UNC Charlotte climate change expert discusses effects of extreme weather
Posted at 12:00 a.m. on Friday, August 26, 2022
Extreme weather conditions hit the world this summer. From deadly floods in some regions to record heat waves and droughts in others, the effects of climate change are becoming more noticeable every year – or are they really? Are severe weather events more common now or are we just hearing about them more often? What makes the subject so controversial? Can we do something to slow climate change or is it too late?
Jack Scheff, a well-known climate change expert and assistant professor of geography and earth sciences, answered some questions about the changes we’re seeing in our environment and what the future holds.
Have severe weather events (fires, heat waves, droughts, devastating storms, etc.) become more regular or are we hearing about them more often??
I would say both. As we’ve warmed our planet with carbon emissions from fossil fuels over the past few decades, wildfires have gotten much bigger, heat waves have gotten hotter and longer, droughts have gotten longer too. and the hurricanes got stronger and more destructive. However, it is also true that our overloaded media environment and the ubiquity of smartphones make us much more aware of these disasters than we were in the past.
What have been some of the most effective measures taken in recent decades to slow climate change?
Massive improvements in the efficiency and cost of natural gas drilling, solar panel manufacturing, wind turbine production and battery technology are among the most significant slowdown developments of recent decades. of climate change. They have allowed natural gas, solar and wind power to compete with dirtier coal in the electricity sector, significantly reducing the rate of carbon emissions in the United States and some other countries (even if the emissions in other countries have increased). Vehicles, buildings, factories and appliances have become more energy efficient over the decades, which has also helped reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change to some extent.
What our future looks like in North Carolina and Charlotte?
Over the next few decades, our summer heat will continue to get hotter and wetter, our winter cold will continue to get milder and less snowy, our rains will continue to get heavier, our hurricanes will continue to strengthen, and sea levels will on our coast will continue to rise (with many natural ups and downs along the way). However, the severity of these consequences depends on the energy choices of humanity. If the global economy continues to depend on burning uncaptured fossil fuels, enough carbon will be emitted that North Carolina will become as hot as Florida or even Texas in 50 years. If the world quickly switches to cleaner energy sources, North Carolina will get even hotter, but not as much.
Why is climate change a divisive issue??
I believe that one of the reasons climate change can be such a contentious topic is that some of the solutions discussed in popular conversation call for personal sacrifice and lifestyle change – things like limiting our consumption of car, eating less meat, paying more for energy, reducing our dependence on air conditioning and heating in homes and businesses, etc. Many people naturally don’t want to do these things. If they think solving climate change requires these kinds of actions, they will be reluctant to do so. Therefore, I think professionals need to emphasize that climate change can be addressed simply by adopting better energy technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, carbon capture, modern/safe nuclear, etc.) and newer/more effective, rather than living a more austere lifestyle or foregoing modern conveniences.
What can individuals do to help?
I think the most important way people can help is to be open to change and excited about the future. To shift from uncaptured fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, we will need to use new technologies (electric vehicles, wind turbines, new industrial processes, heat pumps, carbon capture, hydrogen, to name a few- ones) and build many new infrastructures (electricity, wind farms, solar parks, geothermal power plants, high-performance buildings). Sometimes people are wary of these novelties and adopt a “not in my backyard” attitude. For example, a major new power line that would have helped New England transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean hydroelectricity was recently killed by local environmental opposition. On the other hand, we must welcome these kinds of improvements built to reduce emissions – and we must encourage our elected officials to support them.
Is it too late for us to make a noticeable difference?
No way! In fact, the future is in our hands. If we continue to burn uncaptured fossil fuels for most of our energy, the planet will warm several degrees Fahrenheit in our lifetime, with frightening consequences. If we switch to cleaner technologies in a timely manner, the planet might only get a degree F or two warmer, which would be much more manageable.