It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here

By | March 9th, 2016 | News & Views, Roots

The underreported impacts of climate change

When one thinks about climate change, visuals of precious polar bears desperately clinging to ice caps often come to mind. But not all impacts of climate change receive equal attention in the public eye, despite the ever-increasing research in the scientific community.

Systematic changes are occurring in climate. And climate change has unrecognized symptoms and very real effects — not just on animals and plants but on people as well.

Farmers are one of the groups who will always have their livelihood altered by a changing climate, as predictable weather and a stable climate are vital parts of farming, Allison Chatrchyan, the director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture, said. She said farmers in the Northeastern United States have been struggling for years, and all have noticed changes in year-to-year weather, but many didn’t know climate change could be the cause until it was explained to them.

“Making the connection for people is really important,” Chatrchyan said. She added that local farmer’s challenges are multifaceted.

“There’s more increased variability, so it’s very very hard to plan,” she said. “For example, this winter has been very very warm, but last winter was one of the coldest winters in the Northeast. So, year to year, you couldn’t plan on how the winter’s going to be. You can’t look at the Farmer’s Almanac anymore.”

Chatrchyan also said climate change causes polarization in the climate.

“The other thing is when you have climate change, you’re going to have more change at the extremes,” she said. “When you think about a bell curve, the colder times are going to get colder and the more extreme warms are going to get warmer.”

Like temperatures, precipitation has also been operating at the extremes, coming in one burst instead of gradually in recent years, a change Chatrchyan attributes to climate change. Bursts of rain can cause flooding that erodes topsoil and shallowly planted seeds, destroying the planting process for farmers.

Conversely, the recent intense droughts in California have brought up speculation that climate change is a cause. Jane Braxton Little, a West Coast-based environmental writer, said a recent focus for her has been the plight of the trees in California.

Trees are a little slower to respond than other species, Little said, but they still feel the effects of the drought. According to a February article in The Huffington Post, the U.S. Forest Service found 21 million dead trees in the state as of September 2015. But certain scientists wanted to expand upon that count.

Scientists thought the government’s estimation was an understatement and went out to investigate for themselves.

“This guy out of the Carnegie Institute for Science—their speciality is using razor technology for doing aerial surveys — used laser and spectrometer technology to fly over all the forests in California and they came up with this shocking number of something like 58 million trees that had already suffered extreme canopy loss,” Little said.

Little explained that California’s unhealthy trees are considered one of the more indirect effects of climate change. Two aspects of climate change are temperature and precipitation variance, and they are the more direct influences.

And it is not just ecosystems, but even human-centric political systems that are expected to be impacted by climate change.

As The Hill reported, when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was asked asked if he stood by his belief that addressing climate change is the most important threat to national security in a November 2015 debate, he responded: “Absolutely. Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism and if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to … see all kinds of conflict.”

Chatrchyan added that in the world of politics, although climate change is still debated as a partisan issue, central federal institutions like the U.S. Department of Defense are recognizing the impacts of climate change.

Little agreed, citing that climate change has been portrayed drastically different in the media over the course of her career and right now, the media’s portrayal is the best it has ever been.

“It used to be a kooky, weird-scientist kind of theory and it’s definitely been mainstream now over the last 10 to 15 years and especially the last five,” Little said.

But Erin Marteal, executive director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden, added there are both pros and cons to climate change awareness, especially for young people. The Ithaca Children’s Garden is a community resource with educational programs about nature for children and families.

“We can be overwhelmed by the state of the planet, immobilized as individuals,” Marteal said. “We forget we can arrest some degeneration and regenerate planetary health.”

Marteal added that she believes youth today feel a heavy sense of responsibility to address the health of the planet.

The Ithaca Children’s Garden has approached planetary health through a lens of joy, play and sensory experience, Marteal said.

“That’s how children learn,” she said.

As knowledge of climate change ekes into the mainstream, there are both pros and cons.

The philosophy of the Ithaca Children’s Garden is that being aware of the power of collective impact on a tangible, touchable issue is the best way to make a difference.

Chatrchyan agrees.

“If you know where your food is coming from, if you know how hard it is for local farmers, if you try and reconnect yourself with the roots of nature and the trees and the ground, that’s what makes people care about the environment,” she said.


Alexa Salvato is a junior journalism major who won’t be going tree climbing in California anytime soon. You can email her at asalvat1@ithaca.edu.

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