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Local view: Federal legislation urgently needed to price carbon to reflect its true costs

Humans are conducting an astonishing experiment with the Earth's climate system. We cannot wait to act until the impacts of climate change are fully known. Even today, climatologists believe humans may have altered our planet's climate irrevocabl...

Humans are conducting an astonishing experiment with the Earth’s climate system. We cannot wait to act until the impacts of climate change are fully known. Even today, climatologists believe humans may have altered our planet’s climate irrevocably.Climate models provide the best framework to guide our present actions. These models suggest a range of possibilities for future climate scenarios that depend on how aggressively we reduce fossil fuel use.Climate models come with caveats. In addition, those wishing to dismiss climate models often compare model projections to measurements not used by the models.For instance, models typically use surface air temperatures over oceans, whereas actual observations measure surface water temperatures that increase more slowly. This apples-to-oranges comparison makes model temperature projections appear too high.Similarly, surface air temperatures show more change than satellite measurements that estimate temperatures higher in the atmosphere. This comparison also results in model projections that appear too high.Duke University scientists recently concluded that “climate models largely get the big picture right but may underestimate the magnitude of natural decade-to-decade climate wiggles.” These wiggles, they said, might account for some of the observed warming since 1975.Importantly, models can’t predict future solar and volcanic activity or changes in ocean currents that result in La Niña and El Niño events, all of which affect short-term temperature trends. For these reasons, models may miss temperature changes to some extent, yet do a good job in predicting other significant climate events.Locally, in the Midwest, the Third National Climate Assessment forecasts that in the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops. But those benefits will be offset by extreme weather events. Longer-term, climate change will decrease agricultural productivity.The forecast also said the composition of the region’s forests will change as rising temperatures drive habitats for many tree species northward and that public health risks will increase because of heat waves and degraded air quality. Furthermore, extreme rainfall events and flooding will cause erosion, declining water quality and damage to infrastructure.In the Great Lakes, changes will include alterations in the distribution of fish species, more invasive species, harmful blooms of algae, and declining beach health.Specifically, by mid-century, the average temperature in Duluth and the Arrowhead is expected to be 4.4 to 5.0 degrees Fahrenheit higher. Average rain and snowfall are expected to increase by about 2 to 3 inches, with more precipitation occurring in heavy events. And spruce-fir forests are expected to decline in favor of deciduous species.A new Washington State University model predicts that forests north of Duluth have greater than a 90 percent probability of succumbing to droughts by 2070. Droughts are expected even as average precipitation increases. Where balsam fir is a dominant species, dead evergreens likely will become fuel for wildfires.Globally, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2014 Climate and Energy Outlook, energy use is projected to double by 2050. The good news is we can determine the energy mix we are using by that date. Local and state initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are essential, but we urgently need federal legislation that prices carbon to reflect its true costs.Carbon fee and dividend legislation as proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby will not make us less competitive in global markets if it includes a border price adjustment that keeps foreign trade on a level playing field based on how other countries price carbon.Please contact your legislators. Now is the time to act.
David Gerhart of Duluth has a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology from Cornell University and has published and reviewed manuscripts for scientific journals in the fields of ecology and biochemistry. This commentary was reviewed and edited by Byron Steinman, a climatologist and assistant professor at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, before it was submitted to and edited by the News Tribune.Humans are conducting an astonishing experiment with the Earth’s climate system. We cannot wait to act until the impacts of climate change are fully known. Even today, climatologists believe humans may have altered our planet’s climate irrevocably.Climate models provide the best framework to guide our present actions. These models suggest a range of possibilities for future climate scenarios that depend on how aggressively we reduce fossil fuel use.Climate models come with caveats. In addition, those wishing to dismiss climate models often compare model projections to measurements not used by the models.For instance, models typically use surface air temperatures over oceans, whereas actual observations measure surface water temperatures that increase more slowly. This apples-to-oranges comparison makes model temperature projections appear too high.Similarly, surface air temperatures show more change than satellite measurements that estimate temperatures higher in the atmosphere. This comparison also results in model projections that appear too high.Duke University scientists recently concluded that “climate models largely get the big picture right but may underestimate the magnitude of natural decade-to-decade climate wiggles.” These wiggles, they said, might account for some of the observed warming since 1975.Importantly, models can’t predict future solar and volcanic activity or changes in ocean currents that result in La Niña and El Niño events, all of which affect short-term temperature trends. For these reasons, models may miss temperature changes to some extent, yet do a good job in predicting other significant climate events.Locally, in the Midwest, the Third National Climate Assessment forecasts that in the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops. But those benefits will be offset by extreme weather events. Longer-term, climate change will decrease agricultural productivity.The forecast also said the composition of the region’s forests will change as rising temperatures drive habitats for many tree species northward and that public health risks will increase because of heat waves and degraded air quality. Furthermore, extreme rainfall events and flooding will cause erosion, declining water quality and damage to infrastructure.In the Great Lakes, changes will include alterations in the distribution of fish species, more invasive species, harmful blooms of algae, and declining beach health.Specifically, by mid-century, the average temperature in Duluth and the Arrowhead is expected to be 4.4 to 5.0 degrees Fahrenheit higher. Average rain and snowfall are expected to increase by about 2 to 3 inches, with more precipitation occurring in heavy events. And spruce-fir forests are expected to decline in favor of deciduous species.A new Washington State University model predicts that forests north of Duluth have greater than a 90 percent probability of succumbing to droughts by 2070. Droughts are expected even as average precipitation increases. Where balsam fir is a dominant species, dead evergreens likely will become fuel for wildfires.Globally, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2014 Climate and Energy Outlook, energy use is projected to double by 2050. The good news is we can determine the energy mix we are using by that date. Local and state initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are essential, but we urgently need federal legislation that prices carbon to reflect its true costs.Carbon fee and dividend legislation as proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby will not make us less competitive in global markets if it includes a border price adjustment that keeps foreign trade on a level playing field based on how other countries price carbon.Please contact your legislators. Now is the time to act.
David Gerhart of Duluth has a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology from Cornell University and has published and reviewed manuscripts for scientific journals in the fields of ecology and biochemistry. This commentary was reviewed and edited by Byron Steinman, a climatologist and assistant professor at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, before it was submitted to and edited by the News Tribune.

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