Reduce carbon emissions, but do more, as well

  • Article by: PAUL MOSS
  • Updated: February 25, 2013 - 9:27 AM

There are fairly simple steps to take while still trying to address emissions.

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At the western end of the Minnesota River near its origins in South Dakota, it's possible to envision how the landscape and the river looked more than a century ago. The Chippewa Prairie, 1,400 acres of protected land near Milan, MN.

In Bonnie Blodgett’s Feb. 17 column (“On pipeline, a betrayal may be delivered”), she referenced the president’s intent in the recent State of the Union speech to “prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change.”

She equated this with emergency shelters and mile-high dikes to help ride out wildfires and tsunamis. Blodgett was being a little facetious for effect, but there is a good point here for clarification.

 Actually, strategies to adapt to climate change go far beyond shelters and dikes, although these may indeed be important in some cases. Many approaches to climate adaptation actually can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as producing other environmental and economic benefits.

While it’s critical to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s actually also necessary to simultaneously prepare ourselves for the impacts of climate change. That’s because, regardless of how successful we are in reducing future emissions, some degree of climate change will result from what has already been sent into the atmosphere. Climate adaptation efforts can be seen as complementing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — not competing with them.

Many climate adaptation efforts are “no regrets” in that they have benefits whatever happens to our future climate. Here are a few:

Planting urban trees can help cool our communities through shade and evapotranspiration, helping to address extreme heat. Trees also can help absorb air pollutants, such as ozone, that are generated in hot weather. Trees break the impact of heavy precipitation, allow runoff to infiltrate into the ground, and remove impurities from storm water. They can help to reduce the need for energy in the summer, as well as making it more comfortable to walk and bike on hot days, when they are positioned near sidewalks and trails. Trees can help to increase home values and make commercial areas more enticing to customers.

Restoring wetlands is another beneficial adaptation. Wetlands absorb heavy rainfall and reduce potential flooding, while allowing water to infiltrate the soil, recharging groundwater. Wetlands also help improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat.

Using light-colored roofing materials can help to address extreme heat for property owners while also saving energy. When used on a large scale, a proliferation of lighter-colored roofs in a community can help mitigate the urban heat island effect — which is an added increase in temperature in built-up areas such as the Twin Cities that results from dark-colored buildings, dark pavement and less vegetation.

Yet another example is creating rain gardens. Rain gardens capture heavy precipitation and allow storm water to better infiltrate the ground instead of becoming potentially destructive runoff. Rain gardens also can help to recharge groundwater, as can provide habitat for butterflies and small wildlife.

Communities in Minnesota are starting to undertake adaptation practices, as are cities throughout the country. Minnesota state agencies are also starting to work on climate adaptation, in addressing extreme heat, flooding and wind damage.

Climate change is already here. We need to adapt — even as we continue to work to reduce carbon emissions.

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Paul Moss works at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he coordinates the Interagency Climate Adaptation Team, consisting of Minnesota state agencies working on adaptation responses.

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