Despite moves at the federal level to cut environmental rules and programs, work is progressing on a major climate change report.

That report will expand on previous research and draw upon state-specific information for Ohio and other states to make planning easier at the state and local levels, researchers reported at last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

“It’s pretty clear that climate change is not going to stop, and it will be accelerating if we don’t move to a reduced carbon economy,” said Jerry Melillo, an ecologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and a member of NOAA’s Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. NOAA is one of 13 agencies that are part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The panel presented its report on the same day the Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA multiple times. And although the link between human activities and climate change is accepted as mainstream science, Pruitt has claimed that the existence of human-caused climate change is still being debated.

Implications for Ohio and the Midwest

The AAAS program took place just days after state Rep. Louis Blessing (R-Cincinnati) began enlisting support for another attempt to erode Ohio’s clean energy standards. Blessing’s foray came just eight weeks after Gov. John Kasich vetoed a similar bill in December.

State clean energy standards aim to decrease greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. In Melillo’s view, the likely impacts from climate change should be considered carefully by state policy makers in Ohio and elsewhere.

“Ultimately there will be some very significant consequences in terms of temperature shifts, shifts in precipitation patterns and so on, that are going to affect all kinds of aspects of your everyday life,” Melillo said. “And I think they want to look at the future of their economy.”

Information released by the U.S. Geological Survey in December shows that almost all of Ohio will see a rise in the annual mean maximum temperature of at least 6º F from 2050 to 2074, compared to the 30-year period from 1981 to 2010.

Comprehensive research reports on global warming are due to Congress every four years under a 1990 law passed during the first Bush administration. The last major climate change report from the federal government was released in 2014, and it projected that climate change will have significant impacts on the Midwest.

Forecasted public health risks for the Midwest include more frequent and intense heat waves, greater humidity, poorer air quality and reduced water quality.

Significant ecological impacts were also forecast for the Midwest. Although less ice cover would lengthen the shipping season for the Great Lakes, more frequent algae blooms, more invasive species and changes in the range and distribution of fish would have huge commercial and environmental impacts.

Extreme rainfall and flooding events have already increased for the region, and those trends are expected to continue, the report noted.

Coal’s role

When the last climate change impacts report came out, per capita emissions of greenhouse gases for the Midwest were about 20 percent higher than the national average.

According to data released by the Energy Information Administration in November, the electric power sector was responsible for 42 percent of Ohio’s 231.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2014. Within the electric power sector, 89 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that year came from coal.

Nonetheless, the United States’ nationwide emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen in recent years, largely due to some displacement of coal by natural gas, noted Frank O’Sullivan of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking at another panel at the AAAS meeting.

Frank O’Sullivan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology speaking at the 2017 AAAS meeting in Boston. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski.

But, he noted, renewable energy has been growing as well.

“Last year we installed more wind and solar capacity than we installed fossil capacity in the United States,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve also seen this tremendous reduction in the cost of this technology.”

Nonetheless, O’Sullivan noted, large capital requirements and long payback periods mean that renewables are still considered relatively expensive. “We have to strive for really very low cost technologies,” he said.

At the same time, as prices for natural gas and oil have fallen, producers have had to become more and more efficient in order to profit from extracting shale resources.

“We don’t need one solution” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, O’Sullivan said. “We need a portfolio of solutions.”

In any case, O’Sullivan suggested that the trend away from coal will continue.

“Regardless, I think, of what we’re going to see from [the Trump] administration going forward, coal is going to play a significantly diminished role in the U.S. for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.