Friday, April 19, 2013

Initial Conference Impressions

A few quick hits from the conference.
  • I went to the opening plenary last night.  I estimate there were about 250 people in the room.  I thought this was seriously impressive for a local conference organized in two counties (Tompkins and Cortland) with about 150000 population between them.  The conference is perhaps drawing from the larger region to some degree, but still, this is not a state-level conference in Albany or a national conference in Manhattan.
  • My impression is the high level of interest is driven by two things: a) we have had some very extreme and variable weather here in recent years and it's really got people's attention, and b) the big fight about fracking has led quite a few people to a larger interest in energy/climate issues (if you start insisting that you don't want your region to be a fossil-fuel supplier, your conscience is apt to start nagging you that maybe you shouldn't be using too much fossil fuel either). 
  • The keynote speaker was Mark Hertsgaard, author of Hot: Living through the next Fifty Years on Earth.  I liked his speech, it was inspiring.
  • I couldn't help noticing that the parking lot outside the conference venue had a mix of vehicles that looked very typical of the region.  Wall-to-wall Priuses and bicycles it was definitely not.  I have a half a mind to do an actual sample tomorrow to get a sense of where we are at; have people who care enough about climate to attend a conference cared enough to make any detectable changes in their own lifestyle?
  • The definitive word on climate change and New York State is NYSERDA's Climaid (600 pages but you can get it one chapter at a time).
  • This morning I was in Cortland all morning for the section on adapting agriculture to climate change.  The audience was smaller (it being a weekday), but the speakers were excellent - in the main session we heard from scientists and then at lunch we heard from actual growers.  The basic message was the same from everyone:
    • New York State has warmed noticeably, particularly in the winter.  The growing season is longer.  One big dairy operator mentioned that in 1973 he was planting 80 day corn on his hills and 90 day on his river bottom land, whereas today he is planting 95 day corn on the hills and 110 day corn on the bottomland.
    • The weather is also noticeably more extreme.  There are more droughts, more floods, more risk of frosts during the longer growing season, more occasions when they can't get machinery into the fields because the weather is too wet, and more big snowfalls.  This showed up both in the scientist's statistics and also the grower's anecdotes.  The scientists all pinned this on more moisture in the warmer atmosphere and changes in the circulation due to a warmer Arctic.
    • Here are corn yields in New York State since 1945.  There is the same linear pattern that yields often show nationally and globally.  Although the climate is certainly affecting agriculture here in both positive and negative ways, apparently it all nets out to maintain roughly the existing trend:
  • I got to ask a lot of questions.  The most intriguing answers came in response to me observing that climate scientists seem to have been repeatedly blind-sided in the last decade, and did the scientist speakers have confidence in mainstream climate science projections or did they think there was a material risk of non-linear poorly understood processes causing significantly more radical change.  None of them sounded reassuring.  Dave Eichorn said that he agreed the situation was poorly understood and he wasn't confident that the changed weather patterns we are currently observing will still be the same in 20 years, or something else altogether might be occurring.  Larry Klotz said that scientists are inherently conservative because they don't want to publish something that won't hold up in twenty years, so they shy away from making strong claims without being very confident of their ground, which contributes to the impression that they underplay the issues.  He personally is speaking out more in part because he has a new grandchild.  David Wolfe said that he, like a lot of his colleagues, tends to stick to mainstream projections to avoid losing credibility and/or sowing panic with less likely but possible scenarios.  However, privately, climate scientists discuss amongst themselves the possibility of much more extreme scenarios and they cannot be ruled out.


porsena said...

I for one would be interested in an informal survey of maybe one row in the parking lot. It's a good question.

sunbeam said...

I'm not after climate porn, but I am really concerned and interested in future drought patterns in the US.

You've written several things about this over the past year or two, and I'd be curious if you could get a professional climate scientist to speculate on things. You don't need to use their names, but I do wonder what their honest prognosis is when they don't have to hedge things.

I'm sure they have a projection for New York and the Western US, probably the Plains, Midwest, and Southwest as well.

But can you ask about the Southeast? I specifically look for this area in any climate projection item and it appears to be the most ignored region from this standpoint.

Unknown said...

I have a farm in North Dakota. The growing season is definitely getting longer here. Ten years ago there was no (and I mean no) corn or soy beans grown in my part of the state, because the growing season was too short. Now roughly 50% of the land is planted to corn and soy beans in my county. There is a definite economic incentive to plant Corn and soy vs wheat and sun flowers. Also there hasn't been enough snow to snow mobile for several of the last few winters. This was an unheard of event that has ocured several times recently. The climate is changing, and the growing season is getting longer in North Dakota.

Nick G said...

Two questions:

How many people who are very concerned about climate have sent $50 to their representative, and asked for action on the topic?


This conference is a significant consumer of your time. That makes me wonder: in general, how do you manage to make time for this while working an intense professional job and raising a family?

K McDonald said...

I'm so glad to have you note the lack of reassurance from the climate scientists you spoke to. I have had the exact same experience and find it very frustrating. A conference that I went to spent most of the time discussing how to convince the unconverted to believe, but then you talk the the CC scientists and they can't really answer my questions about agriculture or even point me to any of their acquaintances who can.