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Stevens Forward: Making Stevens County carbon neutral

Information from NASA indicates that cardon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has increased dramatically in the last 60 years. Image courtesy of NASA.

By Don Reicosky

Stevens Forward has set several goals to enhance the quality of life for the people of Stevens County. One of these destiny drivers is to be carbon neutral by 2015. Understanding the five W's (what, when, where, why, and who) of climate change will help us learn about being carbon neutral and help teach us what to do to help address climate change issues. The editors of The New Oxford American Dictionary made "carbon neutral" the word of the year for 2006, however, I am concerned most people don't know what carbon neutral really means. All of us have contributed to the cause of climate change and all of us can contribute to solving the social, economic and environmental problems caused by climate change. The objective of this article is to help provide a better understanding of the climate change issues and being carbon neutral and to educate the public on what needs to be done and to solicit volunteers to join a team to inform and address the issues. Farmers, citizens, scientists and policy makers in Stevens County and around the world have mutual interests in improving scientific understanding of the complex interrelationships between the carbon cycle and the global climate system. We must work together to protect and use our resources for our quality of life and for that of our grandchildren.

Climate change is top of mind for many executives. Media attention is high, political discussions are intense, valuations for clean-technology companies have increased considerably, and the corporate carbon footprint has become an important topic among senior managers. Apart from talk, what must companies do to address climate change, and how can they profit from what they do? Along the same lines we as individuals must ask what we in Stevens County can do to address climate change. What can we do to decrease energy cost, increase food security and maintain our quality of life?

Education and understanding the five W's of climate change is a first step:

W1: What is

climate change?

Climate change is a slight increase in temperature due to the greenhouse gases heat trapping characteristics of our atmosphere. The cause of the increase in temperature is attributed to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, particularly carbon dioxide that has increased nearly 30 percent over the last century (from 280 parts per million to over 380 parts per million). Much of this temperature increase is attributed to our burning of fossil fuels. While the increase in temperature has been erratic and small, the continued trend is of concern. Visual evidence for climate change is presented the photos of glaciers shrinking, snowpack on the mountains disappearing, increases in sea level, more coastal erosion, bleached coral in the oceans, more intense floods, permafrost is melting, drought, and fires and the extended growing seasons in northern latitudes. While there are a lot of people who do not accept the climate is changing, the scientific evidence is rapidly accumulating that the observed extreme weather events and extreme weather variability are indicators of climate change.

W2: Why is climate

change important?

Simply put, our future quality of life depends on it. The previously mentioned weather variability extremes will likely cause a shift in agricultural production areas and threaten our food security. Areas with adequate rainfall may change to drier areas that will change the cropping systems and limit the potential yields. While these changes will likely be very subtle, they may provide some social instability and cropping failures. This coupled with the current global population of approximately 6.7 billion people increasing at the rate of 1.2 percent per year could leave many people with empty stomachs. With only a finite amount of land for agricultural production, we must use the best conservation efforts to preserve and protect our soils for sustainable food production. We will be relying on a few responsible land managers to maintain our food supply. This says nothing about climate change posing a lot of risk to the economy.

W3: Why is climate change happening?

The cause of the increase in temperature is attributed to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, particularly carbon dioxide that has increased nearly 30 percent over the last century (from 280 parts per million to over 380 parts per million). Greenhouse gases are transparent to sunlight but retain heat, warming the atmosphere. Other agricultural greenhouse gases include methane and nitrous oxide that have larger global warming potentials than carbon dioxide. Much of the increase greenhouse gas concentrations is attributed to our burning of fossil fuels. While the increase in temperature has been erratic and small, the continued increasing trend is of concern.

W4: Where is climate

change happening?

Climate change is a global problem happening all around the world impacting both developed and developing countries. The complexity of the global nature of this problem is such that it will take a global effort to implement workable solutions. In the tundra, thawing permafrost will allow new shrubs and trees to take root. In the Great Plains of the United States, grasslands will likely become forests. And New England's fiery fall foliage will eventually fade as maple and beech forests shift north toward cooler temperatures. The place to start addressing the issue , andis with our individual activity in our homes and integrate up to the city level, the county level, the regional level, the state level, the national level and ultimately around the world. We must understand that what we put in the atmosphere will move around the globe and have impacts not immediately apparent to us. Similarly, people in Europe and China releasing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will impact us. Influences in the atmosphere are global in nature because the atmosphere engulfs the earth on which we live and as a result becomes a serious global issue. We all must work together to solve our global problems. While many of our global neighbors may be thousands of miles away, we must think like they live next door because the sum of our impacts on the environment affects all of us.

W5: Who will climate change impact?

Climate change will impact every living creature on earth and us in Stevens County. The 3 billion people who live in poverty around the world will be hardest hit by climate change and ironically, the world's poorest are also the least responsible for climate change. The poor are more dependent on natural resources and have less of an ability to adapt to a changing climate. Diseases, declining crop yields and natural disasters are just a few of the impacts of climate change that could devastate the world's most vulnerable communities. Climate change will impact agriculture, the economic foundation of Stevens County. Higher temperatures and changes in precipitation result in pressure on yields from corn and soybeans grown in the area. Biological impacts on crop yields spread through the economic system resulting in reduced production, higher crop and meat prices, and a reduction in cereal consumption. This reduction means reduced calorie intake and increased childhood malnutrition.

Inevitably, in going about our daily lives, commuting, sheltering our families, and eating each of us contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Yet, there are many small things each of us, as individuals, can do to reduce our carbon emissions. The choices we make in our homes, our travel, the food we eat, and what we buy and throw away all influence our carbon footprint and can help ensure a stable climate for future generations.

In summary, if we in Stevens County are to become carbon neutral by 2015, we must understand the concerns associated with climate change. Our standard of living and agricultural productivity has been primarily based on the use of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere faster than they can be removed from the atmosphere. This means we must understand the impact of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide that contributes about 81 percent of the greenhouse effect. If we are expected to better manage our carbon, then we must measure the carbon used in our everyday activities. In short, to manage carbon, we must measure carbon. Through minimizing the carbon released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, we can use conservation techniques to minimize our impact by maintaining a near low carbon or a carbon neutral lifestyle. We can take action without sacrificing a significant level of health or comfort. We have all contributed to the cause and now it's time to contribute to the solution.

If you're interested in participating in a volunteer effort to understand what it means to be carbon neutral through developing educational activities and problem solutions, feel free to contact any of the members of Stevens Forward. For those interested in pursuing more carbon details such as calculating "carbon footprints" for our daily activities, our agricultural production systems, our towns and ultimately our county, please feel free to contact or leave a message for Don Reicosky at 320-598-2069 (home) and e-mail or Carolyn Peterson, Stevens Forward Coordinator, at 320-585-6700 and e-mail