State agency’s warning on climate change spurs action, skepticism

Georgia’s wildlife agency minced no words recently in declaring climate change “a threat inherent with uncertainty,” perhaps the state’s starkest warning ever on a politically sensitive subject dismissed by many elected officials.

Here, though, on Georgia’s 100-mile-long coast, most everybody takes seriously rising seas and dying marshes caused by drastic changes in the Earth’s climate. They live already with the proof: greater tidal surges; flooded roads; and ages-old trees killed by salt water creeping further inland.

If the dire predictions of state, federal and university scientists prove true, then billions of dollars of property in Brunswick, Darien, St. Marys and Savannah and on the islands of St. Simons, Sea and Tybee will be under water within a century.

Much of the coast’s ecologically critical salt marsh will die off. Upland streams will turn brackish. Sparrows and shrimp will disappear if, as predicted, the Atlantic Ocean rises an additional three feet by 2110.

“No matter if you believe climate change is natural or man-made, sea levels are rising and it behooves us to know how to plan and respond,” said Clark Alexander, the director of the Applied Coastal Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island. “If we don’t start preparing now, it will become a bigger problem later.”

Georgia has no grand plan to combat climate change or its effects. State leaders ignore, sidestep or downplay climate-change warnings. Most remain unconvinced of man’s role in Earth’s warming.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, wouldn’t answer questions about the governor’s views on climate change. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who lives on Sea Island, a barrier island threatened by rising seas, said “the scientific community is not in total agreement about whether mankind has been a contributing factor.”

“That’s why we must find an appropriate balance between responsibly protecting the environment and continuing to develop our abundance of natural resources in order to grow the economy and improve people’s quality of life,” he added in a statement.

David Stooksbury, the former state climatologist, said the unwillingness of leaders to address climate change is dangerous.

“I don’t think that most of our elected officials understand the long-term seriousness of what climate change will do to the agricultural economy, public health and the environment,” Stooksbury said. “It will be much cheaper and better for the state if we follow a well-developed plan starting now rather than waiting until we must respond.”

Some steps underway

President Barack Obama last week unveiled a major climate-change plan that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one-third by 2030. His edict, which met with widespread scorn from many conservatives and others who discount climate change, follows repeated scientific warnings that the Earth is getting hotter. Some states are suing to block the White House ruling; Georgia has yet to take action.

Last year was the warmest since 1880, according to NASA, and the 10 hottest years recorded (with one exception, 1998) have all occurred since 2000. James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, and 16 co-authors reported last month that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previously estimated. If true, sea levels are projected to rise at least 10 feet within 50 years.

A hotter planet melts icebergs and causes ocean water to warm and expand, fueling the rise of the world’s seas and making coastal communities nervous. St. Marys, in Georgia’s southeastern corner and surrounded by rivers, creeks and marsh, is precariously perched 10 feet above sea level.

“No one really knows the projected impact of sea rise,” said John Holman, the city’s manager. “Everyone is trying to understand it. It needs more study. For us, it’s an important issue.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that a 3-foot rise in sea level would inundate St. Marys’ historic district with its majestic oaks, white picket fences and 1808 Presbyterian church with an iron bell cast by Paul Revere.

Two years ago the feds put up most of the cost of a $160,000 study intended to alert St. Marys to the potential dangers of climate change. A report, which will detail the costs associated with protecting the city from surging seas, is expected any day.

St. Marys isn’t waiting. The City Council voted three years ago to raise the height of first floors in buildings constructed in flood plains. It’s considering raising walkways at new municipal buildings to allow water to seep into the ground and not pool or flood. Officials are also weighing an enterprise fund just for storm water projects. And the city’s 2030 strategic plan will likely emphasize rising seas.

“Sea-level rise will be costly, if the projections are accurate, for the city to prepare for,” Holman said. “But, by working in advance, we’ll get a head start. We’ll take precautionary measures.”

He added, “I believe we’re in better shape than Tybee Island.”

As much as two-thirds of the popular beach town near Savannah would disappear by 2110 if NOAA’s sea-level predictions hold true.

“It’s good to see the state agency charged with protecting Georgia’s environment catching up with the military in factoring climate change into long-range plans,” said Paul Wolff, a Tybee councilman. “As a resident of a community on the front lines of sea-level rise, I believe every level of government needs to be proactive in reducing, planning for and adapting to the effects of a changing climate.”

Last month the wildlife resources division of the Department of Natural Resources issued its State Wildlife Action Plan, or SWAP, which states unequivocally that “climate change presents unprecedented challenges.” The federal government requires states to submit a SWAP every 10 years or risk losing conservation money for at-risk fish and wildlife. Georgia received $1.2 million the past fiscal year.

“Climate change is impacting species and habitats, and these effects are projected to increase substantially over time,” the SWAP says. “These climate-driven changes will profoundly affect our ability to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats.”

The first SWAP, issued in 2005, mentioned climate change and global warming, but it said “local effects are often difficult to quantify.” Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue followed up a year later with a State Energy Strategy, which stated that “strong scientific evidence exists that increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) are affecting Earth’s climate.” The 138-page report, with three pages devoted to climate change, listed potential dangers and recommended that the state inventory carbon dioxide emissions.

South viewed as particularly vulnerable

A tidal gauge off Fort Pulaski near Tybee has tracked the slow but steady rise — 11 inches over the past 80 years — of the Atlantic Ocean. The sea began rising dramatically in the 1990s. Climate scientists now predict an additional 40-inch surge by 2110.

“Every storm that comes ashore will intrude further inland and will become more dangerous, and we will have more days of nuisance flooding,” said Alexander of the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute below Savannah, where scientists study marine and environmental sciences.

Georgia Tech researchers estimate that 30 percent, or 419 square miles, of Chatham, Liberty and McIntosh counties will be under water by 2110 if the sea keeps rising at its current rate. Georgia’s barrier islands will be swamped, and some coastal towns will experience billions of dollars of damage to municipal infrastructure — road, water and sewer — and private property.

Man, though, can adapt. The natural world may take it on the chin as salt water pushes further inland into fresh water. Two-thirds of Georgia’s saltwater marsh system — an ecologically critical habitat for fish and wildlife — could disappear.

“You have a whole host of species dependent on that salt marsh environment,” said Jason Lee, a DNR coastal expert who helped write the SWAP’s 11-page section on climate change. “The food web would collapse. Marsh birds would have to seek habitat elsewhere. Shrimp and crabs would be affected. Sea turtles would also be a primary concern, (as) would several shorebirds that nest and forage along the coast. You could see significant ecosystem impacts.”

Hotter weather, droughts and more frequent and intense downpours will make an impact on the natural environment statewide, the SWAP reports, and harm North Georgia habitats for mountain brook trout and patch-nosed salamanders. Rising temperatures — some estimates predict an 8- to 20-degree increase in future Julys — would allow invasive species such as kudzu, gypsy moths and feral hogs to spread further north.

“It’s a really good sign that the state of Georgia is recognizing and planning for the impact of climate change,” said Jennette Gayer, the director of Environment Georgia. “This is a great first step, and I hope to see more forward-thinking reports like this to really plan for the future.”

Other state agencies and universities have also sounded the climate-change alarm. The website for the DNR’s coastal resources division says that “the Earth’s changing climate is one of coastal Georgia’s greatest environmental challenges.” A 2012 Georgia Ports Authority presentation listed the impact of rising seas on the docks and terminals.

UGA’s agriculture extension agency educates farmers about the risks of climate change. The university’s Sea Grant program steers federal and state money to coastal communities, including Tybee and St. Marys, preparing for rising seas, climate change and other threats.

The Georgia Initiative for Climate and Society, a network of UGA scientists, including Marshall Shepherd, seeks to better understand the threats posed by a warming climate. Shepherd, who runs the university’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, says the South is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

All the warnings, though, have failed to translate into concerted and meaningful action by Georgia leaders.

Many skeptics among leadership

The governor hasn’t crafted an energy strategy as his predecessor did. The 2006 carbon registry proposal is dead. State senators passed a resolution in 2012 urging Congress to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from further regulating greenhouse gases without more research on carbon dioxide’s impact on climate change.

States, though, must take climate change seriously or risk losing hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

Georgia is one of nine states that doesn’t mention climate change in federally required disaster mitigation plans. It has until 2019 to comply. But, starting next year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will only give money to states with plans that address climate change. Through 2012, according to the Center for Climate Change Law, Georgia had received about $180 million in FEMA grants to help buy land vulnerable to flooding as well as other prevention measures.

The SWAP recommends a slew of research and conservation measures to combat climate change over the next decade. Sea turtles, saltmarsh sparrows, Nelson’s sparrows and right whales should be further monitored and protected.

Butterfly and migratory bird habitats within utility corridors should be upgraded. The northern march of kudzu and gypsy moths should be halted. Large swaths of the Altamaha River corridor, and other vulnerable waterways, should be joined and protected to allow unfettered migration of animals. Streams and wetlands should be further buffered.

It’s questionable, though, whether state and federal officials will put up the money to help a warming planet.

“By not having a comprehensive climate-change plan and following it, Georgians, in the long run, will be spending more to adapt,” said Stooksbury, the state’s former climatologist who was fired by Deal in 2011. “I am not very hopeful that these changes will be made until is it painfully obvious.”

Deal, like many Georgia politicians, takes a half-pregnant position on climate change. Most don’t deny that the climate is changing, yet they question whether the problem is man-made. Deal says it’s a federal, not state, issue. Yet, he passed on an opportunity in September to slam the EPA over efforts to curb power plant emissions.

The chairmen of the state House and Senate committees that craft environmental and energy policies blame nature, not man, for the projected surge in temperatures and sea levels.

“We should understand that Mother Nature is the lead power in climate change,” said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, the chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

State Rep. Don Parsons, the chairman of the House Energy Committee and a Marietta Republican, said “there’s always a point when you have to ask about what doing more will cost the state of Georgia.”

Some coastal lawmakers also question the urgency to do something about climate change.

“I, for one, don’t see it as being a serious problem,” said Barry Brown, a Tybee city councilman. “Sometimes these things just get brought up to get people in a panic to buy something. Whether or not they have the facts to back it up, I haven’t seen any.”

Georgia hasn’t gone as far as neighboring states in dismissing climate change. Florida Gov. Rick Scott reportedly ordered government officials in March not to use the term in reports or press releases. In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly imposed a four-year moratorium on state rules, plans or policies based on expected changes in sea level.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, like Perdue, cites “mixed scientific evidence” about the origins of Earth’s warming. While both senators acknowledged in January that “climate change is not a hoax,” they also opposed legislation linking changing temperatures to human activity. Each takes a conservative, pro-business position that carbon dioxide regulations will hamper business.

“We all care about the environment,” Isakson said on the floor of the Senate in March. “We just don’t all subscribe to the same theory about what happens.”

Wolff, the Tybee councilman and environmentalist, says politicians in Washington and Atlanta need to embrace the dangers of climate change, regardless of who’s at fault, before it’s too late.

“It’s unfortunate that they don’t seem to understand the urgency we’re facing on the coast,” he said. “They should be doing a lot more to (fight) climate change. The science is irrefutable. It isn’t hypothetical to us. It’s real life.”