A Kansas State University distinguished professor and Nobel Prize recipient says “time is running out” for people to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Chuck Rice, university distinguished professor of agronomy, said “we will have to get our act together more quickly” if humanity is to adapt to the increasingly extreme weather events being observed because of a changing climate. Rice, who specializes in soil microbiology and climate interactions, is the co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
On Aug. 9, the IPCC released its sixth report on climate change which stated that humans are “unequivocally” to blame for climate disruptions. It also painted a dire picture of how climate change is altering the natural world and what those alterations might look like. The report drew from more than 14,000 scientific studies and is currently considered the most comprehensive view of climate change effects yet to come.
The report indicates a likely increase in drought and fire weather conditions across the central and western portions of North America, as well as a projected increase in extreme precipitation which could lead to more flooding, especially in low-lying areas in the U.S.
Rice said Kansas will see warmer winters and especially warmer nighttime temperatures, which means plants and agricultural crops will be more at risk from pests and diseases that would normally be killed off by freezes.
“Those pests and diseases will survive and become more of a problem,” Rice said. “This will also impact cities — Manhattan might have more pests living in trees, for example.”
Rice said certain invasive pests, such as the pine bark beetle that is blamed for decimating forests in Colorado and other western states, will have a longer life cycle because of warmer winter temperatures.
He said the increase in pesky insects and plant diseases will also impact local gardens and agricultural operations.
A risk to both rural and urban areas Rice noted was an increase in extreme weather events. He said places like Manhattan could see more intense rainstorms with periods of drought in between, which would lead to localized flooding.
“We’ve noticed this is happening already, and with climate change it will be accentuated,” Rice said.
Rice cited the flood event in Manhattan in 2018, where the area saw 30% less precipitation than usual up until Labor Day that year.
“Then on Labor Day, within four hours we got 8 to 12 inches of rain, which caused major flooding on the west side of the city,” Rice said.
Longer periods of drought pockmarked by intense rainstorms means flooding in towns and cities, but in rural areas Rice said it means more soil erosion and loss of crops. He said humans might be able to deal with just an increase in global temperatures, but “from an infrastructure perspective” dealing with extreme weather fluctuations is “much harder.”
While weather is what the atmosphere is producing daily, climate is the span of atmospheric changes over a long period of time. According to the IPCC report, since 1970 global temperatures have increased faster than in any other 50-year period in the last 2,000 years.
“Climate change has been gradual, so people don’t really notice it,” Rice said. “It’s not something they see tomorrow or whatever.”
State climatologist Mary Knapp said just because we may not see the same type of extreme weather events as in other locations, “that doesn’t mean it’s not happening” in Kansas.
Rice said a warming planet may not lead to an increased number of weather hazards like tornadoes and hurricanes, but it may lead to more intense severe weather events when they do occur.
“We’ve seen that in the last couple of years, both on the coasts and to some extent in the Plains states,” Rice said.
Rice said wildfires also will become more of a problem for Kansas in the future. Dryer conditions in late winter and early spring means dead vegetation cannot rebound as quickly, which increases the fuel for fires to thrive. Rice said there’s “definitely evidence” from the last several years that Kansas will see more wildfires.
Knapp said it’s within the realm of possibility that current generations could see another Dust Bowl much like the disaster which impacted the central U.S. in the 1930s.
“I’ve been saying that for years,” Knapp said. “The thought is, with modern agricultural and conservation techniques, that we would preclude the scenario that plagued the Dust Bowl, but there are other factors that can remove vegetation.”
Without vegetation, Knapp said soil becomes loose and is more easily blown away by prairie winds. Decomposed plants make good fodder for wildfires, which would clear the landscape and make it easier for a Dust Bowl-type of prolonged disaster to occur.
“Is it as likely as it was back in the 1930s? We’re doing everything we can to prevent that, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for that to happen,” Knapp said.
Rice said the situation is not totally hopeless. Governments and corporations worldwide are implementing more environmentally conscious practices into their routines to reduce carbon emissions. Every major automotive manufacturer on the planet is adding electric cars to their lineups, with the goal of reducing global vehicular carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
In Kansas, Rice said increased usage of solar and wind energy will help wean people off using coal to create electricity, and those industries in turn will create more jobs. In the Kansas City metropolitan area, trees are being planted to create shade and remove what are called heat islands, or areas in urban settings where heat is captured and cannot dissipate. He said increasing access to public transportation and adding more charging stations for electric cars will help short and long-term.
“A lot of climate skeptics would say, ‘What’s the cost of reducing carbon emissions?’ But the reverse would be ‘What’s the cost of not doing something?’” Rice said. “What’s the cost associated with disasters? A lot of private sector industries… they see the handwriting on the wall.”
Knapp said there are small things people can do to help reduce their impact on the planet.
“It can be as simple as turning off lights when you’re not home or leaving the thermostat a little bit warmer than you normally would,” Knapp said. “Maybe walking rather than driving when it’s appropriate. Individual energy savings on our own aren’t going to solve our problems, but it’s a good start.”