Column: Taking action on climate change

William H. Waller

Now that the evidence for human-caused climate change has grown ever clearer, a groundswell of efforts toward developing solutions has begun to take hold at municipal, county and state levels. These actions come in four basic forms:

Ramping up our use of “green energy” technologies in order to drastically reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases;

Actively sequestering the excess atmospheric carbon by cultivating trees, kelp forests, seagrasses and other photosynthesizing plant life;

Reshaping our infrastructure to better withstand rising sea levels, intense storms and extreme heat waves, and;

Replacing our most vulnerable populated areas with natural buffers.

 This palpable shift from studying the problem to taking action was apparent during the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society that was held this January in Boston. I was able to attend one particularly revealing panel discussion titled “A Climatologist, an Engineer and a Social Scientist Walk into a Bar ... Tough Choices on a Warming Planet.” The three panelists were, respectively, experts in climate science, regional mitigation strategies and related social justice issues.

I soon learned that there are currently more climate refugees than war refugees — yikes! I also learned that the prospects for geoengineering ourselves out of this mess are remote at best. Instead, the panelists encouraged the attendees to promote a positive vision for future society, where we take on the challenges and develop new economic opportunities in the process. Meanwhile, the attendees were polled on their preferences for more research vs. mitigation, adaptation or geoengineering. The responses from this scholarly bunch were surprisingly skewed towars taking action in the form of mitigation (first) and adaptation (second). As the weeklong conference came to an end, NASA and NOAA issued a joint statement noting that 2019 was the second-warmest year on record, thus adding further urgency to taking immediate remedial action.

A strong example of focused action at the municipal level can be found in the town of Lexington. This municipality has been steadily adding solar power panels to its public buildings and parking lots, including one large solar farm at its composting facility. They are well on their way to covering their municipal energy needs via solar power alone. Closer to home, the Cape Ann Solar Campaign in partnership with TownGreen2025 and Resonant Energy has made great strides in providing solar panels at discounted costs. The three large wind turbines that can be viewed as one drives toward Gloucester from Route 128 have been providing non-polluting power to its hosting businesses and the city of Gloucester for several years. Even more locally, I recently looked into installing solar panels on the roof of my own house, but learned that I would have to cut down several nice shade trees on my property in order to get the full benefit. Instead, I opted to subscribe to a solar farm service that was promoted by Seaside Sustainability. My solar farm is not yet ready for prime time, but is expected to go online soon. Other major solar, wind, wave and tidal energy facilities are in the offing, but they must first contend with the legitimate concerns of landowners, fishermen, and other stakeholders before becoming significant players around here. Meanwhile, progress toward getting hydroelectric energy from Quebec is slowly inching its way through the political landscape.

The active capturing of carbon from greenhouse gases is what plants do every day. By planting more trees and cultivating kelp forests, seagrasses and other plant life, it is possible to bring down the currently elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in real time. Toward these ends, the Rockport Public Schools recently partnered with Reforest the Tropics to study the schools’ carbon footprint and so estimate the number of trees that would need to grow to wipe out this footprint by a factor of two. If the trees are planted in tropical Costa Rica, where they can grow rapidly, we estimate requiring a plot of 50 hectares (125 acres) of trees growing over a period of 25 years. The estimated cost for this planting would be about $375,000 – of which 75% could come from Massachusetts state funding. Reforest the Tropics has since planted a pilot plot of 1 hectare (2.5 acres) on behalf of the schools, so that its students can see for themselves their trees in action. For the town of Rockport as a whole, a complete elimination of its municipal carbon footprint would require about 190 hectares (475 acres) of growing trees to the tune of about $1.42 million. Again, the commonwealth of Massachusetts would be key to enabling this type of carbon-sucking solution.

In his recent State of the State address, Gov/ Charlie Baker emphasized the need to take far more aggressive action in order to confront the growing climate crisis here in our fair commonwealth. Echoing the panelists’ recommendations at the American Meteorological Society meeting, he called for a mix of targeted approaches toward both mitigation and adaptation. His focus on the transportation sector was especially forward-looking, where he proposed electrifying the entire fleet of MBTA buses and transitioning all commuter-rail locomotives to electric power by 2040. As a member of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, Massachusetts has committed itself to aggressively draw down the significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with motorized travel. Meanwhile, the State Senate has approved a suite of bills that will transform the way we generate and consume energy. This package would effectively set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas levels to 100% below 1990 levels by 2050.

But the states can only do so much on their own. This November we will have a chance to vote for federal representatives, senators and a new president. Here is our key opportunity to reverse the federal government’s recent shirking of its responsibility to deal with this unfolding disaster. Only by facing the climate crisis head-on with new federal legislation and funding will we be able to soften the blow nationwide while regaining our stature as a respected leader among nations.

William H. Waller is a former NASA astrophysicist who currently teaches science in the Rockport Public Schools.

 

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