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Other Views: Move forward on climate change

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Don Waller & Jonathan Patz
July 2, 2013

To an outsider, Wisconsin might seem a state divided by differences. We have a proud agricultural heritage, yet manufacturing provides our financial base. Our diverse and varied landscape includes urban architecture, old-growth forests, prairies and dairy farms, all serving vital and important roles. We have intense political ideologies with passionate points of view on both the left and right. Even our climate reflects a state filled with contradictions—as it has not been changing in a uniform fashion.

Historic records show that while the state as a whole has warmed by 1.1 degree since 1950, spring and winter have warmed more significantly than the fall and summer. Though our statewide average winter temperatures have increased 2.5 degrees, our average fall temperatures have remained fairly constant. Some parts of our state, such as the northwest, have experienced large shifts in average temperatures. Others, such as the northeast, have experienced less pronounced changes.

Changes in our precipitation also vary by season with large increases occurring in the fall and large decreases occurring during the summer (in general, if not this one). The northern part of our state is becoming drier, while places such as Madison are becoming wetter. This variation leads residents in different parts of our state to worry about different things—such as droughts and intermittent floods in our southern agricultural lands and less snow and lower lake levels in the north.

Years of careful study have led our state's climatologists and Wisconsin's Institute for Climate Change Information to a remarkably detailed picture of just how Wisconsin's climate has already changed. They also have worked hard to develop forecasts for just how it is likely to change in the future. In fact, our state's climate experts lead the nation in the accuracy and geographic detail in these retro- and forecasts to the point where their models are now used for all of the United States east of the Rockies.

As scientists dedicated to understanding the causes and consequences of these changes in climate, we understand that our state will continue to experience further climatic change, especially warming. This warming trend will deliver some benefits, such as longer shipping and growing seasons. However, it also will carry significant costs to human, animal and ecosystem health.

We can expect an increase in the length and effects of our seasonal allergy season, further increases in tick and mosquito-borne diseases, the loss of several native plant and animal species and added stress on drinking and agricultural water systems. By 2055, our children and grandchildren will experience a climate rather foreign from the one our parents and grandparents knew.

Although these changes are, in part, controlled by Earth's natural cycles, the human contribution to climate change is real and significant. Given that we can't change how the sun radiates or how air flows in the upper atmosphere, it behooves us to understand immediate steps we can take to both minimize the part we play in changing the climate and maximize our ability to adapt to the new world unfolding around us.

To adapt to more severe and frequent storms, for example, we will need to upgrade our stormwater systems and/or reduce runoff and increase water infiltration. To allow native species to migrate and adapt, we should be generous in protecting wild spaces, particularly as contiguous habitats along streams, rivers and other areas that act as movement corridors.

We can protect air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting energy efficiency and calling on state and federal leaders to set carbon standards for existing power plants. Actually, the health benefits from such measures can save the state a substantial amount of money from avoided health costs attributed to air pollution.

We can protect our farms by adopting smart land-use and soil management practices to retain farmland, reduce runoff and erosion and enhance the quality of our streams, lakes and rivers.

Finally, we can gain some measure of control as engaged citizens by educating ourselves and each other about the science, risks and benefits associated with climate change.

Though Wisconsin's seeming contradictions often mystify outsiders, those of us who call Wisconsin home know that there can be strength and beauty in our diversity. We can hold a hammer in one hand and fishing pole in the other. We know that nonconformity helps our state grow and thrive.

Now is the time to take our contrasting experiences of climate change and, like our state motto suggests, show the world what it means to move forward.

Don Waller, PhD, is the John T. Curtis professor and chairman of Botany at UW-Madison. Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, is professor and director of the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison. Readers can contact Waller at dmwaller@wisc.edu or Patz at patz@wisc.edu.



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