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Published in Health Care

Q&A: Dr. David Karowe, Professor of biological sciences, Western Michigan University

BY Sunday, January 20, 2019 10:03pm

Western Michigan University Professor David Karowe, Ph.D. has dire predictions for what will happen if people across the globe fail to take swift action to replace fossil fuels with green energy. While climate change affects systems globally, it will have real effects on the West Michigan region and its economy, according to Karowe’s predictions, which are informed by his years of research on the effects of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide in plants. Agriculture and tourism could feel the brunt of the changes, which will upend historical temperature and precipitation patterns and lead to greater volatility, putting species like Great Lakes game fish at risk. Karowe spoke with MiBiz about his predictions and what the local business community can do to best mitigate the effects of global climate change.

How would the effects of climate change be most noticeable?

David Karowe, Ph.D.

Agriculture worldwide, and to some extent in Michigan, is likely to suffer as a consequence of climate change, in part because the extreme temperatures and extreme precipitation are likely to continue to increase. In Grand Rapids, you had flooding last year. In Kalamazoo, we’ve had three once-in-a-century rain events in the last six years. The flooding that results is particularly damaging to agriculture. Most of the models predict increased drought, including a fairly high probability of a decade-long drought during the second half of this century.

How about in the short term?

The consequences are likely to be felt sooner for fruit farmers. We have a greater chance of having a weeklong, or longer, thaw during January or February, followed by a return to cool temperatures. A weeklong thaw can be enough to have fruit trees bloom. If that’s followed by freezing temperatures, that can kill all of the flowers. If you don’t have flowers, you can’t make fruit.

How do you see it affecting Michigan’s tourism industry?

One of the largest components of Michigan’s tourism industry is fishing in the Great Lakes. The fish that generate a lot of revenue are those that live reasonably far below the surface. Cool and coldwater fish are likely to be very pronounced climate losers, because there will be less cool and cold water and (higher) probability that they will run out of oxygen in the deeper waters. I cannot say for sure, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be enough oxygen to last two or three months longer than today. Our sportfish are likely to encounter a low- or no-oxygen condition. As a consequence, they are likely to suffocate.

How could that be counteracted?

If we enact the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 2 degrees — and right now we’re headed toward a future where at the end of the century it would be about 4.5 degrees celsius — then we will still get an increase in the summer stratification period, but only about half as much of an increase. It’s certainly much more possible that our deepwater fish would be able to tolerate that.

What might be the effect on human health in West Michigan?

There are five major ways in which climate change will impact human health globally. One is heat stress, and that certainly will be a challenge for Michigan. The second is malnutrition, and it would take large-scale crop failures in the Midwest. The third one is air quality. Climate change results in higher ground-level ozone concentration. The ozone affects particularly respiratory and cardiovascular challenges. The fourth is disease: We see more waterborne diseases. If we have flooding, we have a greater probability of waterborne contamination. Almost certainly, climate change will cause an increase in Lyme disease. The big effect for human health in Michigan, I think, is going to be heat stress.

What should immediate next steps be?

There are a number of ways we can use less fossil fuel energy in the short term. … It won’t change the future. It just delays a future that’s a fossil fuel-based future. What we need to do is reduce our fossil fuel footprint as much as possible, and dramatically increase our generation and use of clean energy. We can do wind, solar, photovoltaic. We could run Michigan 100 percent by green electricity, if we wanted to. It would take some startup costs, but the long-term benefits are so much larger than the cost.

What do you tell people who seem to be fine with maintaining the status quo?

We are living a convenient lifestyle at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Recognizing that makes it an ethical imperative that we are to dramatically increase our generation of green electricity.

How can business leaders get involved in counteracting the effects of climate change?

Michigan business people can reduce their own carbon footprint, and then communicate to our current policymakers the urgency of increasing renewable electricity, and of transferring things that are currently run on fossil fuel to being run on green-generated electricity. Wind is probably our best (option) in Michigan. Business people can lobby for higher renewable portfolio standards. The business voice is very strong in Lansing, and also in Washington.

Is it difficult for people to see that change is needed immediately?

Everybody likes consistency. If anybody looks at the best available science, the inevitable conclusion, economically and ethically, the most favorable thing we can do is to move away from fossil fuels and on to green energy as soon as possible. Environmental economists are in nearly universal agreement. I think the obstacle is just initiating change. If business people thought honestly and seriously about this issue, they would soon come to the conclusion that we cannot feel good with the status quo, and that change is necessary.

Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith. Courtesy photo.

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