Talking climate change with Dr. Cameron Lee

Today I interviewed applied climatologist and KSU assistant professor Cameron Lee, Ph.D. to get an idea of what areas I should focus on in my reporting about climate change in Northeast Ohio. While Dr. Lee wasn’t able to speak specifically to the Cuyahoga River (it’s not his area of expertise), he was able to point me toward important aspects of the conversation around climate change.

Dr. Lee in front of a map of the arctic and antarctic poles in his office.

Here are some of his answers to my questions:

How has the conversation around climate change shifted in recent years? 

The science behind climate change is almost as settled as science gets. Because of all the misinformation out there, it has been heavily studied, to the point that we have a great deal of consistent evidence. We are confident that climate change is happening and that humans have caused it. We’re just as confident about that as we are that smoking causes cancer. That said, our strategies for combating climate change are constantly evolving, and our projections are getting more precise. 

Image credit: Skeptical Science

People started butting heads about whether or not climate change was real around 10 years ago, when I started graduate school. It hasn’t always been a partisan issue. At the turn of the century, the Gore/Bush election is what politicized it. 

Do you ever feel angry or scared about climate change, and how do you deal with that? 

I do. I get angry when I see inaction at the federal level. But I also have seen state and local governments start to put policies in place in an effort to restrict carbon emissions, and that gives me a little bit of hope. Even though the US is the major emitter of greenhouse gasses, second to China only in recent years, this is a global issue. Climate change isn’t as contested outside the US, and other countries are stepping up and promising to get their emissions down. So that gives me hope too.

When scientists talk about “effects of climate change,” what areas are they speaking about? Is it just air and water quality and extreme weather, or are there more areas that will be affected? 

The way I think about it is that the effects of climate change will have their tentacles every sector of life. 

Here’s an example: One of our largest concerns is increased melt and sea level rise. When the sea levels rise, people who live on the coasts can’t continue to live their lives under water, so they’ll become migrants. Climate change will affect immigration. And as we’ve seen in recent events, some people in our country perceive migration as a national security issue. Sea level rise also will impact transportation and infrastructure, and the money we spend to maintain them.

Another large concern is the rise in global mean temperature. It’s projected that the average global temperature will rise two degrees. Some people say, “What’s the big deal? It got two degrees warmer this afternoon, and I was just fine.” But they’re not taking into account that the entire bell curve for weather patterns will shift, and extreme heat will become more frequent. 

Image credit: Peter Gardner

Currently in Cleveland, we average less than one day a year over 100 degrees. Scientists are projecting that by the year 2100, Cleveland will experience 21 days over 100 degrees and 60 days over 90 degrees. Extreme heat can be fatal on its own, but it also affects other areas like agriculture. An increase in temperature means an increase in precipitation, which means we’ll experience heavier—but less frequent—downpours. Which means more floods and more droughts. Now we’re talking about the endangerment of our food supply. 

Image credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

With more rain and heat, the tropical regions will expand, and so will the reach of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and malaria. Now we’re talking about climate change as a public health issue. So you can see, climate change will affect pretty much any aspect of life you can think of. 

If you were to pick up an article about climate change in Northeast Ohio, what questions would you hope to see answered? 

I’d want to know about discharge records, past and present. (Discharge has to do with how much water is flowing in a river.) Increased rainfall leads to increased discharge.

Lately, we have been having an increase in rainfall in the spring, but our summers have been more dry. So I would want to know, have the discharge records changed greatly? How did climate change influence those numbers? Once we know the way that discharge rates are trending, we can make plans for the future. 

To hear more from Dr. Lee, check out his 2018 interview with WKSU.

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