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Recently a conference on environmental and energy policy was held at the Clinton Presidential Center to discuss some of the most important problems facing the environment of Arkansas and the nation. Subjects such as the decline in aquifers in eastern and southern Arkansas due to overuse by agricultural activities; the development of confined animal feeding operations (such as C&H Hog Farms in the Buffalo River watershed), the future of solar energy in Arkansas, and changes in environmental laws and regulations proposed or being implemented by the Trump administration were discussed before a crowd of some 200 people.

The last subject on the agenda was a panel discussion of climate change and what it meant for Arkansas. It was the middle of the afternoon, and it is common to see the crowd begin to yawn and diminish as people get a head start on their trips home for dinner. But not on this occasion. The audience stayed to the end, listening intently, signifying the importance of the subject and their interest in it. They left rewarded but shaken.

The audience was mostly middle-aged to older, educated and informed about environmental issues. It was not likely that any of them doubted the phenomenon called climate change or global warming really exists, and that man's current and past activities since the beginning of the industrial revolution have contributed to it. Yet even they were not prepared for what they heard about the current state of that phenomenon.

The panel that discussed climate change consisted of a scientist from the University of Michigan, the Arkansas state climatologist, and two men who dedicate their time working with Arkansans in solving local environmental problems, including the effects of climate change. The University of Michigan professor, who has studied climate change for years, was asked if he thought that the world had crossed the "tipping point."

A tipping point, in the context of climate change, is a point of no return when our climate system will be changed irreversibly. It is like the game children play with a seesaw: putting a heavy child on one end and seeing how many of his friends can get on the other end before their collective weight tips his end up. The professor said that he thought the earth had passed the tipping point. The other panelists agreed.

A stunned silence fell over the large conference hall. It was obvious that the audience didn't expect to hear that answer. And it's not surprising that the audience reacted in that manner.

The possibility that the earth was undergoing climate change first came to public attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the Reagan presidency in the 1980s and through the presidency of George H.W. Bush, the debate focused on whether climate change was actually occurring. Fearing the economic effects of regulation of greenhouse gases, the Reagan and Bush I administrations contended that there was not sufficient evidence of climate change to justify government action. It was only during the Clinton and subsequent administrations--until the current one--that climate change was officially recognized, and actions initiated to limit it.

Scientists and government have told us that if the nations of the world cut back greenhouse gas emissions by certain percentages or billions of tons per year, we might be able to avoid irreversible consequences: the tipping point. Such was the hope gained from a multi-national treaty called the Kyoto Protocol entered into in 1997, and the recent Paris Climate Accord of 2016, approved by 195 nations, from which President Trump announced earlier this year his intention to withdraw the United States.

Human nature is such that a cataclysmic event is usually required for us to react to an environmental danger, particularly one that we cannot see, taste or smell. We have a mentality that if it isn't in our backyard, or doesn't affect our pocketbook or our sensibilities, we don't care.

Climate change is slow, and the average person isn't likely to be aware that the average temperatures are gradually and imperceptibly climbing higher, the earth's storms are gradually growing more intense and violent, the ice caps and glaciers are melting in far-off locations, the oceans are slowly rising, causing increased flooding to shorelines and coastal cities, the earth's heat waves are getting hotter, and the droughts are lasting longer.

Because these events are gradual and have to a lesser degree always been part of nature, we usually soon forget them or shrug them off as anomalies, isolated occurrences not indicative of great change in the earth's climate. And even if they're occurring, they're not in our backyard. Yet.

We also hear representatives of the Manufactured Doubt Industry questioning the science on climate change. As a result, only about 50 percent of the general public think that scientists have reached a consensus on human-caused climate change. And, even if we do notice the changes that are occurring and believe the science, we think that we will be all right because treaties are being entered into and the government is--or was until recently--finally doing something about the situation.

So when the panel of scientists sitting in the Clinton Center in Little Rock that Friday afternoon said that the conditions causing the changes to the earth's climate had passed the tipping point, it was something of a shock. One woman, during a question and answer session, said that it depressed her to hear it. Others nodded their heads in agreement.

We should all be depressed to hear it and moved to action, unless you like unseasonably hot and severe weather and want more of that for your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and generations thereafter. The 1980s and 1990s were the hottest in 400 years, and that upward trend continues unabated.

Eleven of the past 12 years have been among the dozen warmest since 1850. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts an average temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. That doesn't sound like much, but think of higher average summer temperatures in the 11-degree range or above as the new norm. Constant average temperatures in that range can have a devastating effect on our environment and lives.

The official high temperature on Nov. 2 was over 83 degrees, which tied the record set in 2012. That's just weather, but if such temperatures are common over a period of time, that's climate change. Not too bad for November, but wait until next summer. Unless we take some drastic measures, better get used to it.

Richard H. Mays is a Heber Springs attorney whose practice includes environmental law. He is president of the Arkansas Environmental Defense Alliance Inc.

Editorial on 11/12/2017

Print Headline: The tipping point of climate change

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  • Jfish
    November 12, 2017 at 6:38 a.m.

    Good column Richard, this statement pretty much sums it up, Human nature is such that a cataclysmic event is usually required for us to react to an environmental danger, particularly one that we cannot see, taste or smell. We have a mentality that if it isn't in our backyard, or doesn't affect our pocketbook or our sensibilities, we don't care. In Arkansas, if it is related to agriculture (aquifer depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus in our streams, wetland regulations, burning rice fields, etc.) and you question it, you are labeled as being against farmers. Others say it is none of their business and many say they just do not have the time to worry about these issues. So, in the end, there is usually only a very small percentage of the population that is concerned about long-term environmental impacts locally, and far less when you talk globally.