September 20, 2012

Climate Change and My Trip to the Buffalo River in 2032

The Buffalo River, TN- photo credit to Tim Hobbs

Some of my most treasured memories of growing up and living in Tennessee involve Boy Scout camp-outs, and one trip always stood out above the rest. Every August, my brothers and I would hop in Dad’s Ford F-150 pick-up truck and make the trek with the rest of Dresden’s Boy Scout Troop #40. We’d drive past field after field of corn and soybeans as we drove across West Tennessee and would arrive two hours later at Grimes Canoe Base on the Buffalo River. We’d camp out that Friday night and then spend Saturday canoeing 20 miles down the river, all the while swimming, hiking, jumping off rope swings, and everything in between. It was a beautiful and precious thing to spend that time having those adventures and revelling in the incredible natural beauty of that place with my family and my fellow Scouts.

But according to a new report on the projected impacts of climate change on Tennessee (available for download here), I very well might not be able to share this trip with my sons or daughters if we as a state and a nation continue our addiction to dirty fossil fuels instead of moving Tennessee and the United States towards clean, renewable energy sources and a more sustainable and prosperous economy. The Sustainable Tennessee study, which provided a thorough analysis and synthesis of dozens of other studies and reports on various climate change impacts, found that Tennessee will experience a wide range of harmful consequences if we continue emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, everything from worsening drought to the ravaging of Tennessee’s forests to an increase in tick-borne illnesses.

Those who deny or downplay the problem of climate change often draw on divisive, petty, and tired stereotypes, painting people who care about the environment as elitist tree-huggers who would consider Tennessee “fly -over country.” Such stereotypes are just as cliché as some folks up north laughing about how all of us in Tennessee are missing shoes, most of our teeth, and proper grammar.  But this report is as true-blue (or, rather, true-orange) Tennessee as it gets. The roster of contributors to this study- scholars and officials from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Department of Health, Vanderbilt University, the University of Memphis, and the University of Tennesssee- is a who’s who of some of the most respected and revered institutions in our state. The only way this list could BE more Tennessee is if you threw in the Country Music Hall of Fame. That's not to mention the formidable scientific, academic, and professional standing of these institutions, institutions whose sterling reputations are known across the U.S. and around the world.

Furthermore, those who deny the reality of climate change and the fact that its effects on Tennessee will be significant and adverse must not have been paying attention this summer. In July, over a dozen Tennessee counties were declared federal disaster areas due to the huge drought that enveloped the majority of counties in the U.S., a drought which hit 11 counties in West Tennessee with that disaster designation and entirely enveloped my home region of northwest Tennessee, completely devastating the farmers there. Since then, the situation has reached an unbelievable scale magnitude, with the drought enveloping almost two-thirds of the ENTIRE contiguous U.S. The USDA declared a week ago that 42 counties in Tennessee are natural disaster areas, with farmers there eligible for low-interest emergency loans, and declared 36 contiguous counties also eligible for assistance. Let that sink in. Over three-quarters of the counties in Tennessee qualify for natural disaster assistance due to this drought. This will only be more and more common as we belch more and more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

So imagine again the Buffalo River trip I mentioned, but in 2032, when my kids (if I have them) will probably be old enough to go. We’ll pass those fields of corn, but they could well be desiccated and barren due to a projected 15% decrease in the precipitation West Tennessee will receive during the summer. This summer could be just a warm-up act.

We’ll get to the Buffalo River, but this newest study suggests Tennessee’s rivers could be depleted due to this same decrease in precipitation. We could still go hiking along what's left of the river, I suppose, except that in a much warmer Tennessee the chances of my kids contracting a tick-borne illness like Rocky Mountain spotted fever would be drastically higher. If we don’t curb climate change and start moving towards finding solutions, Tennessee's proud agricultural heritage will be severely damaged, perhaps devastated. And one of the most beautiful places I've ever been will be stolen from me and from mine.

But that doesn’t have to be our future. We can choose a clean energy future, with Tennessee particularly well-positioned (with the right policies) to be a leader in solar research and manufacturing. We can choose a sustainable future, one in which we tread lightly on God's earth and preserve Tennessee's natural beauty and resources. We can choose a future worthy of our families, a future with greater opportunity, a future where our children and grandchildren will know prosperity and not poverty.  This latest report should be a wake-up call, a call to action, a call to the kind of courage and determination that the Volunteer State is famous for.