include OU, Texas Tech University, Louisiana State University, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
Kimberly Winton, director of SC-CSC, said the center utilizes objective science.
“The USGS doesn’t have any type of regulatory authority, and it’s not the job of SC-CSC to convince people climate change is happening. Our job is to build the objective tools, data and science to help people make informed land management and policy decisions,” she said.
Climate variability drives most of its work, according to Renee McPherson, SC-CSC’s research director and an associate professor of geography and environment sustainability at OU.
“We try to provide the best info and data,” she said. “They (stakeholders) choose how they will either include that information, or not include that information, in their decision processes. There are groups that have to look at very long-term infrastructure, and their concerns about climate change are very much heightened by that longer-term focus.”
What to do?
Thinking long-term doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the human species. We tend to organize our lives in more immediate time frames: What’s for dinner? What are my plans for the weekend?
When factoring in climate change, however, longer-term thinking can be useful.
“It’s good for people to think about the current and potential envelope of extremes,” said McPherson, who is also an associate professor of geography and environment sustainability at OU.
“The knowledge that, 20 years from now, we may have double the average number of days of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit may lead them to think more seriously about things like geothermal energy to reduce energy costs over a longer period of time. Another key area is thinking about conserving the precious resource of water, especially for communities that may run out in a prolonged drought.”
With so many vulnerable communities throughout Oklahoma, McPherson and Winton agree it’s critical for people to discuss their needs in light of climate change.
“Government agencies, municipalities and businesses need to think in bigger terms about our climate variability and climate change,” said McPherson. “There are a lot of things that interact, and there’s a lot of potential people and fish and wildlife and businesses that will be affected by changes.”
The Citizen’s Climate Lobby affiliate in Norman takes an activist approach. With more than 80 chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, CCL focuses on creating the political will for a stable climate. The group, which also recently launched an Oklahoma City chapter, writes op-eds and letters to newspapers, and presents climate information at public events. Some of its members have lobbied members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation.
“Our goal is passage of a revenue-neutral, steadily rising fee on carbon that will be returned to the people to offset increased energy costs,” said Kathy Rand, co-leader of the Norman group. “This market-based solution will provide an economic incentive to enable the shift from burning fossil fuels to a clean renewable energy system.”
Like McPherson and Winton, Pope said he would like to see more open and civil discussions about climate change.
“We can’t shoot our economy and civilization in the foot by continuing to ignore the science,” Pope said. “One of the things disheartening to me is we’re not taking the scientific facts for what they are. We’ve allowed what should be an educated discussion on a problem to become such a hot-button topic. I mean, you almost feel like you’re in a Harry Potter movie and climate change has taken the role of Voldemort as That Which Shall Not Be Named.”
So how do we start the conversation minus the Voldemort factor? Pope has a suggestion.
“I would just like people to take a deep breath, recognize that there are extremes on both sides of this issue like on so many others, and like so many issues, reality is in the middle,” he said. “Let’s sit down and have an adult conversation.”
Climate change basics and resources
E.O. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, describes the biosphere as “a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.”
A vital component to that biosphere is the atmosphere, the first layer of which is the troposphere. Only the bottom third of the troposphere contains breathable air.
Molecular nitrogen and oxygen make up roughly 98 percent of it and are not greenhouse gases.
The remaining 2 percent of our breathable atmosphere is comprised of greenhouse gases: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and others.
The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring process that warms the planet. Without it, the average temperature at the earth’s surface would be approximately 60 F colder.
While the greenhouse effect is natural, human-induced increases in greenhouse gas concentrations slow the escape of heat, causing additional warming that, in turn, alters the climate.
To avoid confusion, the difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Regardless of climate change, experts say, the planet will still have cold, hot, cool and warm weather. Weather is comprised of atmosphere conditions over a short period of time. Climate is how the atmosphere behaves over relatively long periods of time.
So, when scientists discuss climate change, they are talking about changes in long-term averages of daily weather.