September 19, 2018

From Atlanta: How to determine the real effects of climate change


Article By

Judith Curry, a climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology wrote about Atlanta's history with extreme weather events. Her piece Consequences of Climate Change for Atlanta studies how climate change will exacerbate extreme weather events and what type of long-term effects climate change will have on the city as well as the entire Fulton County region.


Judith’s article begins by pointing out that Georgia can expect warmer temperatures accompanied by severer heat waves, increased heavy rainfall events, and harsher and longer droughts. And while that’s pretty heavy stuff, it's not the worst consequence of climate change to besiege the Peach State. She further explores the societal, cultural and environmental side effects of climate change such as the impact on human health, food shortages, water resources, agriculture, forestry, air and water quality.

For example, Judith points out how heat waves and droughts will become more commonplace in the Atlanta area. Human health concerns will be most significant for lower-income households that lack sufficient resources to improve insulation or install and run air conditioning systems. Moreover, heat-related deaths in Atlanta would be expected to increase from 78 people annually (today) to anywhere from 96 to 247 people per year with major heat waves causing an even larger number of people to die.

On the other end of the extreme weather spectrum, Judith explains that while the prospect of heavier rainfalls from thunderstorms and land-falling hurricanes may seem like a bittersweet relief during periods of severe drought, the associated flooding can cause substantial property damage, loss of life, ecosystem damage, and environmental damage too. In fact, Atlanta’s storm sewer system would be inadequate to handle the rainfall from severe thunderstorms and tropical cyclones. Furthermore, in addition to the threat to one’s property, raw sewage, pesticides, petroleum products, animal waste, and dead animals could contaminate the floodwater, spreading diseases.

Judith’s article estimates the present-day impact of droughts in Georgia at approximately $1.3 billion. Such droughts (with greater severity) are expected to become more commonplace in the area. Compounding the issue of drought is a rapidly growing population: water demand in the greater metropolitan Atlanta region in 2020 is expected to increase by approximately 60 per cent. Not to mention many more potentially devastating consequences, including:

  • Poorer air quality within the next three decades as the current pace of global warming translates to a doubling of the number of unhealthy, “red alert” days.
  • Increased temperatures and humidity will bring an increased risk of mosquito-borne diseases that scientists commonly associate with tropical climates such as yellow fever and dengue and West Nile virus outbreaks, which are both severe and have significant fatality rates.
  • Longer growing seasons and increased carbon dioxide in the air could mean greater near-term yields for specific crops—although in the long term such benefits would subside as temperatures continue to rise. With prolonged droughts, the state’s agricultural productivity could crumble under an over-dependence on irrigation.
  • Diminished southern forests from the long-term stress related to droughts, fires and changing insect populations. In recent years, 80 to 90 per cent of previous winter’s regeneration planting fell victim to droughts and the pine beetle, which damages drought-weakened trees.

However, while each possible causatum sounds dire, Judith sees the greatest threat to Atlanta and Fulton County is the impact on the economy. As businesses and industries decide that Atlanta’s environment cannot sustain long-term operations for their companies nor provide a desirable quality of life for its employees, it could mean higher rates of unemployment and widespread poverty:

“Atlanta’s “brand” as the economic and cultural center of the southeast is currently qualified by poor air quality and massive traffic jams. Add unreliable water supply and unsustainable growth with lack of planning, and Atlanta could look much less attractive for future economic development.”

While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effect on individual cities, towns, municipalities, communities and campuses will be unique, local and personal. Over the next few decades, every single one of the planet’s communities will tell a personalized story about what happened when ‘climate change’ came down hard. The big question is what YOUR story will look like—whether you’re an elected officer, an administrator, a community planner, a developer or even just a voting, taxpaying citizen, the impacts of climate change will affect you in very personal ways. Therefore, you have an opportunity (or more truthfully, a responsibility) to participate in writing the best possible story for yourself and your community.

Judith’s article identifies several simple municipal level strategies for successfully tackling the impending effects of climate change. Go through the short list below and see if you can apply any of these strategies in your community:

  • Assessing your water resources, including future needs and engineering and policies required for a sustainable water supply.
  • Improving your community’s stormwater management and sewer system, which will not only diminish the damage from floods but will also support overall water management and help control mosquito-borne diseases.
  • Protecting trees will be imperative because, beyond the direct economic value of forests, trees are one of the fundamental elements of a livable climate. Trees moderate temperatures, retain moisture in soils and remove carbon dioxide from the air.
  • Enhancing the public transportation system, which will reduce your city or town's carbon footprint. The reduced emissions from an improved public transportation system will have a dramatic impact on air quality and traffic congestion.
  • Implementing energy conservation and efficiency strategies as the up-front investment will reduce our carbon footprint, the emission reductions will have a substantial beneficial effect on our air and water quality. As well, it will provide payback within a few years concerning substantially reduced energy costs.

Judith also short-listed a few cities she believes are ahead of Atlanta in rewriting their futures. If Judith put your community on her list, what strategies would you have employed, and where would your community place?