This is part one to a three-part series examining how climate change is affecting West Virginia and the solutions currently being discussed. In this part, we will discuss what exactly climate change is and how it affects the United States. 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A new group called the West Virginia Climate Alliance has recently released “A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Change,” which outlines some of the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to climate change issues in the state. Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, became part of the West Virginia Climate Alliance and helped put together the guide. She said it’s a way to familiarize folks with some of the climate change concepts and solutions.

“One of our objectives was to try to cut through some of the misinformation that has been out there, and what it really means is relying on the science and the scientist and looking at an abundance of scientific consensus around the cause and effects of climate change,” explained Rosser, “and I think what happened with this issue is it’s become very politicized.”

This is the West Virginia Climate Alliance’s first activity, and the group includes religious, social justice, political, and environmental organizations, like Sierra Club of West Virginia, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, League of Women Voters of West Virginia, and West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light.

“It’s not its own separate organization at this time, it’s really just an alliance or collection of groups who have come together,” explained Rosser.

To understand climate change, you first have to understand the role of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane. If you think of these gases as forming a thin layer around the planet, when the sun’s rays reach the earth, a lot of the rays bounce back into space. The gases help to contain some of the rays so that we can enjoy some warmth. But if the layer of greenhouse gases gets too thick, the heat can’t escape so easily, thus creating the climate change effect.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA, the past six years have been the hottest years since 1880. As air becomes warmer, it can hold more water. This means that the globe is experiencing what is called a water cycle intensification—more water evaporates into the air, more rain falls down to the earth. When more water evaporates, it can cause drought or extremely dry weather. Also wildfires are more likely to start and spread when the weather is dry. 

Of course, hotter temperatures also means ice caps would start to melt, raising the sea level. The raise in sea level combined with more water in the air causes more intense weather events on coasts, like hurricanes and typhoons

Top 6 Hottest Years Since 1880

Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: Global Time Series

When ecosystems are disturbed by a change in temperature, often the balance of nature gets off-set. Animals that thrive in the cold are likely to be impacted, and warmer weather species might take over. So, scientists are now studying the effects on invasive species, pests, and disease.

“What I’ve read about is the presence of ticks that have Lyme’s disease that can make people very sick,” explained Rosser, “So a change in climate means a change in habitat, which means some of our native species may not survive and invasive species might come in and put the whole system out of balance to where we may be exposed to more pests and invasive species that could have deleterious effects on our heath and our food systems.”

This gif attempts to explain how greenhouse gases help contain the sun’s rays on the planet, but when the layer of gases gets too thick, the planet warms up because it’s harder for the rays to escape.

Dr. Nicolas Zegre is an Associate Professor of Forest Hydrology at West Virginia University. He has been studying some of the effects of climate change through the Mountain Hydrology Lab at the university.

“A lot of my sense on climate change and water comes from my time in the military. I’m a veteran and when I think about water and climate change, I think about national security,” Zegre explained, “National security is having the resources for our internal economy and also having healthy communities and opportunities for the workforce and the people, so it’s really a national security issue to rethink how we treat the environment and how we try to keep our economy running.”

Scientists are now determining that carbon dioxide specifically breaks down in the atmosphere at a much slower rate than other gases. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that carbon dioxide emissions last thousands of years in the atmosphere, meaning that even some carbon dioxide emissions from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1850s are still having an effect on the planet.

So, how much carbon dioxide is too much? A movement involving top level scientists across the globe have determined that keeping levels under 350 ppm will help us avoid the most catastrophic and irreversible climate change effects. In 2016, the world passed the 400 ppm threshold, and in September, we reached 415 ppm. Considering how far we are ahead of the safe number–and how long carbon dioxide lasts in the air–scientists are now saying that simply reducing future carbon dioxide emissions is not enough. We would need to get to a point of negative emissions. In other words, we would need to take carbon dioxide out of the air. One example of a way we could do that is to plant more trees, which naturally soak up the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to fixing climate change is the misinformation surrounding it. 

There’s plenty of evidence online that fossil fuel companies have been using clever marketing, lobbying, and scientific research funding to discredit climate change. As one example, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a Climate Deception Dossier in 2015 that contains copies of internal company documents from fossil fuel companies that showed a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. 

“The science has almost been quieted by this whole political and partisan rhetoric that accompanies climate change and it’s hard to decouple that because there are industries, particularly fossil fuel industries, transportation that will be heavily affected. They have a lot at stake, and they have a lot of influence in politics,” explained Rosser.

Of course, a big talking point of this past election was the issue of climate change. In the end, Joe Biden became the president elect, and he has expressed an interest in policies that address climate change. But West Virginia’s voice is often left out of that discussion, when we arguably have the most at stake.

On the next installment of Climate Change in West Virginia, we take a look at the climate change evidence we can find in our own backyard.