Naturally occurring greenhouse gases have been warming the Earth for millions of years. Without these naturally occurring greenhouse gases, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), the Earth’s climate, which is the average of temperatures taken across the globe over a number of years, would be 0° Fahrenheit (F) instead of the 59°F that we currently enjoy. However, since the 1850s with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mankind has discharged slightly more than one trillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in addition to the naturally occurring greenhouse gases. Coupled with changes in land use, this vast increase in greenhouse gases is warming the atmosphere and changing the Earth’s climate.
The changing climate is projected to have a significant impact on the Allegheny Highlands. For example:
- Warming temperatures. The Forest Service projects a 7.8°F increase in climate temperature by the end of the century in Central Appalachia under a continued high emissions scenario with the number of days above 95°F doubling by 2050.
- Changing precipitation patterns: The Forest Service projects a modest increase in total precipitation by the end of the century under a high emission scenario. However, they also project a change in when precipitation occurs with increases in fall, winter and spring, and a significant decrease in rain during the summer months (-4 inches, a 48 percent decrease).
- Degradation of coldwater fisheries: According to the Friends of Blackwater, Eastern Brook Trout are already gone from a third of their former homes in Appalachia, and other reports have found that suitable habitat in the Highlands for brook trout may disappear altogether by the end of the century under a high emissions scenario.
Climate change is a world-wide problem. Projected global impacts include sea level rise; melting glaciers around the world and melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica; more intense and more numerous wildfires in the Western United States, Australia, Siberia and the Amazon; increases in the severity of hurricanes; as well as droughts in parts of the world reducing food production that could trigger mass migrations.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) finds that climate change is real, that its impacts are already occurring and will increase in severity unless meaningful action is taken, and that mankind’s impact on the atmosphere is a major contributor to climate change.
The WVHC finds that in considering solutions to address the climate change emergency, we should first do no harm. Old-growth forest and other timber stands that are currently sequestering significant amounts of carbon dioxide should be preserved and protected as much as possible so that their CO2 remains sequestered and not reemitted into the atmosphere. Additionally, the WVHC will continue its strong support and action of planting red spruce trees and other species in the Highlands and in other locations. Trees are an important mechanism to take already emitted CO2 out of the atmosphere.
However, preserving trees, even old-growth forest, is not adequate as the sole means of addressing the climate change crisis. Meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, is essential. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recommended that global CO2 emissions be reduced by 45 percent by 2035, and that the world reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The WVHC endorses these emission reduction targets, and will support international agreements or treaties that move the world toward achieving these benchmarks.
Nationally, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a variety of ways: through a traditional regulatory approach such as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, or through a cap-and-trade initiative, or through a carbon fee and dividend initiative, or through a Green New Deal-styled program. For the WVHC how emissions reductions occur is less important than assuring that significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions actually do occur; and occur as quickly as possible.
Any Congressional action to address climate change should include a “just transition” to ensure that those who will be disproportionately impacted by the transition to a low-carbon economy, in particular coal miners and coal mining communities, are provided adequate resources in order to make this necessary transition.
Accordingly, the WVHC Board of Directors will evaluate all climate change legislation being considered by Congress against these benchmarks: will this proposal reduce national CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2035; will it achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2050; and does it provide for a just transition.
As part of the global effort to reduce CO2, the WVHC will continue its historic role of protecting and expanding the forest of the Allegheny Highlands.