To me, one of the most infuriating things about the so-called global warming "debate" is that many of those who deny that global warming is caused by humans don't seem to give a second thought to planning for the consequences of a changing climate. It is as if they believe that because a changing climate may be a part of the natural cycle of things, that's the end of the discussion. So much for the polar bears. So much for the millions of people who live in low-lying areas with no place to go.
But if the consensus is that the climate is going to change (human-induced or not), shouldn't we try to do something to protect our communities, our fisheries and our food supplies before it's too late?
Instead, the whole debate seems to center around whether global warming is our collective fault or not. It's like little kids blaming each other for playing with matches while watching the house burn down. Of course, it's better not to let the house burn down in the first place, even if the fire wasn't caused by a match. Call the Fire Department. Grab a hose. Grab a bucket. For God's sake, do something! And if it isn't enough, the fact remains - regardless of who caused it - you still need someplace to live after the house is a charred ruin.
Think about the impact of global warming to our waterways alone, as Bob Shavelson of Alaska, Donna Lisenby of North Carolina and I recently did.
Both EPA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognize that water resources in all regions of the world will be adversely affected by climate change.
Coastlines will change. In the last century, a sea-level rise of 4 to 8 inches occurred. In the next century, the best scientific estimates predict that the sea will rise an additional 7.2 to 24 inches. The United States has more than 95,000 miles of coastline. If a sea-level rise of two feet occurs, more than 10,000 acres of land area will be under water. Coastal aquifers that provide drinking water to millions of Americans along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts will experience increased levels of salt water intrusion. With more than one in every two Americans living in coastal areas, thousands of communities and millions of people are likely to suffer devastating economic and environmental impacts.
Water supplies will change. Changes in precipitation will affect water availability and drought patterns. Rising temperatures will affect the amount and duration of snow cover along with seasonal runoff and drinking water availability for many western states. These higher temperatures will stress cold water fish, forcing habitat shifts and making them more vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease. Flooding, storm surges and erosion will likely increase due to increased storm intensity.
Water quality also will change. Higher temperatures decrease dissolved oxygen and change habitat for fish. Sea level rise will likely increase salinity of coastal rivers and streams. Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase acidity of the oceans, which will threaten coral reefs and the fisheries they support. Higher temperatures will also lead to toxic red tides and algal blooms, and enhance the toxicity of pollutants found in sewage and other waste streams.
So what are we going to do about it?
First, and foremost, we should stop the house from burning down. To do so, many of the best scientific minds in the world say that we must mitigate the impact our energy consumption has on climate change. We must stop or drastically reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere each day. This is a no brainer, even though some still don't think what humans do will matter or even if we are past the point of no return. But we still need to try. It is an added bonus that by doing so we will shift to cleaner energy and will use it more efficiently, increase energy independence and improve a lagging economy.
Second, we must prepare ourselves for a future with some climate change in case our efforts prove too little or too late. This is where everyone should be able to come together to help protect our common human interests, even if you don't think we've caused global warming. Along those lines, here in the U.S. we must start by developing a National Water Security Plan. Such a plan must embrace adaptive management strategies that anticipate and respond to changing water patterns across the nation and around the world. This includes energetically planning for rising sea levels in coastal regions, for food and water shortages caused by shifting precipitation patterns, and for the protection of fish and wildlife habitats as they undergo significant temperature change.
We also need to arm ourselves with better scientific information to understand global warming's potential impacts to our drinking water supplies, our agriculture, our fisheries and coral reefs. At a minimum, we must support wide-scale monitoring of changes in water quantity, temperature and salinity.
A National Water Security Plan also must embrace the role that smart water management decisions can play in adapting to climate change, since the impact of our water-related decisions will be amplified in a changing climate. We simply cannot make decisions in a vacuum any longer. Comprehensive integrated planning should include consideration of important issues like water conservation, wetlands protection, instream flow, source water protection, and ocean protection.
The bottom line is that we cannot separate any of these issues as we confront the immense challenges of rapid climate change. Instead, we must integrate our thinking so that the impact of climate change on our water resources becomes an additional driver to creating a comprehensive response to global warming at war-time speed. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and adopting a proactive National Water Security Plan will help ensure clean water and healthy communities for generations to come - even if the house burns down.