H2OMG! 

Clay Pope
Credit: Mark Hancock

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:

Kimberly Winton & Renee McPherson
Credit: Mark Hancock

—As
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.

OU National Weather Center
Credit: Mark Hancock

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.” 

Help wanted
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.

Sen. James Inhofe
Credit: Mark Hancock

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.

Lake Hefner far below normal levels
credit: Shannon Cornman

“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.”

Credit: Mark Hancock

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.

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