In any conversation about climate change, it’s important to understand that climate is not weather, and weather is not climate. There is a world of difference between the two. Think of it with a sports analogy. Climate is the average of points scored over a season. Weather is the number of points scored in a single game. Or think of it like school. Climate is your final grade; weather is the grade on a single test. Right now, if we’re to believe those who study these things, we’re close to failing.
“We should be very worried,” said Dr. Keah Schuenemann, about the planet’s long-term future. Schuenemann, a professor of meteorology at Denver’s Metropolitan State University, said, “We learned about the problems a long time ago but haven’t addressed it.”
Some of the terms now tossed around with regularity were brand new to the general public decades ago; terms like CFC’s and ozone. CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are chemicals released from aerosol sprays. These chemicals, we learned then, are linked to a weakening of the ozone layer, the layer that absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Think of them as the earth’s sunscreen.
CFC’s were used in aerosols, refrigerators, air conditioners, foam food packaging and fire extinguishers. Despite pleas from manufacturers and chemical companies, they were banned in 1996. While the government reacted to the ozone problem then, it has been slow to act in a number of other areas on climate change. This is partly because of denial on the part of certain powerful forces, congressional members and powerful lobbies.
But Schuenemann said this denial is hiding from reality and one reality in our own backyard should tell us we need to begin paying attention. “The pine beetle is one dramatic indication of climate change,” she said. The pine beetle is responsible for hundreds of millions of deforestations in Colorado and vast stretches of the Western United States, Canada and Alaska.
Scientists say that because temperatures in high country locales are not as cold as in years past, too few of these insects are dying out over the winter. Warmer temperatures are also allowing them to mature to adulthood faster---by as much as two months---and voraciously attacking their food source, Ponderosa, Lodge Pole and White Park pines. As many as 26 million acres of forests have been ravaged by the pine beetle, including 3.4 million acres in Colorado. But climate change also manifests itself in other damaging ways, said Schuenemann.
Migratory bird patterns are changing, she said. Birds that might have flown through Colorado are changing their routes or coming through in smaller numbers. Insects they might have eaten are surviving. “It impacts the entire ecosystem.”
It only takes a short deviation in weather to reflect environmental changes, said Schuenemann. “We have had an increase in drought,” she said. Drought impacts fire season. “Our wildfire season has been more intense.” The devastation from the pine beetle has also left plenty of fuel for fire.
Colorado has experienced a 1.69 (F) degree increase in temperature. In fact, National Weather Service data indicate that 2014, 2015 and 2016 were each record-breaking heat years. In larger metropolitan area that means cities are retaining the heat which means more use of air conditioning, higher power use and threats to public health for infants, younger children and the elderly.
Climate change also has a huge impact on the state’s water supply. Colorado gets almost half its water from annual snowfall. But projections for the middle of the 21st century show a decline in snowfall. Since 2000, state snowpack has fallen short of average in all the state’s river basins. Over an extended period, this could affect state agriculture and the ski industry, a multi-billion-dollar boon to the state economy. “Three years of drought,” said Schuenemann, “would mean living a nightmare.”
But Colorado’s changing weather pattern and unpredictable snowpack also has an impact across the West. Arizona and California depend on the Colorado River for everything from agriculture to recreation. A serious drought is an unthinkable proposition for millions of people for whom Colorado River water is essential.
Climate change skeptics often debunk the science despite 97 percent of all published scientists agreeing that it is real. The agency responsible for everything from the nation’s weather satellites to launching astronauts, NASA, stands firmly behind the science. It has warned that climate change is going to impact water levels for coastal cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and New York. But it’s not just these places that will feel the effects.
Rising temperatures have already created devastating cyclones and tropical storms around the world. Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria in 2017 was the biggest storm to ever hit that island. Its predecessor, Hurricane Katrina, the nightmare storm that hit the southern U.S. and devastated New Orleans in 2005, caused $80 billion dollars in property damage in Louisiana and nearly double that across the path it took.
There may be climate change deniers who challenge the science. But in places like the Marshall Islands, a group of 1,200 islands northeast of Australia, it’s a reality. Rising sea levels have covered some smaller islands in the chain and forced inhabitants of others to move to higher ground. In Alaska rising temperatures have melted permafrost and changed everyday life for natives who no longer can reliably count on the sea for sustenance. “So many people on earth are right on the front lines,” said Scheunemann. “We have the technology to change things but not the political will.”