What Global Warming Means for Oregon
From intense storms to mild winters, many Oregonians have noticed that our weather has seemed a bit weird lately. Unfortunately, scientists in Oregon and across the U.S. warn that if we keep polluting the way we are now, global warming will bring even more weird and extreme weather, along with more dangerous smog pollution and even the extinction of some plants and animals. The good news is that we know how to make big cuts in the carbon pollution fueling the problem—and Oregon is already headed in the right direction in some areas. Below is a rundown of the problem, why it matters for Oregon, and what you can do to help.
What Global Warming Means for Oregon
The problem: Carbon pollution is fueling global warming
The science of global warming starts with the burning of fossil fuels, specifically in vehicles fueled by Big Oil and at coal-fired power plants owned by utilities like PacifiCorp. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. This carbon pollution collects in the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. That causes the earth’s temperature to rise, which triggers a variety of mostly negative results for Oregon and the planet.
And temperatures are definitely rising. Already, March 2012 was the hottest March on record for the continental U.S., 2010 tied for the hottest year, and the decade of 2001-2010 was the hottest 10-year period on record. The evidence that humans are warming the globe is only strengthening; in the words of a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small…This is the case for the conclusion that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
The results: Extreme weather, air pollution and more
As the planet warms, scientists and other experts warn that Oregon will likely experience a variety of negative consequences:
• Extreme storms & hurricanes: Higher temperatures lead to more major rainstorms and heavy snowstorms for two reasons. First, warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation, so more water in our lakes and oceans becomes airborne. Second, warmer air can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, the atmosphere will have more moisture to work with and so heavy downpours and more intense hurricanes are more likely—as is more of the flooding that often results from these storms. Already, the number of extreme precipitation events increased 24 percent over the continental U.S. between 1948 and 2006, and at least 14 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage hit the U.S. in 2011 alone, many of which involved devastating floods.
• Smog pollution: Ozone “smog” pollution is the pollution that hangs over our cities on many of the hottest summer days. Since heat is a key ingredient in the formation of smog (pollution from cars, trucks and power plants is the other), which triggers asthma attacks and a variety of other respiratory problems, scientists predict that we’ll see even more smog in a warming world. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that higher levels of ground-level ozone due to rising temperatures in 2020 could lead to 2.8 million more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, leading to 900,000 additional missed days of school. That’s bad news for all of us, but especially the 267,199 adults and 40,507 kids in Oregon who suffer from asthma.
• Heat waves: Just as we can expect average temperatures to rise in a warming world, we can also expect to see more intense and longer-lasting heat waves in Oregon and across the country. In 2009, a record-breaking heat wave topping 100°F scorched Oregon. These heat waves can threaten the health and well-being of even healthy individuals, as happened in 2011 when at least six high school football players and one coach died during or shortly after practices held in southern states during a period of extreme summer heat.
•Drought: Even though we’re likely to see more precipitation fall when it does rain or snow, it’s also the case that a warming world will likely result in longer dry spells in between rainfalls for some parts of the country. Combined with high temperatures, these dry spells can lead to drought. During the second half of the 20th century, drought became more common in parts of the northern Rockies, the Southwest and the Southeast, and less common in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast. Droughts can wreak havoc in many ways, from lower crop yields for farmers to the threat of dangerous wildfires. Oregon is exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of drought because its ecosystems and its economy significantly depend on water. Snow pack, for example, is already down an average of about 30 percent and spring runoff comes earlier, leaving lower flows in summer months. Lower stream flows increase the likelihood of water quality problems, and affect agriculture, municipal water systems, fish and wildlife, water-based recreation, and summer hydropower sales. Combined with expected population growth and changes in water availability nationally, Oregon faces a severe resource allocation problem that will challenge the whole system of water rights.
•Loss of plant & animal species: While you’ve probably heard about the very real threat that global warming poses to the survival of polar bears and other arctic species, other species closer to home could also be threatened in a warming world. For instance, with stress from rising water temperatures in Oregon’s streams, salmon and other coldwater species will suffer. Vineyards in the Rogue Valley that produce Oregon’s marquee pinot noir grape have high climate sensitivity and changes in seasonal growing conditions threaten Oregon’s viticulture. Oregon’s forestland is at risk as well. Douglas fir forests, one of Oregon’s signature ecosystems, have withstood naturally-occurring extremes for millennia, but global warming means extremes will become more frequent, common, and harsher making them susceptible to debilitating fires and insect infestations, altering Oregon’s landscape and critical wildlife habitat forever.
•Sea level rise: As warming temperatures cause a thermal expansion of sea water as well as the melting of glaciers and ice caps, sea level rises. Sea level has risen by nearly 8 inches since 1870, with the rate of sea level rise increasing in recent years. One recent study projects that by 2100 the rise could reach between 2.5 and 6 feet. This rise in sea level not only threatens to inundate the many low-lying communities and thousands of acres of land along our coasts and tidally influenced rivers, but also increase the punch packed by hurricanes and other coastal storms. Oregon's coastal communities have already begun to experience the effects of global warming in the form of higher wave heights, more powerful winter storms, and major ocean shoreline erosion.
The solution: Cut carbon pollution, promote clean energy
Thankfully, we know what we have to do to slow and stop global warming. To give ourselves the best chance of protecting future generations from the worst consequences of global warming, scientists have said the U.S. and other developed countries need to cut our carbon emissions so that by 2020 we’re emitting 25-40 percent less carbon into the air than we were in 1990.
That’s a steep goal, but in Oregon and across the country, we’re already starting to move in the right direction. We know we can reduce emissions of the carbon pollution by cutting down on energy waste through energy efficiency measures, and developing cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. We can make our buildings much more energy efficient so that they’re demanding less energy from coal-fired power plants. We can make our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, and expand public transportation systems so that more people can get where they’re going without using their cars at all.
Together, all of these things add up. A recent Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, found that by adopting a suite of clean energy policies at the local, state and federal levels, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels)—representing a significant down payment toward the pollution reductions called for by scientists.
What you can do
There are many things Oregonians can do in our everyday lives to help reduce our carbon footprint:
• A home energy audit is a great place to start, as the auditor will walk through your home with you and point out the ways in which you can cut energy waste. The Energy Trust of Oregon and Clean Energy Works Oregon are both resources for information on reducing energy use and connecting with renewable energy services in Oregon.
• Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), which not only use less energy but can also reduce your lighting costs by up to 75 percent. When shopping for larger appliances and electronics, look for the EnergyStar label to help you choose the most efficient models.
• Simple maintenance: Keep radiators and refrigerator coils clean and free of dust, keep the lint trap clean in your dryer, and clean or replace the filters in your furnace, water heather, and/or air conditioner to help all of these products use less energy.
• Go solar: Many Oregon homeowners are discovering the benefits of installing solar panels on their roofs. Get in touch with an organization like Solar Oregon or Energy Trust of Oregon, or a local solar energy installer, to find out if solar could work for you.
• Support wind power: Some utilities offer customers the opportunity to pay a bit more for wind power on their monthly bill, which helps to support the development of wind power for all of us.
• Drive less or carpool: Explore the public transportation options available near you, or consider carpooling with a coworker or friends. Even if you use these options only once or twice a week, every avoided car trip means less carbon pollution.
• Eat local, and eat less meat: Producing a pound of meat creates far more carbon pollution than producing a pound of vegetables, and the transport of food creates carbon pollution as well. So consider ditching the burger at McDonald’s for a hearty salad from the farmer’s market.
• Speak up: Letting your friends and family—and your elected officials—know that you care about this issue and are working to do your part to solve it will help convince more people to get involved and achieve even bigger cuts in pollution.
What state leaders can do
State leaders can help continue Oregon’s leadership role in tackling global warming by building on several success stories we already have in place:
• Cap Oregon’s carbon pollution: In 2007, Oregon leaders set goals of reducing carbon emissions to achieve levels that are 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. While Oregon has made headway with some landmark policies to reduce carbon pollution, without additional policy action, Oregon is at risk of falling short of meeting its 2050 target. We can do better. We should continue pushing for the adoption of enforceable limits on carbon pollution and a price on carbon at the state level.
• Renewable energy: Oregon is blessed with a bounty of clean, renewable energy options. Our renewable energy standard has helped put Oregon on a path to getting 25% of its electricity from clean, renewable energy by 2025. Since 2009, Oregon has installed over 2,300 megawatts of wind, solar and geothermal that's improved air quality and limited the emissions of soot and carbon pollution. Oregon should require all of our utilities to meet the standard, and strengthen the standard to move Oregon to even more clean and renewable energy. We also need to prevent attempts to create loopholes and exemptions that would undermine the state's environmental goals and clean energy targets.
• Oregon’s bright solar future: Oregon has vast untapped potential for solar energy. Even in the often cloudy Willamette Valley, the sun still shines for far longer over the course of the year than it does in Germany, which has the world’s largest solar market. While Oregon’s renewable electricity standard is a good start, to achieve its solar potential, Oregon should set a statewide goal of getting 10% of our energy from solar by 2025 including 3,000 megawatts of total distributed solar capacity by 2025, enough to power hundreds of thousands of households. And the state should adopt policies which help increase access to solar for citizens, businesses and local government.
• Get off oil: Burning fossil fuels in our cars and trucks, and other forms of transportation makes up about 33 percent of Oregon's global warming pollution. That’s why in 2006, Oregon became a leader in by adopting clean cars standards that ensured more stringent pollution controls than federal regulations, limiting carbon pollution from tailpipes. These standards will cut carbon pollution, improve vehicle fuel efficiency and save consumers money at the pump. Oregon should build on our history of leadership on Clean Cars by adopting policies like the Zero Emissions Vehicle Standard to put more plug-in electric cars on the road. The next action Oregon needs to take is ensuring the strongest Clean Fuels Standard is passed, which will make our transportation fuels cleaner over time.
• Better buildings: Oregon has long been a leader in helping save money and solve global warming by reducing the amount of energy we use in the buildings where we live and work every day. In fact, Oregon was the first state to include energy standards in a statewide building code, back in 1974. Oregon’s Residential Tax Credit program (RETC) has been in place since the late 1990s, helping make the transition to clean energy more affordable for Oregon's home-owners. The most recent building energy codes require substantial advances in the energy efficiency of new construction. Oregon leaders should continue to lead by establishing even higher standards for new buildings.
What Washington, D.C., can do
Local and state actions are critical to achieving big cuts in carbon pollution, but we also need action from Congress and the White House as well. Thankfully, several historic initiatives are under way:
• Clean car standards: This summer the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation are finalizing new fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for new cars and light trucks sold in model years 2017-2025. Once in place, these standards are expected to cut annual carbon emissions by 280 million metric tons in 2030, which is equivalent to the pollution created by 70 coal-fired power plants in a year.
• Carbon pollution standards for power plants: EPA is also developing the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new power plants, and may soon begin developing standards for existing power plants. Given that power plants are the largest single source of carbon pollution, these historic standards will be critical to helping the U.S. tackle global warming.
• Clean energy tax incentives: Tapping into our vast clean energy resources—including the power of the wind, the heat of the sun and the energy leaking from drafty windows in our homes and businesses—will decrease our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Federal tax incentives have played a critical role in jumpstarting and growing the clean energy industries, such that the price of wind has dropped 90 percent since 1980, and from 2010 to 2011, jobs in the solar industry grew 10 times faster than the rest of the economy—but now these programs are under attack. Now is not the time to pull the rug out from under these growing industries. Washington should renew and extend clean energy incentives to keep driving down costs for clean energy.
• Lead by example: The Obama administration has challenged all federal agencies to develop plans to reduce their emissions. With agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development leading the way, all agencies are now actively implementing their plans by adopting measures; such as improving energy efficiency of buildings, installing renewable energy and improving the efficiency of their transportation fleets and the fuels that they use.
Reducing carbon pollution to levels that ensure a safe and stable climate is an incredible challenge with far-reaching consequences for our planet and future generations. Yet in our communities, in Oregon and in Washington, we are making exciting progress in the race to solve global warming. Be part of the solution. Learn more. Share what you learn. And most importantly, take action to reduce carbon pollution in whatever ways you can.