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Climate Curious: Ask a climate expert

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Flooded fields near Stewart, Minnesota Thursday September 12, 2019
Flooded fields near Stewart, Minnesota Thursday September 12, 2019
Paul Huttner | MPR News

As part of our Climate Curious project, MPR News asked listeners what they want to know about climate change.

People wrote in with a wide breadth of questions, including what kind of trees to plant to fight climate change, how much the effects of a changing climate will cost and how to assess the accuracy of climate predictions.

MPR News Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner sat down with a climate reporter — MPR’s own Elizabeth Dunbar — and a climate scientist — Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the State Climatology Office at the Minnesota DNR — to answer some of the questions listeners submitted.

Here’s a look at what they had to say.

How much will climate impacts and adapting to climate change cost? Who will pay these costs?
— Kate Knuth, Hennepin County, Minn.

It’s not possible to calculate an exact dollar amount as we’re still figuring out the true impact of climate change on our lives. But there are a few main areas we can focus on.

One is public health, Dunbar said. Increased air pollution will have an especially large impact on people who have asthma or issues breathing.

Damage to and improving infrastructure will comes with a large cost, too, Blumenfeld said. 

More rain means the need for more effective draining, roads damaged in extreme weather conditions require time, labor and equipment to fix and rising sea levels will create the need to move whole communities.

It’s important to keep in mind that much of our infrastructure was not built with climate change in mind, Huttner said.

How extensive is crop failure in Minnesota and the Midwest due to flooding and extra wet conditions? I have seen a lot of standing water in cornfields. How unusual is this? 
— Mina Leierwood, Minneapolis

“It’s been incredibly wet and we have to remember it’s not just this year,” Blumenfeld said.

Unfortunately, we went into last winter with very wet soil which then froze. We didn’t get much of a winter in terms of snowfall until late January through March. That snow added to the amount of moisture on the ground plus the heavy rains that followed in spring. That same pattern has been observed over the past few years.

Except for northern Minnesota, “it’s going to be the wettest decade on record” for most of the state, he said.

We’ll start to understand the real impact of this once farmers start their harvest, Dunbar said.

How accurate have past climate change predictions been? I seem to hear more about things occurring faster than predicted.
— Erland Lukanen, Eagan, Minn.

To answer this question, Huttner pointed to the words of Penn State University professor Richard Alley.

When scientists were making these kinds of predictions 30 years ago, Alley said, they had to do a bit of guessing when it came to how much humans were going to do when it came to producing or curbing carbon emissions.

Even so, Alley said the predictions on increased surface temperature, vapor in the atmosphere, increased rainfall, warming of nights and melting of sea ice were all pretty spot on looking at where we are today. And the rate at which sea levels are rising are actually faster than what was predicted.

It depends on the study, but for the most part earlier predictions have come within a tenth of a degree Celsius for how much the global temperature has increased, Blumenfeld said.

If you’re looking for predictions by region, things get a little trickier. There weren’t as many models on how Minnesota might be impacted by climate change individually. Looking at what’s happening right now we are warming at about half a degree Fahrenheit per decade and rainfall has increased by about 4 inches in that same time period.

Those may not seem like large numbers, but it’s important to remember those are averages over time, some areas are seeing larger increases and those statistics are likely to keep increasing, Dunbar said.

What can I/we do to combat climate change?

This question was asked in different forms from many of our listeners. Here are just a few things mentioned on the show:

Scientists do point to lifestyle changes as major ways to combat climate change — which can get controversial fast.

A large study last year pointed to eating a plant-based diet as a way of shrinking your carbon footprint. In Minnesota, agriculture is the third largest producer of emissions, behind transportation and electricity production.

But, Blumenfeld pointed out, these kinds of decisions don’t need to be all or nothing. Instead of eliminating all meat from your diet you can also choose to eat foods with a smaller carbon footprint, like chicken over beef.

Paring down your consumption of any one product in general is key, too.

One caller in Minneapolis mentioned that because she lives in a community of apartments and town homes she cannot install solar panels.

If certain strategies for combating climate change are out of reach, focus on what you can change, Blumenfeld said. 

Make sure you’re turning off your lights and electronics when you leave your home, use energy efficient bulbs, seal your windows in the winter to cut back on heating and buy used instead of new whenever you can.

How do I talk to skeptics?

This is another question we’ve received from multiple listeners. Dunbar and Blumenfeld’s suggestion? Combine facts with empathy.

“One of the keys is to maybe not refer to them as skeptics,” Blumenfeld said. “I think we need to move beyond it, honestly.”

And instead of focusing on convincing them, try to understand where they are coming from, ask them what their concerns are, relate it to things they care about and try to help build connections to the trends we are seeing in the facts, Dunbar said.

That empathy combined with being knowledgeable on the science — Huttner pointed to SkepticalScience.com as a good resource —  will likely lead to more productive discourse.

Is it true that 98 percent of scientists agree with climate change?
— Michael

It really depends on what you mean when you talk about climate change.

Because it’s more like 100 percent of scientists who study the atmosphere recognize that greenhouse gases absorb radiation and in-turn warm the planet. Nobody disputes that, Blumenfeld said.

Where the debate is happening is how much of the warming we’re seeing can be attributed to those greenhouse gases.

Click the audio player above to hear even more questions and their answers. And check out all our climate change coverage here.