Color us less than shocked at the news that policymakers in the St. Louis region aren’t doing much to prepare for the slow-motion catastrophe that is global climate change.
In “Living with Climate Change,” a three-part series in the Post-Dispatch last week, reporter Jacob Barker found that most city, county and state officials have barely stirred to begin addressing what are expected to be profound changes in the region’s climate.
Scientists and academics have sounded warnings and are doing important research. Corporate executives, particularly at places like Monsanto, whose business is getting plants to grow more efficiently, have been ramping up for years. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan will show benefits locally (as well as impose costs), but it is a federal initiative.
Let’s face it: There are limits to what state and local governments can — or will — do to mitigate the effects of climate change. Strict land-use policies, big investments in mass transit and high taxes on carbon-based fuels could help, but politically they are nonstarters.
Mitigation is the job of national governments. In December, they’ll meet in Paris for the 21st U.N. Climate Conference. This is widely viewed as a last-ditch effort to adopt a global plan to address the worst effects of climate change.
At best, the Paris conference can only slow down climate change; if the world stopped pumping all carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today, it would still take a thousand years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to start tapering off.
Which means the people of Earth are going to have to adapt to a hotter planet with more volatile weather. Unfortunately, most humans are reactive beings, not proactive. Those human beings who live around the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are a conspicuous example.
We want to know for sure something bad is going to happen, if possible the precise date, before we’ll do something about it. Race relations in St. Louis had been awful for 250 years until the Ferguson tragedy last August convinced us to start looking at the root causes — though apparently some people are still unconvinced.
This coming Dec. 3 will mark the 25th anniversary of the great New Madrid Fault Earthquake that didn’t happen. It had been predicted, at a 50 percent certainty level, by the late zoologist-turned-earthquake expert Iben Browning of New Mexico. Lots of St. Louisans stocked up on perishables, strapped their hot water heaters to the wall and took other precautions. Many experts had warned (and still do) that the New Madrid Fault would some day let loose, but Mr. Browning’s gift was to put a date on it.
Climate change will not be a one-day disaster, or even a six-year cataclysm like World War II, the prelude to which most people also chose to ignore. Climate change will be — indeed, already is — like dropping a frog into a pot of cool water on a stove and then turning on the burner. The frog is fine. For a while.
The world’s coastal areas, particularly island nations in the South Pacific, face more dramatic risks than we here in the Midwest. What are a few more hot days compared with inundation from rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice?
But farmers know what the implications are — uncertain growing seasons, more stress on crops, more frequent and violent storms.
And those who swelter through St. Louis summers know how hot things can get. “The last quarter-century has been the warmest quarter-century on record,” John Posey, director of research for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, told Mr. Barker. “There’s good evidence St. Louis is becoming warmer.”
In 2013, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that St. Louis now has, on average, twice as many dangerously hot, humid days each summer than it did in the mid-1940s. We have an average of four more heat waves — three or more consecutive days of dangerously hot conditions — than we did 60 years ago. If global carbon dioxide rises without mitigation, we might average 43 days of 100-degree-plus each summer by century’s end.
Predictions of increased rainfall and more severe storms portend more flooding along the great rivers, with 100-year floods becoming more like 40-year floods. In the Midwest, we know this is happening, but short-term economic imperatives entice us to develop in the floodplains and build levees that make downstream flooding worse.
The Great Flood of 1993 should have convinced policymakers to stop doing that. It didn’t. The threat posed by climate change probably won’t either. You don’t get elected by selling sacrifice.
St. Louis city and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments have “sustainability plans” that speak to long-term social, economic and development goals. Environmental factors, including impact on greenhouse gas emissions, are supposed to weigh heavily on future development considerations.
The city has a “sustainability” director. With the help of a “Resilient Cities” grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it will add a “chief resiliency officer.” Resilient cities are those that have “demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses.”
We will plant trees. We will install bicycle racks. We will make parking lots that absorb rainwater.
That’s all to the good. But the larger reality is that what growth there is in the metropolitan region is mostly taking place in exurban counties. That means more roads for more cars driving longer distances. It means more land swallowed up for the same number of people. Turning that trend around, in a region desperate for growth of any kind and in the absence of an Iben Browning-like catastrophe date, will be a heavy lift. Indeed, some have argued that preparing for climate change is impossible in a democracy.
It is human nature to let tomorrow take care of itself, to put short-term needs ahead of long-term goals. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, and particularly after it hit high gear in the Western world 100 years late, carbon has fueled one amazing lifestyle improvement after another. From electric lights to automobiles to air travel and air-conditioning, we have lived like there is no tomorrow.
But tomorrow is coming, if not precisely tomorrow. Absent a technological miracle that it would be unwise to count on, it will at the very least make life on Earth very difficult. We will all be gone by then, which is at once a comfort and a condemnation.
Kevin Horrigan • 314-340-8135