Oregon’s Climate Check-Up Offers Serious Prognosis Without Preventative Action

February 7, 2017 | 4:44 pm
Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

Each January, I journey to my doctor’s office for my annual physical. She briefly reviews my medical history before conducting an examination, and we end our visit by discussing key risk factors and a plan to manage them.

Well, just in time for the start of the 2017 legislative session, Oregon received its periodic “climate physical.” The results are sobering, and the treatment plan involves further action to put the Beaver State on the path to a low carbon, climate-resilient economy – a path to good “climate health.”

Oregon, like other states, is already experiencing climate change

The Third Oregon Climate Assessment Report by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) incorporates findings from recently published studies on climate science and impacts in Oregon.

Hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change contribute to increased wildfire risks and other key impacts in Oregon. Source: UCS

The legislatively mandated report reaffirms what scientists have been telling us. Oregon is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and human activity has played a key role. It’s a stark contrast to statements by several of the Trump administration’s cabinet nominees.

According to the authors, global emissions of heat-trapping gases are largely responsible for the overall increase in average annual temperatures in the Pacific Northwest over the past century. (Yes, despite an unusually cold winter, the statewide average temperature for 2016 was still much warmer than average.) They found additional signs of human-caused global warming in the 2015 record-low snowpack, more acidic waters off the Oregon coast in 2013, and wildfire activity over the past three decades.

A future of more extremes in every region of the state

Oregonians will face more severe impacts in the future if we continue on our current global carbon emissions trajectory. As shown in the table below, annual temperatures could increase by an average of 8 degrees by the century’s end compared to the late 20th century.

Average temperatures will continue to rise in Oregon compared to the late 20th century under both low and high emissions pathways. Source: Oregon Climate Change Research Institute

Rising temperatures will mean a shrinking snowpack, earlier snowmelt, and diminished summer water supplies as well as increased wildfires. Sea-level rise will lead to more coastal flooding and erosion. There also will likely be overall negative impacts to agriculture over time, and more acidic oceans that affect coastal ecosystems.

The 100+ page report provides detailed information and projections for each of these impacts. One of the most striking findings is that higher temperatures and a record-low snowpack despite normal precipitation levels – conditions that led to the devastating 2015 snow droughtcould become commonplace by mid-century.

Another key takeaway is that climate change will affect every region of Oregon. It will also disproportionately impact tribal communities, as well as low-income and rural residents and communities of color. The assessment divides the state into four regions, with snapshots of anticipated climate impacts over the rest of the century:

  • The Coast: Due to rising sea levels, thousands of homes and more than 100 miles of road face a greater risk of inundation. Warmer and more acidic oceans will affect near-shore fisheries and hatcheries, endangering the local shellfish economy and the workers who rely on that industry. Wildfires in coastal forests will likely become increasingly common as well.
  • The Willamette Valley: Heat waves will grow in frequency and intensity as temperatures continue to climb, increasing heat-related illnesses and deaths among the region’s residents. Studies project increasing summer water scarcity and growing wildfire risks that could significantly expand burn areas.
  • The Cascade Range: Precipitation will increasingly fall as rain instead of snow, affecting the ski industry and water supplies. At the same time, forests will likely become even more vulnerable to wildfire, insect infestations and disease. Increased risk of wildfire-related respiratory illnesses is a key health concern for Jackson County.
  • Eastern Oregon: As snowpack shrinks, water supply will be a concern, especially for residents in the John Day basin with no man-made water storage capacity. Drought is a key health risk for Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, and Crook counties. The Blue Mountains will also likely experience higher tree mortality and wildfire activity.

Ambitious climate action is the prescription

The Third Oregon Climate Assessment Report includes good news for Oregonians. The worst climate impacts can be avoided through ambitious efforts to curb global carbon emissions.

The Beaver State has already taken significant steps to decarbonize its economy, yet it’s still not on track to meet its near-term 2020 emissions goal. Two key next steps for Oregon are ensuring that any transportation funding package helps reduce global warming emissions from the transportation sector, and putting a price on carbon. A carbon price is an important tool in the overall portfolio of critical policies for cutting heat-trapping pollution.

The Oregon legislature should show continued leadership by heeding the experts’ prognosis and taking further preventative climate action today to ensure its climate health tomorrow!