JULY 18, 2014 -- If you think it's hot this summer, just wait 45 years. Unless something is done to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the sky, heat waves will be longer and more intense -- and more people will die in South Carolina.
A new study of heat and its impact in the eastern U.S. by researchers at Emory University and other institutions suggests "that numbers of heat wave–related deaths are likely to be an order of magnitude higher in 2057–2059 than in 2002–2004. ... Effective mitigation and adaptation measures will be crucial to reduce the potential for catastrophic outcomes, particularly in the most vulnerable geographic regions."
In other words, the weather of the future is going to get worse unless policymakers deal with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
According to the research, there was a 40 percent chance of at least one heat wave in the eastern U.S. in 2002-2004 and it lasted an average of 3.4 days. Using modeling, the study projected two outcomes for the future:
- Reductions. Assuming moderate greenhouse gas emissions combined with a wide range of strategies and ways to reduce emissions, the study projected the Southern coast would have about two heat waves a year with an average of 1,400 heat-related deaths by 2057 to 2059.
- More of the same. But with the continued use of fossil-fuel intensive energy consumption, the study projected up to four heat waves a year for our region with an average of 3,556 heat-related deaths for the same period.
Study underscores urgency of action, some say
The new Emory study reflects the kind of data found in a 2013 report by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The 101-page study, "Climate Change Impacts to Natural Resources in South Carolina," was conducted as part of the department's mission to be the steward of the state's natural resources, which DNR says pumps about $30 billion a year into the state and is responsible for about 230,000 jobs.
"Access to abundant recreational opportunities and natural assets play an important role in economic growth and quality of life at the local, regional and state levels, so protection and enhancement of our natural resources can and should be part of our overall economic development strategy," DNR Director Alvin Taylor wrote in the report's forward. "Any changes to our coastal environment could cause substantial economic consequences. Shoreline changes affect property uses, land values, tourism, and natural resources management as well as traditional uses such as hunting and fishing, timber management and agriculture."
The DNR report specifically found that "climate-related changes may adversely affect the environment in many ways, potentially disrupting or damaging ecological services, water supply, agriculture and forestry, fish and wildlife species and their habitats, endangered species and commercial and recreational fishing. One particular impact is sea-level rise and its effects on coastal areas. Rising sea level may amplify problems of coastal flooding, coastal erosion, and general disruptions to sensitive coastal and estuarine ecosystems."
In spite of several calls for more field studies, modeling, strategies, future research and more baseline data, the DNR report made virtually no recommendations for ways to reduce greenhouse gases to protect the state's natural resources -- even though the 2013 report recommended "policies and opportunities -- focus on grants, legislation, partnerships and strategic planning" as one core part of its climate change efforts.
When asked how legislators would get specific policy recommendations to deal with climate change, State Climatologist Hope Mizzell responded for DNR:
"Our agency will continue to focus on establishing baseline measurements through monitoring and data analyses in order to make well–informed natural resource management decisions, assessments and predictions of future environmental changes. We will continue to collaborate with colleges, universities, and other agencies on climate-related issues. Specific examples of collaborative work include our ongoing involvement with coastal vulnerability studies, offshore energy development, landscape scale habitat protection and a five-year project to develop a new statewide water plan. The output of these efforts will be available to be used to inform those who set policy for our state."
Alan Hancock, program coordinator for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said the DNR report did a pretty good job about laying out the science related to climate change in South Carolina, but more was needed.
"We need better, high-level coordination among all parts of state government," he said.
More leadership needed to translate science
A big step forward to deal with climate change, Hancock said, is an update of a 2008 report commissioned by the Sanford administration. The year before, Gov. Mark Sanford asked about 50 business, government, nonprofit and conservation leaders to develop specific policy recommendations on what could be done throughout the state to reduce greenhouse gases.
The group developed more recommendations [see the report here], but some have become outdated with new technology and research, Hancock added.
"We also need a larger, coordinated effort in South Carolina to address climate change and energy policy," he said. "Right now the efforts are happening, but they need executive-level leadership."
In other words, he said, Gov. Nikki Haley needs to get involved like Sanford did.
South Carolina currently does not have a coordinated state energy plan.
According to the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, "Our state’s leaders must prioritize creation of a comprehensive and pragmatic vision for the Palmetto State’s future. A South Carolina energy and climate policy can help ensure long-term economic competitiveness for our state by reducing polluting fuel imports, limiting energy expenses and protecting South Carolina’s unique natural resources.
"Such a policy can help develop under-utilized home-grown resources like energy efficiency and renewable energy, which reduce pollution while generating tens of thousands of high-quality jobs. By taking a leadership role on these issues, South Carolina can attract new industries and spur clean energy entrepreneurship throughout the state."
Fortunately to many, the federal government is requiring more energy planning as part of a recent Environmental Protection Agency mandate for clean power plans to reduce carbon pollution at power plants.
"It is going to require a state plan to do that," Hancock said. "We think South Carolina is well-positioned to meet the goals of that plan" through collaboration of power companies, conservation leaders and government leaders. State plans are due in 2016 with reduction targets met by 2030.
"That underscores our urgency in the need to act," he said. "The ways we can do that are increasing our solar power use in South Carolina and increased energy efficiency policies that will save people money on their power bills."
And as the new Emory heat study highlights, unless something is done sooner than later, it's likely that heat waves will get longer and more people will die from the heat.