'We're all going to see the impacts' Local environmental experts share signs of climate change

·8 min read

Jul. 30—Debra Murray

Climate change has been a long debated issue, but many feel they are starting to see the effects in Madison County and throughout Eastern Kentucky.

Sustainable Berea is a non-profit made up of a group of citizens who want to support the local food system.

"We grow food and we teach," Richard Olson, director of the Berea Urban Farm, said. "Much of what we do is teaching other people to grow food."

He said the nonprofit's mission statement is to "increase local food security and community health through urban agriculture."

"As we grow food, all farmers and gardeners deal with climate change, whether they recognize it or not," Olson said. "We have to adapt to the changing climate and use methods that will give us the term resilience — the ability to weather these extreme events."

Nancy Gift is associate professor of Environmental Studies and chair of the Sustainability and Environmental Studies Department at Berea College.

Gift said she believes many people know the climate is changing, but many do not believe it is the result of human actions.

"Some people might just believe this is just climate cycles that we have over the course of global history," Gift said. "This is more than that, but they'd have to educate themselves to understand why."

Almost half of Americans — 49% — say that human activity contributes "a great deal" to climate change, and another 30% say human actions have "some role" in climate change. Two-in-ten — 20% — believe human activity plays "not too much or no role" at all in climate change, according to the Pew Research Center.

"When we burn fossil fuels, we take carbon that was in the ground, whether in the form of coal or oil, and we put it into an air form like carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide," Gift said. "It's like adding blankets to the Earth's atmosphere. So all of that carbon was perfectly fine when it was in the ground as a solid form, but when carbon is an air form, it holds heat in a way that we have no comparison for over the entirety of global history."

Impact of climate change

Madison County is already seeing the effects of climate change with the frequent 90 degree weather, Olson said.

Most Americans today — 62% — say that climate change is affecting their local community either a great deal or some, according to the Pew Research Center.

The flooding throughout Eastern Kentucky that occurred following intense rain is one example of climate change, local experts say.

"The floods that have just happened. This severe one. One of the things that happens with climate change is that, when the clouds are hotter, they hold more water," Gift said. "When it does rain, it rains more. That's exactly what we've seen, recently. My own house was flooded on the Kentucky River last year. These recent floods didn't hit me, but we're all going to be seeing impacts in different ways on our own properties in our communities."

While flooding can happen normally, climate change has made the flooding more intense, Gift said.

"It's an example where there probably would have been a storm, even if climate change hadn't happened, and that storm would have affected a few people," Gift said. "But the scale of that storm was undoubtedly larger because of climate change."

Olson said climate change can cause extreme shifts in weather and the frequency and intensity of severe events.

"The main impact is going to be that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will increase," Olson said. "Maybe actually even a little more will rain total, but comes in, you know, big downpours like Eastern Kentucky has experienced in the last couple days. More days where we're in the high 90s. So instead of getting two or three of those in a row, we're gonna see 10,15 days in a row."

Droughts are also going to occur, Olson said.

"Water is not the issue right now, but we've had plenty of droughts throughout history in Madison County," Olson said. "We'll have more and they will probably be longer and more intense because of climate change."

Winters are also getting warmer, Olsen said.

A study completed in 2020 by Climate Central shows that winter in the United States is warming faster than any other season. Since 1970, winter temperatures have increased one degree or more in every state, while 70% have seen increases of at least three degrees.

"The growing season is actually increasing," Olson said. "But that also means things like pests may increase as the insects that used to be knocked back by winter cold are still there. That includes both crop pest and also people pest; ticks are spreading. Ticks spread disease. One of the ones we have seen more here is Rocky Mountain spotted fever."

People — especially with health issues or those with low income — will be directly impacted by the effects of climate change.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is a bacterial disease spread through the bite of an infected tick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people who get sick with RMSF will have a fever, headache and rash. RMSF can potentially be deadly if not treated early with the right antibiotic.

"I think one thing to keep in mind here as we look at climate change is it will affect poor people, more wealthier people can afford that well air conditioned house," Olson said.

Gift echoed Olson's belief on how climate change impacts low-income people.

"There are people who have so much investment in our current behaviors, whether coal or high electricity use or whatever, they don't want to believe it, because they have so much financially to lose," Gift said. "We have other people who sort of can't deal with it because honestly, they're just dealing with all they can. If you're struggling to get groceries on the table, then trying to figure out how to do something about clean energy is just a level of care that you don't have any any energy left for."

Certain jobs are going to get harder as people navigate extreme heat and weather.

"Imagine occupations that are outdoors. We've all seen the guys up on a roof in the summer, you know, putting down roofing tar, you just say 'Ah man, it's a horrible job," Olson said. "Jobs like that are gonna get harder and agriculture is one of those jobs. It's harder to work as it gets hotter. and of course, livestock and crops do not thrive as well under those conditions."

Limiting the impact

When asked what individuals can do to limit their contribution to climate change, Olson said "not a damn thing."

"Really, as an individual, not a damn thing that will make any difference," Olson said. "We've got an economy overall that runs on huge amounts of fossil energy. To really make an impact, it has to be at a global scale, it's a global issue. You would need national and international policies to greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels and to leave much of the remaining oil and gas in the ground. That's not going to happen. No faith, or governments want to do that."

However, consuming less is one way to limit contribution, Olson said.

"Every time people consume things, whether they're directly using fossil fuels or they're buying something that was made with fossil fuels, most things are transported with them," Olson said.

Gift encourages people to vote for candidates advocating for clean energy because of fossil fuels impact on the planet.

"Individually, people can do all kinds of simple things and it can be changing lightbulbs or driving less or walking more or biking," Gift said. "It can also be writing our legislators. Making sure to be ready for a vote and to vote for people who support clean energy."

Preparing for the worst

Being prepared for extreme weather as it becomes an increasing possibility is the best option for households, Olson said.

"I think people should try to have at least a week supply of food and necessities like medicines and everything — in a month would be better," Olson said. "Just so, when these extreme events come — and they will — they can stay safely in their home and they don't have to be fighting the crowds to try to buy stuff."

Starting to be more health-conscious will benefit people during extreme weather conditions, Olson said.

"Take your health seriously," Olson said. "Get in shape. Get down to a good weight. Physically fit people can function better during extreme events, they can function better during extreme heat. They're less likely to have medical emergency during some of these events. So you'd want to be healthy anyway, but climate change just makes it even more important for your well being."

Building a community is another piece of advice Olson shared. Sharing a meal with your neighbors could lead to having someone to rely on during intense weather.

"As the severity and intense frequency of problems increases because of climate change," Olson said. "We're not even talking about a whole host of other issues that are going to make life less pleasant, but if they start now, they will have a community to be part of to rely on."

Olson's last piece of advice is that "Everyone should grow some food."