Sunday, February 24, 2008

Climate ‘weirdness’ demands attention

An editorial in the Lane County Oregon Register-Guard urges local governments to take climate change seriously: Although Lane County has mostly been spared, this winter has been especially brutal in many places. … What’s going on here?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its final 2007 report that the frequency of devastating storms will increase dramatically due to global warming. Recent patterns seem to affirm this prediction.

…The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC in 1988. It includes more than 2,500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 800 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors from 130 countries. It’s hard to imagine how people from 130 different cultures and political systems could agree on anything, let alone on scientific issues of such importance. Yet the IPCC’s assessments are just that — consensus-based conclusions.

The IPCC review process generally has three stages. First, expert reviews of existing literature are completed. Then, government representatives and other experts from each participating country review the documents. Finally, the governments involved review the summaries developed by the IPCC for policymakers. The result is that the IPCC assessments are by far the most thoroughly reviewed scientific documents in history. So when the IPCC says that we can expect more extreme weather volatility, it should not be taken lightly. What will this mean for Oregon and Lane County?

Most governments plan for the future by looking at how the past unfolded. However, climate weirdness is creating never before seen conditions. The past will not provide us with blueprints for current and future management. This reality should be incorporated into all future policy development and planning.

Take water management, for example. The concept that streams operate within a relatively stable set of flow parameters has for decades been the foundation of water management practices. However, the volatility that global warming is creating, such as big annual or decadelong swings from drought to heavy precipitation, requires new forms of management.

Few utilities in Oregon seem to understand that big changes are afoot. Last year my program at the University of Oregon surveyed 35 muni­cipal water suppliers in Oregon to determine if they were assessing the potential impacts of global warming on their systems. Only five, including the Eugene Water & Electric Board, were doing so.

EWEB has initiated a study of climate impacts on the McKenzie River to determine the effects of long periods of drought, reduced snowpack and increased weather volatility on the utility’s water and electrical supplies.

Climate weirdness also will affect business. I recently called 10 prominent local firms that trade internationally to ask if they were incorporating climate risks into their business plans. Not one had made global warming a strategic issue. In contrast, a well-known Portland company I have been working with is formally incorporating the risks posed by global warming into its business plan. Substantial cost savings and other risk reduction benefits have resulted.

Managing in the face of increasing climate weirdness will require a whole new suite of strategies. Local businesses and government organizations will benefit from taking this issue seriously.

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