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Ohio Cities Prep Their Game Plan To Confront Climate Change

Jeff St. Clair
Cleveland is a national leader in developing a climate change action plan. Cities have taken the lead in pursuing the goals of the Paris Agreement after the U.S. pulled out of the compact.

Beth Herndon, a geology professor at Kent State University, rummages through a large freezer in her office filled with bags of soil from the Arctic.

The permafrost samples she collected in Alaska need to be kept frozen, she says, because, "they’re composed of mostly decomposing plant material.” Herndon is studying how the minerals in the soil effect that decomposition.

“Those minerals can act to stabilize or sequester the carbon and nutrients and keep it potentially protected from plants or microorganisms,” she says.

Our climate is rapidly changing.  Recent studiesshow earth could be entering a period of warming not seen since the end of the age of dinosaurs, if current trends continue. While scientists study exactly what might happen in the future, Ohio cities are scrambling to prepare for even the worst-case scenarios.

Warming Planet, Changing Weather

Herndon says the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the permafrost she’s collecting is thawing out.

“So a lot of that carbon that’s been stored in the soil for thousands of years is being converted to greenhouse gases,” says Herndon.

In fact, the carbon dioxide and methane expected to leak into the atmosphere from thawing permafrostover the next 50 years is measured in gigatons – that’s billions of tons. Herndon says understanding the interaction of minerals in permafrost could help us predict the rate of climate change.

“This is one piece of the puzzle,” she says.

Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
Geochemist Beth Herndon sorts samples of soil collected in Alaska. Herndon is studying how minerals in the permafrost affect the rate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released.

Another piece is found one floor above her in the geography department at Kent State. That’s where weather researcher Cameron Lee is testing a computer program that collects billions of pieces of historical weather data.

“It then runs it through a process of classifying it into one of 11 weather types for every location on the globe,” Lee says.

Lee developed a system of that helps translate the large-scale effects of climate change into something we can feel.

“People aren’t just affected by temperature, or just affected by humidity, or by the wind," he says. "But all of these things happening simultaneously.”

He boils these down into nine daily weather types, plus two transitional phases.

“So you can from dry and cold to hot and humid at the other end of the scale,”  he says.

Lee has mapped out daily weather conditions for all of North America collected over the past four decades. His data shows dramatic changes in Northern Canada, where above-average temperatures now extend over nearly one third of the year.

“That’s quite alarming,” Lee says.

Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
Cameron Lee studies changing weather patterns across the globe. He's developed a model that maps the changes of weather types that illustrate warming trends.

Lee likens our warming climate to a baseball slugger on steroids: “The number of homeruns he hits is going to get that much better, the distance he hits the ball is going to be that much further.”

Likewise, once-rare weather extremes are becoming the new normal.

Ohio's New Climate

Lee’s map shows the region that includes Ohio is experiencing three more weeks of warm, humid weather – plus two fewer weeks of cold, dry days per year – compared to 40 years ago. That also includes more and heavier rainfall.

“On average we’re seeing 20 less days per year of the lake freezing,” says Matt Gray, chief of Cleveland’s office of sustainability.

Gray recently unveiled the city’s updated plan to prepare for, and perhaps prevent, the worst effects of climate change.

“Our goal is to reduce our emissions 80 percent by 2050, and it’s also about building more resilience to the impacts of climate change we’re already seeing,” Gray says.

Cleveland’s plan has 28 objectives across six focus areas. The plan promotes energy efficient buildings, clean energy sources, sustainable transportation, and even locally-grown food.

“Growing lettuce in the Kinsman neighborhood is a lot less energy intensive than trucking it in from California,” Gray says.

Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
Cleveland's climate plan includes a long-term reinvestment in urban forests.

He says Cleveland offers tax abatements on energy efficient home renovations, and Gray is also pushing local businesses to conserve energy and take actions to reduce carbon emissions. Sustainability touches all of the city’s revitalization efforts.

“By doing these actions we create a much more resilient economy in Cleveland and everywhere else,” Gray says.

Columbus is preparing to adopt a climate change plan of its own, prepared by a task force of researchers at The Ohio State University. The report, which was unveiled Tuesday, suggests that Columbus must create centers for people to take refuge from heat, modernize its electric grid, and increase public education.

These efforts come as the White House steps away from global climate change efforts. The U.S. is the only country to back out of the Paris climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But Columbus and Cleveland are among the 400 U.S. cities committed to the Paris goals, “and that makes me more hopeful that we have a chance of solving this crisis.” Columbus and Cincinnati also won grants from the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge to help them tackle climate issues.

A recent Yale University pollfound that 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening. But fewer than half of Americans believe scientists are convinced climate change is real, and that doubt of science-based fact could be the biggest threat of all.