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KSAT Explains: The science and impact of climate change

Episode 9 of KSAT Explains covers what the future climate of Texas will look like, why you should care and what made the issue so polarizing

SAN ANTONIO – The issue has inspired heated debates, global agreements and acts of protest. Some even argue it’s not real.

But science shows Earth’s climate is changing, and has been changing throughout history.

That evidence has taken the form of rising temperatures, shrinking ice sheets and more extreme weather events.

In this week’s episode of KSAT Explains, which can be streamed on the video player above, meteorologists Kaiti Blake and Sarah Spivey examine how climate change is affecting Texas, how you can reduce your carbon footprint and how this issue became such a political one.

Weather vs. Climate

While they are definitely related, weather and climate are not the same. So what exactly is the difference?

As meteorologists, Kaiti Blake and Sarah Spivey focus on the weather, or short-term atmospheric events.

Climatologists monitor long-term weather patterns and trends.

Weather can be erratic. For example, a thunderstorm in the middle of a drought, or a strong cold front in the heart of spring.

Climate takes into account average weather patterns over a long period of time, at least 30 years. A good example of climate is the fact that west Texas tends to be dry in the spring, while east Texas usually gets quite a bit of rain.

Watch the video below to see meteorologists Kaiti Blake and Sarah Spivey compare the differences between weather and climate to the differences between a newborn and a senior citizen.

Texas Climate Trends

Climate change in general is a very normal process that is a part of Earth’s history.

We talked to Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist and a regent’s professor at Texas A&M University, about climate change.

He said that over the course of millions of years there have been very dramatic shifts: there have been times when basically the whole Earth has been covered in snow, and times when there was only ice on mountain tops.

“We’re about 10,000 years since the last Ice Age,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “Before we recovered from the Ice Age, the temperatures were obviously cooler in Texas, it was also drier. There was a lot more forest cover between the mountains of west Texas.”

Climate periods last hundreds of thousands of years. It can take a long time to see dramatic shifts.

“Since about 6,000 years ago, we’ve been pretty steadily warm and wet and some periods dry,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But essentially if you went back in time a few thousand years ago, you probably wouldn’t be able to see much difference other than the considerably lower population density and lack of freeways.”

Recent trends have shown a considerable increase in global temperature. The rising temperatures observed in Texas over the past 40 years coincides with a warming trend seen across the globe.

“In Texas at least, that temperature trend has overwhelmed natural variability,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases are the main driver of climate change worldwide. But greenhouse gases, and the greenhouse gas effect, are not inherently bad.

Watch the video below to see Sarah Spivey explain.

Combating climate change will take more than just the actions of a few individuals, but there are things you can do to limit the amount of greenhouse gases being put into the atmosphere.

Watch the video below to see Kaiti Blake explain some steps you can take.

Climate Change’s Impact on Weather

A changing climate doesn’t mean there will be immediate, show-stopping changes in our day-to-day weather. The changes will be more subtle and gradual, but noticeable in the next 10 to 15 years.

In his role as State Climatologist, Nielsen-Gammon helped author a report on Texas’ changing climate.

The Assessment of Historic and Future Trends of Extreme Weather In Texas, 1900-2036 was published in March.

It offers a look at how different aspects of Texas weather are expected to change by the year 2036.

Here are some findings from that report:

  • Texas’ average temperature is expected to increase 1.6 degrees by the year 2036.
  • The number of 100 degree days in 2036 will be double what it was on average between 2000-2018. For context, San Antonio could see 36 100-degree days in a summer.
  • Temperatures are also expected to increase on days of extreme cold, up 5.6 degrees from the 1900-1999 average.
  • By the year 2036, Texas’ climate is expected to be drier, overall. But extreme precipitation events, like flash flooding, could become more intense.
  • Sea level rise is expected to continue along the gulf coast through 2036. The rise could threaten ecosystems and structures along the Texas coastline.

Click here to read the full report.

Why Is Climate Change so Political?

These days climate change isn’t just a scientific topic. It has become political. But has this always been the case?

Dr. Neil Debbage, an assistant professor of political science and geography at UTSA, says to answer that question, you have to look at two things: what climate change is and how that’s separate from what we do about it. While the science of climate change isn’t inherently political, what we do about it is.

“We have to think about what politics are and what they’re trying to accomplish,” Debbage said. “They’re basically just a way for groups of people to achieve collective action.”

Over the years, not unlike trends we’ve seen elsewhere in politics, the polarization has enhanced. There are a lot of reasons for this increased politicization of the issue: it’s inconvenient and some of the proposed solutions are expensive. Debbage also points to an increase in attacks on science and expertise.

“The knowledge base of the scientific community has essentially been attacked and not been valued in terms of creating actual policy based on scientific understanding,” Debbage said. “I think we’ve seen that with the ongoing pandemic.”

The enormity of the issue also makes it a hard one to address. Debbage said making the impact of climate change more tangible is essential to creating an appetite for action.

“It can be seen as a far away issue” Debbage said. “But really we’re seeing these impacts here in San Antonio.”


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