Indiana scientists want to teach their governor a lesson on climate

Last week, paleoclimatologist Gabriel Filippelli and 21 other Indiana scientists made Gov. Mike Pence an offer they expect he’ll refuse.

In a letter, they offered the governor, the legislature and the state “our collective knowledge,” to help “address the important challenges presented by a changing climate.”

The letter offers a brief summary of the basic mechanics of climate change, and notes, “Like the overwhelming majority of scientists, we project that this human-produced effect will continue to grow into the foreseeable future.

“Hoosier scientists, and you as our governor, must pay close attention to current changes and future projections, and actively in engage in planning and action required to mitigate and adapt to that change.”

Filippelli, an earth sciences professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, told Midwest Energy News he doesn’t actually expect Pence to take the scientists up on their offer of advice, given the Governor’s opposition to the federal Clean Power Plan, his skepticism about the science of climate change and the way his administration and the legislature have largely supported coal-fired power and curbed energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Pence’s press secretary Kara Brooks said, “We appreciate the group taking the time to write our office a letter and we will take their perspective under consideration,” and declined to comment further.

‘I don’t know if he’s ever been approached’

Filippelli hopes the letter raises political leaders’ awareness about climate change science and scientists.

“I don’t know if he’s ever been approached by the Indiana climate scientists or that he knows enough about the science community he has in the state,” said Filippelli, who is also director of the Center for Urban Health at IUPUI.

Or that like the majority of scientists worldwide, Indiana scientists have long acknowledged the concept of human-driven climate change and feel increasing urgency to take action to combat and adapt to it.

“We are eager to engage with you and your staff to ensure that sound science is included in planning and energy and transportation infrastructure programs and policies,” says the letter. “As a former Senior Science Advisor in the U.S. Department of State, I appreciate the importance of balancing science, economics, and human welfare in developing solid policy.”

Indiana scientists’ views are in keeping with the general public on climate change, Filippelli notes. He points to recent polls by Indiana University Bloomington and Stanford University that both showed a significant majority of Indiana residents believe humans are causing climate change and that it is a problem. (However, only a smaller percentage of people in each survey favored immediate or strident action.)

“The administration’s view is out of step with not only the Indiana voting public but certainly the global public,” Filippelli said.

Impacts on farming

The letter cites a Purdue Climate Change Research Center report that predicts climate change impacts on Indiana, and notes that the center is working on a comprehensive assessment of impacts that should guide state policy going forward. Residents will be at risk from increased heat waves, especially in Indianapolis, the letter notes.

And the state’s crucial farming sector could be affected. Drier summers put crops at risk. And, Filippelli noted, increasingly hot summer weather can disrupt the germination cycles of corn, leading to lower yields.

Filippelli said state leaders also need to take climate change into account when planning for water distribution and other infrastructure.

“We do not have an adequate understanding of our water resources in our state, though what we know is that we don’t have much of them,” he said. “Even though it rains we don’t have a lot of reserves – we’re not sitting on huge aquifers. We’re trying to come to grips with that.”

The state needs to study its water resources and plan accordingly, he noted.

“I suspect (Pence) is looking to the electoral time window, but we build our infrastructure for the next 30 to 40 years,” Filippelli said. “What we’re looking forward to is developing an energy, transportation and water infrastructure that’s really right for people in 2030 and beyond, not just in 2016.”

The letter to Pence strikes a proactive rather than doomsday tone, saying:

“The current ‘corn belt’ will likely remain the best area for corn and soybean production and Indiana will likely maintain its position as a top producer of those crops. Indeed, the pace of climate change relative to the rate of technological change will be an important determinant of agricultural impacts and outcomes in Indiana, and this provides clear opportunities for Indiana to be at the forefront of climate change mitigation and adaptation practices.”

Filippelli said the letter was motivated in part by the state’s pending obligation to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions. Pence has vowed to resist the plan.

The letter cites a previous development as evidence that federal policies, even politically unpopular ones, can drive action in the state that end up being win-win situations. The letter notes a decision by Citizens Energy to convert its Harding Street power plant from burning coal to natural gas in light of federal mercury limits, and it cites a study showing the projected recoveries of fisheries and ecosystems thanks to this move.

“Certainly that’s what the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act did in the ’70s – they were ‘draconian’ moves by the EPA at the time, and yet because of them we have rivers and lakes that don’t catch on fire, we have air that’s not like China and India with choking smog,” Filippelli said. “That’s all related to federal policy that’s made fantastic positive local impacts. And all of those were passed in a Republican administration.

“We need to separate the environment from politics. The environment doesn’t care if you’re conservative or liberal or Republican or Democrat. It simply responds to our actions, and it shouldn’t be part of the partisan game.”

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