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May 17. 2014 11:24PM

State stepping up to address climate change predictions


The graphic from the National Climate Assessment shows projected increases in the number of days with temperatures over 90 degrees in the Northeast. (Image source: nca2014.globalchange.gov)

It's not a pretty picture.

Expect more heat waves, violent floods and nor'easters; a higher incidence of Lyme disease, West Nile virus and waterborne illnesses; damage to crops, fisheries and forests; and greater damage to roads, power lines and bridges from coastal and river flooding.

All that could be in store for New Hampshire, according to the third U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) recently released by the federal government.

Its conclusions came as no surprise to leaders in New Hampshire.

Former Gov. John Lynch signed an executive order on Dec. 6, 2007, establishing a task force to "develop a climate change action plan" for the state. Twenty-nine leaders from government, business, research and conservation groups met throughout 2008 and released the New Hampshire Climate Action Plan in March 2009.

Thomas Burack, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services, chaired the group. He says New Hampshire was ahead of much of the country on this issue.

"We live very close to the land here, and we live very close to the weather patterns here," he said. "And I think that we have had an understanding and really a sophistication about these issues for longer than perhaps many others . "

The federal climate report, Burack said, "really confirms and is consistent with a lot of what we have been seeing and what we understand the data and the science to be telling us."

Weather patterns change

The Northeast region has already seen a greater increase in extreme precipitation than other regions, according to the NCA. And that will have impacts on public health, agriculture, transportation, communications and energy systems here, it concluded.

New Hampshire's action plan proposed 10 strategies for responding to climate change including: more energy efficiency in buildings, increased use of renewable energy sources, reducing vehicle emissions, and protecting the natural resources that can mitigate some of the damage.

"In all these different areas, things have been accomplished . by a lot of folks across the state who saw a need to really try to change things and make a difference," Burack said.

He points to New Hampshire joining other Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and setting strict standards for energy efficiency in state buildings.

The NCA calls for states to prepare for the impacts of climate change even as they work to reduce the greenhouse gases driving it.

Will Abbott, vice president for policy and reservation stewardship at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, explained why that's critical.

Nature can only absorb about half of the greenhouse gases currently going into the atmosphere, said Abbott, who was on the 2008 task force. "Mother Earth can only digest 50 percent of what we're putting up.

"So there has to be some combination of reducing our total emissions, and adapting to the increased concentration of these gases in the atmosphere that are having a warming effect," he said.

Planning has begun

That kind of planning is already taking place.

The state Department of Transportation recently completed a draft climate change action plan that identifies vulnerable assets and recommends "adaptive strategies." It identifies actions to deal with extreme precipitation events, sea-level rise and coastal storm surges; warming winters and changes in freeze/thaw cycles; and general temperature increases.

Bill Cass, director of project development at DOT, said planners have been considering the risks of extreme weather events for the past decade or so, even if they didn't call it climate change per se.

The catastrophic 2005 flood in Alstead, caused by a culvert that backed up and then failed, and other flooding events since, have been catalysts for change, he said.

DOT engineers now replace aging culverts with larger-diameter structures or sometimes even small bridges, Cass said. Planners also consider the wider watershed area and recent precipitation data.

Driving factor

A potential rise in sea level and storm surges was a factor in the redesign of the Sarah Long Bridge in Portsmouth, Cass said. Engineers raised the machine room to keep it above a future water level. "We want that to be a bridge that's there for at least 100 years," he said.

Abbott noted greenhouse gases are produced, in about equal thirds, by electricity generation, transportation and buildings (mostly heat). In New Hampshire, he said, there are "clear indicators that we're making progress on all three of these fronts."

The 2009 state plan called for formation of a public/private partnership, the New Hampshire Energy and Climate Collaborative. In 2012, that group issued a benchmark report that measured how well the state was implementing its energy, environmental and economic development goals.

It reported mixed results.

Energy demand in New Hampshire was down, and so was the combustion of fossil fuels. But while the number of vehicle miles traveled was down and land conservation was up, the proposed expansion of public transportation had not materialized.

Abbott likens the response to climate change to how differently people react when told they have a life-threatening illness.

"Some people want to know everything there is to know about the disease so that they can assure their longest survival. Other people are more fatalistic and say well, what's going to happen is going to happen . And some people will deny they have a disease and attack the doctor for suggesting they're not healthy."

Ski industry

Under the worst-case climate change scenarios, New Hampshire would lose its ski industry, Abbott said. And, he said, "You could see the beaches only if you were scuba diving."

"If that's what's coming, then we'll figure out a way to adapt to it," he said. "But the point is, there are things we can do today that can actually influence how rapidly these changes occur."

Abbott believes real change will be driven by the marketplace. "Government policy is an important ingredient, but the more people can see economic benefit in making the right choices, the more effective the total response to this challenge is going to be," he said.

He already sees it happening; more people are driving fuel-efficient vehicles and reducing their use of electricity and fossil fuels.

"The point is, you've got to start somewhere," he said. "The best place to start is right at home, and in New Hampshire, more people are doing that."

The New Hampshire Climate Action Plan is online at des.nh.gov under "hot topics." The federal report is at nca2014.globalchange.gov.

swickman@unionleader.com


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