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Climate change warming state, federal report says

By James Bruggers The Courier-Journal

Kentucky and Indiana can expect even more heat waves, bigger and worse storms, and poorer air and water quality in the decades ahead because of global warming, according to a new nationwide report from scientists to Congress and the president.

The latest National Climate Assessment, made public Tuesday, hands down a gloomy forecast, with more 95-plus temperatures for the Southeast region that includes Kentucky, and higher humidity and worse air for Indiana, in the Midwest - even as rising carbon-dioxide levels from fossil fuels boosts crop yields.

"The real bottom line in this report, across many hundreds of pages, is that climate change is not a distant threat," John P. Holdren, President Barack Obama's science adviser, said in a conference call with reporters. "It is already affecting every region of the country and every sector of the economy."

For all the anticipated changes, however, Kentucky appears to fare better than other parts of the nation, such as the sea engulfing coastal areas and cities such Miami or persistent drought frying the Southwest.

"Things will change (in Kentucky), but it will not be as bad as many other areas," said Rezaul Mahmood, a Western Kentucky University professor of geography who served on an advisory committee for the report. "We are in a transition zone."

The report recommends that states and cities take steps now to prepare for climate changes. Mahmood said that should make sense even for people who remain skeptical about the science. Communities would need to be prepared for flooding, droughts and heat and other weather disasters regardless of what they believe is causing the change, he said.

But the report was dismissed by such critics as Kentucky's senior senator, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who on Tuesday mocked Obama for talking "about the weather," and called for easing regulations to boost coal production.

"I'm sure he'll get loud cheers from liberal elites, from the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets," McConnell said.

"But the vast majority of middle-class Kentuckians I represent actually have to worry about things like paying utility bills. And putting food on the table."

Expensive disasters

Between 2008 and 2012, four weather-related disasters were declared for Louisville, two for southern Indiana and 11 total for Kentucky, costing the Federal Emergency Management Agency more than $700 million in damage reimbursements and mitigation grants.

The national report echoed those findings, painting a picture of increasingly expensive weather-related natural disasters fueled by an atmosphere pumped up on greenhouse gases such as the carbon dioxide that pours out of coal-fired Kentucky and Indiana power plants.

It found that the Southeast has been affected by more billion-dollar disasters than any other region over the past 30 years, including hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms.

Kentucky was listed among a group of states that each had 36 to 44 billion-dollar disasters since 1980, putting them near the top.

Political response

In its Global Change Research Act of 1990, Congress called for periodic national climate assessments to help the country understand and predict changes.

Previous climate reports were issued in 2000 and 2009. Some 300 scientists were involved in writing and reviewing the most recent report, Mahmood said.

Obama administration officials said they will cite the report in the president's push for policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rep. John Yarmuth , D-Louisville, defended the report's science against critics, saying that as weather intensifies, "our economy is suffering. Climate change is a real threat, and Congress should be working to reduce carbon pollution, investing in clean technology, promoting efficiency, and doing all we can to provide the next generation a safer, more sustainable world."

Environmental engineer Sarah Lynn Cunningham, director of the Louisville Climate Action Network, chastised critics such as McConnell for blocking "every effort to create true energy independence," adding that "energy efficiency and renewable energy would reduce utility bills indefinitely, and create thousands of jobs for Kentuckians."

"Mr. McConnell apparently prefers that we keep blasting Kentucky apart (for coal) for the next day's electricity," she said. "His politics would have all Americans paying high utility bills month after month, year after year - and the planet be damned."

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown took a more neutral approach, saying "it's important for Kentuckians to be aware of potential (climate) impacts," which is why climate change was explored in a state energy conference last year.

Ozone, toxic algae

The National Climate Assessment estimates that by 2070, the western half of Kentucky, including the Louisville area, will have as many as 29 days annually exceeding 95 degrees, up from a range of zero to 15 days from 1971 to 2000.

Hotter temperatures also mean more air-quality problems from ozone. And despite more downpours, the region could experience more extended periods of drought.

The report acknowledged uncertainty over how climate change would affect overall rainfall in the Southeast, but it anticipated a "reasonable expectation" that there would be less water for cities and farms because more heat will evaporate more water.

And it acknowledged that an increase in tornadoes in the region may be because of better reporting - not because of climate change. It concluded that there could be year-to-year and decade-to-decade fluctuations in weather because of natural cycles.

But it also said global warming will also likely mean more toxic algae blooms, such as those that have become more common in Indiana in recent years, and were documented in Kentucky for the first time in late 2012 - in Taylorsville Lake.

The blue-green algae are actually a cyanobacteria, which produce toxins that can lead to skin or eye irritation, nausea, flulike symptoms and liver damage.

"For decades we have been collecting the dots about climates change," said Jerry Melillo, chairman of the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee. "Now we have connected those dots."

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