Fellow Story

Climate change getting more personal

Editor's note: The following opinion piece by Fellow Hilary Harp Falk first appeared on Bay Journal.

When the effort to bring climate change into the consciousness of the U.S. public began in earnest, the images were a series of melting glaciers with polar bears floating on islands of ice: beautiful creatures in a stark landscape that looked nothing like the place most of us call home.

It was initially challenging to make this issue personal — to communicate how carbon pollution was dramatically changing the future of the planet. Anyone who lives along the East Coast, in particular the low-lying mid-Atlantic, no longer struggles with this abstraction. The realities of climate change are literally sinking in with weekly images of flooding, discussions of the next big storm or sophisticated maps outlining the new edges of the coast.

Climate change is happening and its impacts could be devastating. But even with sobering stories about warmer waters and rising seas, we should not be paralyzed or abandon our current course of action for the Chesapeake Bay.

It’s time to double down on solutions, first by reducing the largest sources of carbon pollution and greenhouse gases. There are several upcoming opportunities to stem pollution right here in Maryland through the re-authorization and strengthening of Maryland’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act — the framework that guides the state’s climate action plan. Expanding Maryland’s clean energy standard to 25 percent by 2020 will mean that more of the electricity we use comes from clean, renewable sources like offshore wind and the sun.

The national Clean Power Plan is another important opportunity to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The growth of renewable energy markets is profoundly exciting and demonstrates the way forward.

Because climate change requires us to manage for an uncertain future, we must also accelerate the adoption of adaptable, climate-smart solutions to the immediate and significant threats we face in sea level rise and coastal storms. As Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote, “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” I believe this is as valid in the age of climate change as it has ever been.

Many of the solutions to the impacts of climate change already exist and we find them in nature. Natural-based solutions like living shorelines and natural infrastructure will allow us to address impacts like flooding while providing critical habitat for wildlife as they also adapt to changing landscapes.

Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for many communities along the East Coast: In its aftermath we have seen unprecedented funding to investigate resiliency strategies, test scientific assumptions and look at nature-based solutions. Restoring ecosystems — marshes, beaches, sea grass beds — will give human communities the best chance of protection from the next big storm.

Funding support from federal agencies and private foundations has allowed groundbreaking work to pilot innovative conservation; identify and protect critical habitat; and overcome barriers to implementation.

At Conquest Beach in Maryland, the National Wildlife Federation and its partners are helping to design and construct a living shoreline that will not only protect the public beach from further erosion, but also serve as a natural barrier to sea level rise and create a future marsh habitat. By combining a wealth of historical site information, current observations and state-of-the-art predictive models, this project has created an innovative site design that will work within natural processes to enhance the productivity of the ecosystem while continually changing and adapting with the climate.

Green infrastructure projects in cities around the country are essential in helping to protect drinking water, stop flooding and minimize economic impacts from storms and sea level rise.

Investing in natural infrastructure also protects the Chesapeake Bay, which means we can use restoration efforts to meet multiple challenges. Greening cities will reduce pollutants entering the Chesapeake Bay. Oyster reefs that have been shown to be highly resistant to storm damage and capable of dampening wave action also serve as one of our best natural filters to improve water quality. Living shorelines, an important tool in resiliency, keep sediment and the pollution it carries from washing into local creeks and streams.

The wake-up call of the last week, month and year is just the beginning. Images of climate change continue to become more personal as we see flooding in our towns — and our basements.

But let’s not wallow in bad news. Let’s focus on solutions, especially when many of them — designed intentionally — will help us meet multiple restoration goals. By investing in nature, we will realize all of the benefits it affords, including resilient landscapes, clean air and clean water.