Joco Opinion

Can Kansas state leaders help pull us back from the climate precipice?

Marcel Harmon
Marcel Harmon

It’s 2019, and we stand at the edge of a climate catastrophe precipice. No, it’s more like we’re desperately hanging off the edge.

We’re roughly one to three decades away from global warming reaching 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report released last October.

We have a few decades to minimize global extinction rates and our loss of biodiversity. To minimize losses of productivity in our coastal fisheries and agricultural lands — directly affecting our ability to feed ourselves.

To limit the loss of access to fresh water. To minimize further increases in disease, poverty, gross inequities and climate induced mass migrations. To limit the loss of cultural heritage and the additional trillions of dollars of global economic damage that will happen by 2100.

The picture for Kansas is equally bleak. We’re looking at aquifer depletion and reduced river flows according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency report, negatively impacting irrigation based farming, public water supplies and electric power generation. Extreme weather events will continue to increase, including town-killing F5 tornadoes and extreme heat waves and droughts that bring devastating prairie fires.

By 2050, the number of Kansas days above 100 degrees are expected to increase by a factor of four. Such extreme heat impacts human health, particularly for children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. It will continue exacerbating the urban heat island effect of our cities, pumping out additional greenhouse gases from the resulting increased use of air conditioning (assuming continued use of fossil fuels). The Weather Channel’s Climate Disruption Index predicts this will be particularly bad for Kansas City, ranking it fifth out of 25 cities examined.

A recent ClimateNexus report stated that Kansas farmers “could see their crop yields decline by nearly 24 percent by mid-century and by more than half by 2100.” Think of what that means for family farms and our rural communities — how many more might wither and die over the next two to three generations. And then there is the additional stress placed on institutions increasingly strained by the inevitable inland migration from the coasts.

Note the above discussion refers to “limiting” the devastating impacts of climate change, not stopping them. These detrimental changes are well under way.

And make no mistake: Individual choices to turn off lights, adjust thermostats or recycle won’t cut it. This is a multilevel tragedy requiring collective, coordinated action, from the community to the global level. That the burden for this change lies primarily with the individual is a myth created over the last several decades by elements of the corporate world, including the fossil fuel industry, the wealthy elite and their political allies.

So, what does this all mean for the 2019 Kansas legislative session? As both the impacts of and solutions to climate change cross cut all aspects of society and the greater world around us, every policy debate, every committee assignment and every funding decision should be partially framed relative to climate change.

Public education must be adequately and equitably funded to develop informed citizens and prepare future generations to meet the challenges of a changing climate. Infrastructure must be sustainably built and operated, and resilient to the coming changes. Land- and water-use legislation must reflect the need for sustainable practices that are also resilient.

In many ways, Kansas needs its own Green New Deal (though perhaps we should come up with a better name for it) — a movement to capture our imaginations and bring us together to meet this collective threat of our own making.

Fortunately, our new governor should be capable of leading in this direction. Unfortunately, though, the Legislature gained conservative seats last November, and many will need to hear messages like the following:

If you’re a current legislator or other state or community leader, or thinking of becoming one, and you’re still an anthropogenic climate change denier either in words or deeds, then please rethink your current “service” or desire to “serve.” We can’t afford your “leadership.”

Marcel Harmon, an anthropologist and engineer from Lawrence, leads the R&D services of BranchPattern, a high performance building consulting firm.