By George Harvey
From an environment point of view, we are in serious trouble. Most people are entirely unaware of how bad things are.
Studies published in 2015 gave a peek into the situation. That year, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published results of research with universities around the world. Their study said that over the course of 60 years, we had lost over 70% of our seabird populations worldwide.
Not long after that, the WWF published a study saying that over the preceeding 40 years, we had seen a 60% decline in our wildlife populations. I called them and asked to be connected with a scientist who could talk about the study. When I asked him what was meant by wildlife, he said it was all vertibrate species.
I told him I had done calculations based on their numbers and wanted to know whether my results were correct. I had concluded that we are losing another species to extinction about every ten minutes. He said, “That’s right.” He told me the WWF was worried that Vermont would lose its moose. I decided to look into that.
I called wildlife scientists in Vermont and New Hampshire to ask about them. They said that in their evolutionary history, the ranges of the ticks and moose had never overlapped before, so the moose do not instinctively groom for ticks. Now, thanks to climate change, the ranges do overlap. In New Hampshire, the ticks are believed to kill about 80% of all moose calves by bleeding them to death. A fully engorged adult female winter tick is about the size of a grape. Some moose have been found dead with 70,000 winter ticks on them.
But the damage goes beyond vertebrates. We have all seen declines in bee populations and monarch butterfly populations. A 2017 article from Germany said that surveys in a number of wildlife refuges indicated a 75% reduction in all flying insect populations over 35 years.
Human beings are being assaulted by new diseases. In 1990, Lyme disease was virtually unknown in Vermont. It is all too well known, today. The state health officials say that other diseases that have spread only recently include West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalytis, and babesiosis. And more are on their way.
Overall, we appear to have lost well over three-quarters of our animal populations over the last century. But a large number of pests are destroying our forests and orchards already. And more are set to come. If you want to see what they can do, do a web image search on “ghost forest” and “adelgid.” It does not take long to find pictures of rolling hills covered by dead trees as far as one can see.
Native trees are extending their ranges up the sides of mountains, taking over the ridgetop habitats. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said we should set up refugia on our highest mountains, because the ridgetop habitats are being destroyed by climate change everywhere else. It is probably already too late to save them except on the highest mountains.
A comparison of the hardiness zone maps of 1990 and 2015 shows reasons for much of this. The maps divide the country into zones based on the temperature of the coldest winter night. That temperature shows what perennial plants will survive normal winters. It also tells us what pests and pathogens will survive. The state of Vermont is almost entirely in the next warmer zone than it was 35 years ago.
Warming temperatures are not the only environmental issue. A study by the WHO indicated that air pollution kills about 7,000,000 per year, worldwide. That is comparable with the number of armed forces personnel who died each year in World War II. A study by scientists at MIT indicated that 200,000 of those die in the United States; US armed forces personnel who died in WW II totalled only 275,000 over the four years the US was engaged. Every year, about 400 people in Vermont die prematurely because of air pollution. Some of those people lived in Windham County.
The American Lung Association released a study of the medical costs of air pollution associated with transportation in ten states. Vermont was one of them, and the state’s costs came to $330 million per year. That is about $480 per person, a cost masked by health insurance and taxes. But we will pay for it one way or another.
And we are suffering economically in other ways. In 1978, US premiums for flood insurance came to $82 million. Given increases from inflation, population, and cost of real estate relative to the dollar, we might have expected that figure to go up by a factor of 5 to 6 by 2015. It didn’t. It went up by a factor of 43. And please don’t blame a tendency to build in places that are vulnerable to flooding; that effect was offset by the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004, which left many costly homes impossible to insure.
The storms of this year were like nothing that has ever happened before. Hurricane Harvey was the costliest storm ever to hit the country, by a wide margin. Only two weeks later, Hurricane Irma hit Florida; it was the most powerful hurricane ever to form in Atlantic waters outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Only two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, more intense than either of those, caused the longest widespread power outages ever to hit the United States. This hurricane season was the first ever in which three major hurricanes hit the United States.
Climate change is happening. The idea that it had stalled out in 1998 is a myth. The record set in that year by a wide margin over the previous record, was broken in 2004. That record was broken in 2010, That record was broken in 2015. That record was broken in 2016, by another wide margin. Though 2017 will probably not break that record, it looks set to break the record of 2015.
I believe there is a reason for the myth, and a fair share of the blame for the deep trouble we are in rests on the shoulders of people and companies who have set about protecting their own profits at the expense of our wealth, our health, our lives, and the environment.
There is a fair amount of evidence that the myth was spread by a group of companies and individuals with extensive investments in fossil fuels. Reportedly, some of them knew about climate change in the 1970s but publically denied it existed while secretly looking for ways to profit from their undisclosed knowledge. They funded publication of articles denying the human connection to climate change in peer-reviewed journals of fields other than climate and weather, which meant that the peer review did not include scientists of those fields. And they have funded a series of organizations that have tried to deny science by connecting it with socialism.
And in the meantime, though they profess to be patriotic, politicians they funded have overseen a nearly complete distruction of American leadership in the world, both technologically and diplomatically. They object to incentives for growing new technology, based on the ideas that government should not pick winners and losers and that the market should decide. But they want government subsidies for obsolete technologies, such as coal and nuclear, that cannot compete with renewable generation from solar and windpower.
The US Department of Energy says there are not enough rooftops in Vermont to provide the power we now use, let alone power our cars and heat our homes. But we need desparately to move away from our addiction to fossil fuels, including those used for carbon-based transportation and heat. To do that, we will need large renewable energy installations.
We cannot continue things as they are – nature will prevent that. We will have to provide for for carbon-free power in the near future, including utility-scale solar and windpower. To do that, we need a good plan permitting it. The only alternative is to do it without adequate planning.