Climate Change Is Hitting Home, And It's Not Fair

Apr 11, 2017

Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans think climate change is happening, but that it won’t affect them. Scientists say otherwise. Researchers already are seeing impacts - often dramatic, sometimes counterintuitive - on both natural systems and human communities. And, while everyone will be affected, some will be hit sooner and harder.

INVADERS NOT NECESSARILY WINNERS

Scientists have long said that climate change will produce both winners and losers, and it's been widely assumed that invasive species would be in the winning category. Previous work has shown that invasive species can capitalize on climate change, but a new study of two invasive plants in New England reveals that not all invasives benefit from changes in temperatures and rainfall.

Garlic mustard appears poised to retreat into Canada. That's the conclusion of researchers after they painstakingly collected seeds from around New England and grew them in a variety of locations to watch the entire life cycle of the plant. Seed production and germination increased in response to warmer temperatures, but adult plant survival dropped.

In contrast, the longer-lived, woody, Japanese barberry responded well to higher temperatures. Researchers say efforts should be focused on containing barberry, and preventing it from spreading into new areas where it could really take hold.

Sarah Bois, director of research and education at Nantucket's Linda Loring Nature Foundation and co-author of the study, sees both good and bad news in these results. Not all invasive plants will thrive in a warmer world. The trick is knowing which ones will. Bois says this kind of analysis isn't feasible for each and every species, so researchers and communities need to identify species of greatest potential concern for further study.

CORAL REEFS LOSING GROUND

Coral reefs around the globe are feeling the heat, literally. Corals are animals that get much of their energy from algae that live inside each polyp. When the water gets too hot, though, the relationship sours, and the corals eject their algae. Since the algae also give corals their color, the algae-less corals turn ghostly white - they bleach. It's not an immediate death sentence, but puts corals at risk. And it's happening more and more.

Australian researchers recently confirmed that a vast swath of the Great Barrier Reef has bleached, not just once, but two years in a row. Researchers tracking the mass bleaching events say it will be difficult for the reef to recover, especially as mass bleaching events become more and more common.

Just how bad will it get? Policymakers have long held the goal of limiting average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But a new study suggests that could be far too warm for corals.

A team of researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution watched as a coral atoll in the North China Sea bleached in 2015. The open ocean around the atoll was 2 degrees Celsius warmer than usual, but a short-term change in weather conditions pushed temperatures on top of the reef to 6 degrees Celsius above normal.

The lesson, according to lead researcher Anne Cohen, is that most corals can't hack a world where the baseline is 2 degrees Celsius warmer, and warm weather events pile on top. While she "doesn't want to say" it's too late for corals, she has a hard time saying it's not.

IT'S NOT FAIR

While there may be winners and losers in the natural world, it's hard to argue that any people will win when it comes climate change. But there are dramatic racial and socioeconomic disparities in the impacts of pollution and climate change, with the poorest and most vulnerable hit hardest.

In fact, while Massachusetts is known for its ambitious environmental policies, Daniel Faber, an environmental justice researcher at Northeastern University and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, has found that the Commonwealth has some of the most dramatic inequities of any state in the U.S. Communities of color bear twenty times the environmental burden of predominantly white neighborhoods; that includes hazardous waste sites and polluting power plants.

Previous governors have embraced Faber's work and the environmental justice issue, but Faber says progress has stalled under Governor Charlie Baker. And, at the federal level, President Trump is actively working to dismantle the EPA's climate science and environmental justice programs.

EPA's Office of Environmental Justice has been criticized for failing to meet its mandate. Over the past two years, investigations by the Center for Public Integrity and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have found that the EPA dismissed nine out of every ten complaints, and that the agency had never formally found a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Still, Faber says the departure of the office's founder and leader - and the prospect of drastic funding cuts - are a blow to environmental justice efforts.

All told, the climate change story is not a happy one. In fact, the harsh unfairness of it can be overwhelming for many people. Faber frequently speaks with community groups, and is spending more time in schools. He says he tries to create a positive vision of cultural change that people can rally around - a vision of clean energy, green jobs, rejuvenated communities, and racial justice.