Is climate change ‘rampaging our planet?’

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

I find it ironic that after writing about Buffalo shattering its annual average temperature in 2012 that we may experience a weekend with 60 degree temperatures. In January? Really?

Jay Burney, who founded the Learning Sustainability Campaign, believes too many people are in denial about climate change. His Dec. 2 opinion piece in The Buffalo News contends that rising temperatures and its impacts have reached an emergency level in Western New York.

One of the first meetings I attended when I moved here was the Western New York Environmental Alliance’s quarterly meeting at the Marcy Casino in Delaware Park. The WNYEA is a Great Lakes-based environmental organization and its Habitat and Natural Resources Working Group teamed up with Burney’s organization to produce a white paper on climate change. You can read the report here.

“Climate change is rampaging our planet, our region, and our communities like an unstoppable freight train that has gone off the tracks,” Burney and company wrote in the white paper.  “We are no longer looking at a ‘predicted’ future of possible highly variable extreme weather conditions and catastrophic events. That future is here now.

“Climate instability has impacts that do and will continue to affect each one of us. Our pocketbooks, food supply, environment and ecology, human health and our social structures will bear the increasingly undisguised and festering scars of this careening train.”

For example, extreme weather events such as the August 2009 flooding of Cattaraugus Creek, impacting Silver Creek, Gowanda and Forestville, may become more frequent. Watch the videos below to see some of the aftermath.

The WNYEA white paper also looked at the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, nearly 400 “parts per million” and increasing by two ppm a year. The report states climate scientists believe that amount needs to drop to 275 ppm—where levels were before the Industrial Age—for a healthy atmosphere.

The Arctic has already surpassed the 400 ppm level, according to a May report from The Christian Science Monitor. In that article, Jim Butler, a global monitoring director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Lab, said the increase of CO2 in the Arctic is a reminder that “we haven’t fixed this and we’re still in trouble.”

The WNYEA white paper states: “Currently we are not even slowing down global emissions, although according to a new report issued by the US Energy Information Administration, in 2011 due to factors such as a poor economy and a glut of cheap natural gas, US energy related carbon emissions declined by 2.4 percent.”

“This report may not give a full picture, but it does suggest that effective alternative strategies can have an impact on at least US emissions.”

The white paper also mentions how climate change may increase the number of invasive species, from Emerald Ash Borer to zebra mussels.

“Can we make a difference still?” the white paper authors ask.

“It is difficult to say but if we understand what we do as humans to contribute to climate change, we may have a fighting chance. Future generations will have a quality of life that relies entirely on decisions we have made over the past century and the decisions we make in the next years.”

Update: The National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee released its draft climate assessment report today. Here is the section on the Northeast. The committee oversees the National Climate Assessment. The report specifically mentions Western New York once, stating that the region can expect an additional five or more days per year with temperatures above 95 degrees by 2050.

The report also mentions that warming in the Northeast will be highly dependent on global emissions of greenhouse gasses. If emissions continue on the increasing pace, the Northeast can expect warming of 4.5 to 10 degrees by 2080. If emissions are reduced “substantially” the projections drop to 3 to 6 degrees by 2080. Either way, the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves will increase, the report states.