Washington State Climate Change Impacts Assessment Conference

1255773368_c6641b0bb8.jpgOn February 12, at the Washington Convention Center, the Washington State-basedClimate Impacts Group presented their recently released assessment of the projected impacts of climate change on the Columbia River basin.

Their assessment was well covered by the Seattle Times and the PI, and if the headlines sound a little dire, the findings were more nuanced but not less alarming. We are likely to fare better than most of the country; I believe they call that cold comfort.

You can read the executive summary and the news articles for an overview of the projected impacts, and you can view all of the presentations on the conference website. I will therefore just highlight a few key points from the conference.

A good starting place is the point that this level of assessment hasn’t been done for most places in the world. This was the third – and by far the most complex and complete – impact assessment done for the Pacific Northwest. The CIG took two IPCC models and regionalized them, adding data and runs from other models. They looked at the projected impacts on eight sectors: Agriculture, Coasts, Energy, Forests, Human Health, Hydrology/Water, Salmon, and Urban Stormwater Infrastructure.

The two scenarios used were ‘moderate,’ called A1B, and ‘low,’ called B1. Knowing this is of primary importance, because they did not model any severe (worst-case) scenarios based on business as usual, or on runaway feedbacks leading to catastrophic heating. It is essential to remember when reading the report or when noting the projected impacts, that they occur in scenarios where society takes action to mitigate climate change. One could assume, therefore, that the impacts discussed in this assessment – for the next 100 years or so – are unavoidable even with bold action. Lara Whitely Binder of the CIG, in her excellent presentation on adaptation, stated that impacts through 2040 are “virtually certain.”

One of the things this report does not do is address what one questioner called “synergistic & cumulative impacts.” There are some obvious ways on which impacts to water, salmon, forests and coasts (for example) interact and overlap, which are not addressed. During the conference the authors mentioned that if they can secure the funding, this would be the logical next step in their work. One possible way to approach the complexity of the problem – mentioned by (former) Washington State Climatologist Phil Mote, in his talk – is to use the combined processing power of citizens' personal computers to perform the larger model runs, based on the SETI@home approach.

Climate change projections to date are uncovering something significant: understanding what happens when we zero in on the pixels of a global projection. Fluctuations in temperature or rainfall, or other indicators, may not change greatly at the global, or the annual scale. But as we decrease the scale to a smaller area, or seasonal changes, impacts increase. This too is a subtle but massively important point. Changes that are moderate averages of extreme events are so general that it's hard to worry about them on a personal level. But these projections become very specific local spikes, and those spikes, unless we get a lot smarter a lot more quickly (and maybe even then), become very personal indeed: higher electrical bills, streams without salmon, farmers losing crops.

Even here in the northwest, perhaps the most naturally resilient region in the country, the predictions are frightening. When it comes to addressing climate change, our rate of progress must continue to increase.

Justus Stewart is an urban planner and designer living in Seattle. He currently works on climate planning for local governments. Justus' main interest is the overlap and interrelation of fields usually held as separate.

Photo credit: flickr/A Kamphuis, Creative Commons license.

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