Climate change is a long-discussed topic, but many feel they are beginning to see the impact in Madison County and throughout eastern Kentucky.
Sustainable Berea is a non-profit organization made up of a group of citizens who want to support the local food system.
“We grow food and we teach,” said Richard Olson, director of Berea Urban Farm. “A lot of what we do is teach other people how to grow food.”
He said the nonprofit’s mission statement is to “increase local food security and community health through urban agriculture.”
“While we’re growing food, all farmers and gardeners are dealing with climate change, whether they realize it or not,” Olson said. “We must adapt to the changing climate and use methods that give us the term resilience – the ability to survive these extreme events.”
Nancy Gift is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Chair of the Department of Sustainability and Environmental Studies at Berea College.
Gift said she believes many people know the climate is changing, but many don’t believe it is the result of human action.
“Some people might just believe that these are just climate cycles that we’ve had throughout global history,” Gift said. “It’s more than that, but you’d have to educate yourself to understand why.”
Nearly half of Americans – 49% – say human activity contributes “a great deal” to climate change, and another 30% say human activity plays “some role” in climate change. Two in 10 – 20% – believe that human activities play “no or little role at all” in climate change, according to the Pew Research Center.
“When we burn fossil fuels, we’re taking carbon out of the ground, whether it’s in the form of coal or oil, and putting it in an air form like carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide,” Gift said. “It’s like adding blankets to the Earth’s atmosphere. So all that carbon was perfectly fine when it was in solid form in the ground, but when carbon is in air form it holds heat in a way that we have no comparison for in all of global history.”
effects of climate change
Madison County is already seeing the effects of climate change with frequent 90-degree weather, Olson said.
Most Americans today — 62% — say climate change is either greatly or partially affecting their local community, according to the Pew Research Center.
Flooding across eastern Kentucky, which occurred after heavy rains, is an example of climate change, local experts say.
“The floods that just happened. This heavy. One of the things that’s happening with climate change is that the clouds hold more water when they’re hotter,” Gift said. “When it rains, it rains more. That’s exactly what we saw recently. My own house flooded on the Kentucky River last year. These recent floods have not affected me, but we will all see the impact on our own properties in our communities in different ways.”
While flooding can happen normally, climate change has made flooding more intense, Gift said.
“It’s an example where even if climate change hadn’t happened, there probably would have been a storm, and that storm would have hit a few people,” Gift said. “But the magnitude of this storm was undoubtedly greater because of climate change.”
Olson said climate change can cause extreme weather changes and the frequency and intensity of severe events.
“The main impact will be that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will increase,” Olson said. “Maybe there’ll be even a little more rain, but there’s going to be, you know, big downpours like Eastern Kentucky’s been seeing the past few days. More days that we’re in the high 90s. So instead of getting two or three of these in a row, we’re going to see 10.15 days in a row.”
Droughts will also occur, Olson said.
“Water isn’t the issue right now, but we’ve had a lot of droughts in Madison County throughout history,” Olson said. “We will have more and they will likely be longer and more intense because of climate change.”
Winters are also getting warmer, Olsen said.
A 2020 study completed by Climate Central shows that winter in the United States is warming faster than any other season. Since 1970, winter temperatures in every state have risen by one degree or more, while 70% have experienced increases of at least three degrees.
“The growing season is actually increasing,” Olson said. “But that also means things like pests can increase, as the insects that used to be repelled by the winter cold are still there. This includes both plant pests and human pests; Ticks are spreading. Ticks spread disease. One that we’ve seen a lot here is Rocky Mountain spotted fever.”
People – especially those with health problems or those on low incomes – will be directly affected by the impacts of climate change.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is a bacterial disease transmitted by the bite of an infected tick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people who get RMSF have a fever, headache, and rash. RMSF can be potentially fatal if not treated early with the right antibiotic.
“I think one thing to keep in mind here when we look at climate change is that it’s going to affect poor people, wealthier people can afford that well-air-conditioned house,” Olson said.
Gift echoed Olson’s beliefs about how climate change affects low-income people.
“There are people who have invested so much in our current behavior, whether it’s coal or high power consumption or whatever, they don’t want to believe it because they have so much to lose financially,” Gift said. “We have other people who kind of can’t handle it because honestly they just have to handle whatever they can. If you’re struggling to get food on the table, then trying to figure out how to do something for clean energy is just a level of care you don’t have the energy for anymore.”
Certain jobs become more difficult as people cope with extreme heat and weather.
“Imagine outdoor jobs. We’ve all seen the guys on a roof in the summer, you know, when you’re putting on roof tar you just say, “Oh man, it’s a terrible job,” Olson said. “Jobs like this are going to get harder, and farming is one of those jobs. It’s harder to work the hotter it gets. and of course livestock and crops do not thrive as well in these conditions.”
Limiting the impact
When asked what individuals can do to limit their contribution to climate change, Olson said, “Nothing.”
“Really, as an individual, nothing that’s going to make a difference,” Olson said. “Overall, we have an economy that runs on huge amounts of fossil fuels. To really make a difference, it has to be done on a global scale, it’s a global problem. National and international policies would be needed to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption and leave much of the remaining oil and gas in the ground. That will not happen. No faith or government wants to do that.”
However, consuming less is one way to limit contribution, Olson said.
“Anytime people consume things, whether they use fossil fuels directly or buy something made with fossil fuels, most things are transported with them,” Olson said.
Gift encourages people to vote for candidates who advocate for clean energy because of the impact of fossil fuels on the planet.
“Individually, people can do all sorts of simple things, and it can change lightbulbs, or drive less, or walk more or ride a bike,” Gift said. “Our legislators can write that too. Make sure you are ready to vote and vote for people who support clean energy.”
Prepare for the worst
Being prepared for extreme weather, as it becomes more likely, is the best option for homes, Olson said.
“I think people should try to have groceries and necessities like medicine and everything for at least a week — a month would be better,” Olson said. “Just so, when these extreme events come — and they will — they can stay safe in their home and not have to fight the crowd to try and buy stuff.”
More health-conscious behavior will benefit people during extreme weather conditions, Olson said.
“Take your health seriously,” Olson said. “Get in shape. Get down to a good weight. Physically fit people can function better in extreme events, they can function better in extreme heat. They’re less likely to have a medical emergency during some of those events. So you want to be healthy anyway be, but climate change is only making it more important to your well-being.”
Building a community is another piece of advice Olson gave. If you share a meal with your neighbors, you may have someone to rely on when the weather is intense.
“As the severity and frequency of problems due to climate change increases,” Olson said. “We’re not even talking about a whole bunch of other issues that are going to make life less enjoyable, but if they start now, they’ll have a community to rely on.”
Olson’s final advice is, “Everyone should grow food.”