New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
Have we reached a tipping point on climate change?
Shawne Wickham – August 28, 2022
Aug. 28—Ray Sprague doesn’t try to convince anyone that climate change is real. But the second-generation Plainfield farmer has seen the evidence during his own lifetime that, for him, ends any debate.
It’s not just that the fall frost now comes almost a month later than it used to.
“We’re not having winters,” he said.
Sure, New Hampshire still has cold weather, but the Upper Valley doesn’t get the “straight-through” snow it used to, Sprague said. “When we were kids, it was the end of November, early December until the stuff melted in March or April,” he said. “That doesn’t happen.”- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-10-1/html/r-sf-flx.html
Sprague is not an old-timer; he’s 39.
For decades, scientists have been warning about the effects of climate change.
Lethal floods and wildfires. Drought and violent storms.
Crop failures and loss of habitat leading to food shortages and higher prices. Invasive insects and the new diseases they bring with them.
Rising tides that destroy coastal homes and contaminate drinking water. Warmer winters that threaten the ski industry on which New Hampshire’s tourist economy depends.
But those scholarly, data-driven reports about climate change largely have been ignored by a public busy with more pressing personal and pocketbook matters — and downright rejected by some who believe it’s a hoax.
Lately, however, that may be changing.
Time to change
Have we reached a tipping point?
“I hope we’re at the tipping point, because things need to change,” said Mary Stampone, New Hampshire’s state climatologist. “We still have time to do something about it.”
There’s some evidence. More of our neighbors are putting up solar panels, installing heat pumps and buying electric cars.
TV meteorologists now regularly report the connection between natural disasters and climate change.
American automakers have embraced the transition to electric vehicles — even the iconic Ford F150 and Chevy Silverado trucks soon will have electric versions. New Hampshire auto dealers say they can’t get enough vehicles to meet demand. And California regulators plan to ban gas-powered cars by 2035.
Meanwhile, a divided Congress recently passed the first significant climate-change legislation, which will provide consumer rebates and tax credits for energy-saving measures and spur investments in clean-energy infrastructure.
Public understanding and acceptance of climate change are more widespread today, and there’s a reason for that, said Stampone, an associate professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire.
“What climate scientists were predicting 20 years ago, we’re actually seeing happen now,” she said. “The storms are getting worse, we’re seeing more damage, and it’s hitting more people because we have ever more populated coastlines. More people are in the way of worse storms, so more people are being affected by it.
“That’s an unfortunate way people tend to change their minds,” Stampone said.
Effects already felt
Climate is not the same as weather — but they are linked, Stampone said.
“Climate is the system that drives day-to-day weather,” she explained. “Those larger-scale patterns manifest as short-term weather.”
In many places, the effects of climate change are already hitting people’s wallets, she said.
“There are places that you cannot get insurance,” she said. And in flood-prone areas, she said, “you pay through the roof.”
In seaside communities, Stampone said, “It’s starting to hit home.”
“Whole towns are dealing with this,” she said. “Property values are affected, taxes are affected, and it’s a spiral.”
Extreme weather is making the already difficult job of family farming even tougher, Plainfield’s Sprague said.
This year, he said, “We’re really dry. We’ve had less than 5 inches of rain since the beginning of June.”
And when it does rain, he said, it’s no longer the day-long soaking rains that crops need. Instead, he said, “If you’re going to pick up rain, it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be hard for it to soak in.”
Last year, it was just the opposite. “July a year ago, we had almost 20 inches of rain in a month.”
The volatility makes it difficult to plan, Sprague said. “Are we going to be super dry or are we going to have crazy, high-intensity storms, and lose crops to flooding in the middle of droughts?” he said.
At his family’s Edgewater Farm, they now plant some crops in “tunnels,” a sort of temporary greenhouse, to try to avoid the worst effects of severe weather.
The delayed frosts have extended the growing season for some crops, which is a plus. But certain pests and plant diseases are coming earlier than in the past, and some weeds are staying longer.
“It just feels like a gauntlet, getting through the seasons now,” Sprague said.
Chris Mulleavey, president and chief executive officer at Hoyle, Tanner & Associates, Inc., said engineers don’t spend time debating climate change. “We’re practitioners, and we address whatever Mother Nature throws our way,” he said.
“Things are changing, which is what the climate does,” Mulleavey said. “So when we look into the future, certainly from an engineering perspective, our job is to protect the health and safety in the designs we make for the public.”
His engineering consulting firm has created a Resilience, Innovation, Sustainability, Economics and Renewables group — something that’s especially attractive to a new generation of engineers, Mulleavey said.
“I’m not sure if it’s a tipping point yet, but I think there’s certainly a larger awareness of it,” said Mulleavey, president of the state’s Board of Professional Engineers.
As an engineer, he said, “I find myself in the middle: Let’s work together to find solutions without this hysteria one way or another.”
Dan Weeks, co-owner and vice president of business development at ReVision Energy in Brentwood, said his company is “blessed to be very busy.”
ReVision, which installs solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicle-chargers and batteries for storage, has grown from 130 employees five years ago to nearly 400 today, Weeks said. “And that’s been in response to growing demand,” he said.
Part of that is driven by the rising cost of electricity, he said. “The source of our power is still free, the sun,” Weeks said. “Which makes it easier and easier to compete with sources of energy that actually at this point in time cost more.”
But there’s another reason.
“We do hear increasingly from clients on both the residential and commercial side that they’re concerned about the state of our climate,” Weeks said. “They’ve got kids and grandkids, and it becomes clearer and clearer with every passing season.”
Weeks sees it himself. “Anybody who, like me, was fortunate enough to grow up here, the winters of today are nothing like the winters we knew growing up,” Weeks said. “You sort of feel it in your bones.”
Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire, said past energy transitions — wood to coal, then coal to oil — have taken at least 50 years. And that’s a good way to consider the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, he said.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and there are going to be so many hurdles from here to a zero-carbon economy,” he said.
Years ago, people predicted that it would take a “horrendous disaster” to wake people up to the threat of climate change, Evans-Brown said. “What I’ve witnessed over the past 10 years is a litany of horrendous climate disasters, but folks have not woken up,” he said. “At least they haven’t woken up at the speed and scale we assumed they would.
“We are immensely adaptable creatures, and we are adapting to climate reality,” he said.
Workforce and supply chain challenges remain a barrier to full implementation, Evans-Brown said. But, he said, “The goal is once you’ve seen solar go up on the roof of your library, and watched them put in heat pumps to heat and cool it, more people will become educated about the quality of these technologies and start to adopt them in their own lives.”
Most consumers still make decisions based on their pocketbooks, he said. “So we have to make it so this stuff is affordable if we want to transform society,” he said.
When that happens, he said, “They’ll sell themselves on the economics; they’ll sell themselves on the public health benefits.”
A range of reactions
Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, has been asking the same question in surveys since 2010: Whether people believe that climate change is happening now, and whether it’s caused mainly by human activities or by natural forces. He also asks whether people think winters have gotten warmer compared to 30 or 40 years ago.
Hamilton has been watching for a tipping point, a seismic shift in public attitudes. He expected that might happen after major hurricanes, and then again after Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, which called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Instead, he said, “The behavior we have seen is very gradual recognition.”
It’s “really slow compared with the actual pace of climate change,” he said.
Some of Hamilton’s research focuses on North Country residents, where 65% of those surveyed agree that “climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities.” Six in 10 respondents say winters in Northern New England are warmer than winters 30 or 40 years ago.
That’s not surprising; folks in northern regions have seen the changes firsthand, Hamilton said.
“Ski season ends earlier, ice-out is earlier,” he said. “A few degrees can be crossing that 32-degree mark, and can be the difference between liquid and frozen water. And that’s really visible.”
His surveys find that political identity influences both perceptions of winter weather and beliefs about climate change.
Climatologist Stampone said her students give her hope. “This is going to affect their lives,” she said. “We’re talking about their life span. So their passion for it and interest in it makes me very, very hopeful.”
“I just hope it’s not too late,” she said.
Her UNH colleague Hamilton, too, finds hope in the younger generation. But it’s not enough to sit back and wait for them to tackle the problem, he said.
“There’s something that I wish people understood better, which is that all these things cost money, but the cost of doing nothing will just be vastly higher,” he said.
“The future is now,” he said. “The future has come, and we don’t have a huge amount of time to prevent or slow down the unfortunate things that are going to happen.
“Every day we don’t act makes it harder to avoid bad consequences that are in some cases even disastrous.”
Despite the challenges, Plainfield farmer Sprague said he has no plans to quit. Farmers are adaptable, he said.
“They’re a pretty savvy group, and they’ll figure things out,” he said. “We’re in it for the long haul up here.”
It’s not worth trying to convince people who don’t accept that climate change is real, he said.
“I think there’s people, when the world’s on fire, they’ll find a reason not to believe in it,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s worth having that battle.”