UNC Charlotte climate change expert discusses effects of extreme weather

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2022

Extreme weather has pounded the globe this summer. From deadly flooding in some areas to record-breaking heat waves and droughts in others, the effects of climate change are becoming more remarkable each year — or are they? Is severe weather more frequent now, or do we simply hear about it more often? What makes the topic so divisive? Is there anything we can do to help slow climate change or is it too late?

Jack Scheff, a noted expert on climate change and assistant professor of geography and earth sciences, answered a few questions about the changes we’re seeing in our environment and what the future holds.

Have occurrences of severe weather (fires, heat waves, droughts, devastating storms, etc.) become more regular or do we now hear about them more often?

I would say both. As we’ve heated up our planet with fossil fuel carbon emissions over the last several decades, wildfires have gotten much larger, heat waves have become hotter and longer, droughts have also become longer, and hurricanes have grown stronger and more damaging. However, it is also true that our hyper-charged media environment and smartphone ubiquity make us much more aware of these disasters than we were in the past.

What have been some of the more successful measures taken in the past few decades to slow climate change?

The massive improvements in the efficiency and cost of natural gas drilling, solar panel manufacturing, wind turbine production and battery technology have been among the most important climate change-slowing developments of the last few decades. They have allowed natural gas, solar and wind energy to out-compete dirtier coal in the electric power sector, noticeably reducing the rate of carbon emissions in the U.S. and some other countries (even as emissions in other countries have increased). Vehicles, buildings, factories and appliances have become more energy-efficient over the decades, which has also helped to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change to some extent.

What does our future in North Carolina and Charlotte look like?

Over the next few decades, our summer heat will continue to broadly get hotter and more humid, our winter cold will continue to get milder and less snowy, our rain will keep getting heavier, our hurricanes will continue to get stronger, and the sea level on our coast will continue to rise (with lots of natural ups and downs along the way of course). However, the severity of these outcomes depends on humanity’s energy choices. If the global economy continues to rely on uncaptured fossil fuel burning, enough carbon will be emitted that North Carolina could get as hot as Florida or even Texas in 50 years. If the world quickly transitions to cleaner energy sources, North Carolina will still get hotter but not by as much.

Why is climate change a divisive subject?

I believe one reason climate change can be such a divisive subject is that some of the solutions discussed in the popular conversation call for personal sacrifice and lifestyle change — things like limiting how much we drive, consuming less meat, paying more for energy, lessening our reliance on air conditioning and heating in homes and businesses, and so on. A lot of people understandably don’t want to do these things. If they think solving climate change requires those kinds of actions, they are going to be reluctant to do so. Therefore, I think professionals need to emphasize that climate change can be addressed just by adopting better energy technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, carbon capture, modern/safe nuclear and so on) and newer/more efficient stuff, rather than by living a more austere lifestyle or giving up modern comforts.

What can individuals do to help?

I think the most important way that individuals can help is by being open to change and excited about the future. To transition from uncaptured fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, we will have to use new technologies (electric vehicles, wind turbines, new industrial processes, heat pumps, carbon capture, hydrogen, to name a few) and build lots of new infrastructure (power lines, wind farms, solar farms, geothermal plants, efficient buildings). Sometimes people are wary about these new things and adopt a “not in my backyard” attitude. For example, a major new power line that would have helped New England transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean hydropower was killed by local environmental opposition recently. By contrast, we need to welcome these kinds of built improvements in order to reduce emissions — and we need to encourage our elected representatives to support them.

Is it too late for us to make a sizable difference?

Not at all! In fact, the future is in our handsIf we continue to burn uncaptured fossil fuels for most of our energy, the planet will get several degrees Fahrenheit hotter over our lifetimes with some frightening consequences. If we transition to cleaner technologies in a timely fashion, the planet may only get one or two degrees F hotter, which would be far more manageable.