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The climate debate goes south

Back in the early days of the global-warming debate, deniers used to say things like, "You environmentalists cry 'global warming' just because this winter is warm!" As the evidence for climate change has mounted, though, the roles have switched: Now the deniers are saying climate change can't be true ... because this summer has been cool

Locally, I've heard this from folks like radio talker Glenn Meakem, who joked at a "tea party" protest this spring that "we could use some global warming today." To me, that's like saying, "I really need to lose 20 pounds -- wish I had leprosy!" But Meakem's audience of tax-protesters and gun-grabbers ate it up.

And that's the problem with the global-warming debate: A society that demands quick answers isn't good at solving problems decades in the making. And the highly deliberative scientific method -- which discovered the climate-change threat -- makes it hard to convince people to do anything about it. 

Exhibit A: The "Pennsylvania Climate Impact Assessment," recently released by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The 350-page report was commissioned to study potential global-warming impacts "on Pennsylvania's climate, human health, the economy ... forests, wildlife, fisheries, recreation, agriculture and tourism." But you can't call the findings alarmist: In fact, guys like Meakem will find plenty of excuses for complacency ... and maybe even a few business opportunities. 

The report contends that Pennsylvania can pretty much say goodbye to tree species like paper birch and quaking aspen. But on the bright side, Meakem could point out, the report also says a warmer climate will be more hospitable to the black walnut, which is "highly prized for [its] attractive, dark-colored wood."

And yeah, if you're a fan of fishing for brook trout, you might start searching for a new hobby: Higher water temperatures will likely cull the number of brookies significantly. But on the bright side -- warmer temperatures mean more time for golf! Plus, we might get more hog and poultry farms coming up from the south, where the heat will be too much for them to survive the close quarters of factory farming! 

So sure, some of the worst-case climate scenarios have a bit of silver lining. Then again, some of the best-case scenarios are attached to a cloud. 

For example, some climate-change deniers say that even if we are producing enough carbon dioxide to affect the weather, that could be a good thing ... because crops use CO2 to grow! But as the report reminds us, all plants use CO2, including weeds -- and weeds from warmer climates are much more invasive. Farmers may have longer growing seasons, true, but they may also spend more time and money spraying potentially harmful herbicides.

And by the time you reach page 169 of the report and learn that "Dairy cows prefer cool temperatures, with the optimum range for milk production being 40-75 degrees Fahrenheit," you start to realize just how interrelated all these natural forces are. I figured the ski-resort business was in bad shape. But it didn't occur to me that state wineries may end up "replac[ing] some of their native American varieties with European varieties." Who knows what other changes will come? 

It's tough to come to grips with climate change because so many of its effects -- melting ice caps, rising sea levels -- seem remote to us. But the state's report dispassionately reminds us of just how many changes will filter down into our daily lives.   

Maybe the most troubling part of the report, though, is its reminder that no matter what we do tomorrow, we've locked two decades' worth of climate change already. Whether emissions are cut or not, the report says, "Projected climate change for the Commonwealth over the next 20 years does not differ." Which means that the actions we take now probably won't make a difference for years to come. 

That's not encouraging, when you consider guys like Meakem react to climate change based on what the weather will be like next weekend. And lots of Americans will get the paradoxical message that the problem is too far in the future to worry about -- and that it's too late to do anything anyway. 

So I can't help feeling like Pennsylvania is doomed to become more like Alabama every year. On the bright side, though, I have a feeling that would suit some climate-change deniers just fine.

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