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Beyond Climate Silence

Tue, 02/19/2013 - 4:16pm -- Jane Elder

As someone with a communications background, I like to keep up with trends in language, message and “memes” associated with topics I care about.  Last fall the term “climate silence” starting showing up in various blogs, particularly in the context of the fall elections.  Aha, I thought--a name for the missing conversation on climate. I suspect that campaign advisors had urged their candidates to stay away from the “c” word, because regardless of the scientific consensus, it can rouse some fairly intense reactions, and when you are striving to be everyone’s likeable candidate, that can be problematic. I have a Facebook friend with whom I had to draw a strict line in the conversational sand on this topic, because the rhetoric was adding heat, but no light, to our exchanges.

With the dust from the 2012 election largely settled, climate seems to be back as a topic we can, and should, be talking about.  Perhaps it asserted itself after a summer of devastating drought and Superstorm Sandy. Perhaps the growing scientific evidence and economic impact are gaining attention. Regardless, we need to be paying attention, and having thoughtful conversations about what is happening and what we can do about it because it will affect us all.  An organization that embraces science, like ours, can be part of that constructive conversation.

The draft of the Third National Climate Assessment was released in January. Like the previous assessments, it is sobering. Projections from the Midwest scientific team were summarized in these points:

  1. In the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops, though those benefits will be increasingly offset by the occurrence of extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods. In the long term, combined stresses associated with climate change are expected to decrease agricultural productivity, especially without significant advances in genetic and agronomic technology.
  2. The composition of the region’s forests is expected to change as rising temperatures drive habitats for many tree species northward. The region’s role as a net absorber of carbon is at risk from disruptions to forest ecosystems, in part due to climate change.
  3. Increased heat wave intensity and frequency, degraded air quality, and reduced water quality will increase public health risks.
  4. The Midwest has a highly energy-intensive economy with per capita emissions of greenhouse gases more than 20% higher than the national average. The region also has a large, and increasingly utilized, potential to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
  5. Extreme rainfall events and flooding have increased during the last century, and these trends are expected to continue, causing erosion, declining water quality, and negative impacts on transportation, agriculture, human health, and infrastructure.
  6. Climate change will exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes region, including changes in the range and distribution of important commercial and recreational fish species, increased invasive species, declining beach health, and harmful blooms of algae. Declines in ice cover will continue to lengthen the commercial navigation.

It goes on to describe the implications for our economy, our forests, our crops, our fisheries and more. The Draft Third National Climate Assessment is now available for download and public comment and review by the National Academies of Sciences. If you aren’t up for digesting the full report (and it’s a whopper at 1,193 pages) consider glancing through the 38-page Midwest section. Wisconsin needs a strategy for a changing climate, and informed citizens will play an important role in shaping our response and the way forward.  See what 13 federal agencies are saying about the forecast for our region and the nation.

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Jane Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brings to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts. Her career has focused on environmental policy and communications, while personal interests include theater, modern dance and painting.

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