TROUBLE IN THE FIELDS: Hot, dry weather.
August in Arkansas was hotter than the hinges in hell. There was no rain to speak of. Oak trees gave up on photosynthesizing and the hillsides turned brown. Social interaction required two baths a day.
It’s the kind of weather when people — some people — joke about global warming.
Arkansas is a little behind the curve when it comes to subjects like carbon sequestration and slowing air currents and the retreat of sea ice.
Ask an Arkansan whether he believes in global warming and you’re likely to get a cascade of answers: “I don’t know. It’s sure hot today, but it was cool last summer. So who knows?” And finally, “But now that I think of it, it was cooler when I was young.”
Farmers will lament the drought and what it’s costing them. Gardeners will note the uncommon success of their gardenias. Determined fence straddlers will call the subject “politicized.”
Man’s spewing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere isn’t getting a lot of air time in Arkansas’s cafes and other haunts where people huddle to debate the issues of the day. The finer points — meteorological implications of a slowing Gulf Stream current, that global warming doesn’t necessarily translate to hot weather and the possibility of a coast for Arkansas — aren’t on the table. If the subject of global warming is raised, there’s a lot of “nah” before the subject switches to Razorback football.
But the duck blind’s different. When it’s late December and you’re in a fog of Off bug spray and getting your limit of mosquitos but not much else, the subject comes up. Or at least it does if you’re with Clarendon lawyer David Carruth.
Carruth was once a “nah” person himself. Until about a year and a half ago, Carruth said, he would have put global warming in the “earth muffin” category.
But the president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation has been looking at data compiled by the National Wildlife Federation, and he’s worried. In June, he joined a phone-in press conference with NWF biologists to talk about what global warming is doing to ducks, and duck hunting, and to urge media coverage that would persuade Arkansans to look down the barrel of a shotgun and confront what’s going on.
The NWF’s spiffy new 39-page booklet, “The Waterfowler’s Guide to Global Warming,” makes no bones about it. “Global warming is real and is happening today,” the guide says.
Among its litany of facts:
The past decade has been one of the warmest on record and the 20th century was the warmest in the past 1,000 years. The average global temperature has leapt more than 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century; by comparison, it took 20,000 years to warm 9 degrees F. and leave the peak of the ice age behind.
That greenhouse gases trap the earth’s warm breath gets no argument. But climatologists worldwide — even those who dare speak in the rarefied air of the Bush White House — link fully half the pollutants in our air to human activity: fumes from fossil-fuel burning cars and electricity-generating plants, and the concurrent deforestation of the earth. It is because of man, they say, that the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is greater today than it has been in 420,000 years. The rapid increase in CO2 in the atmosphere “far exceeds anything the earth and the life it supports have experienced in at least the past 100,000 years,” the “Waterfowler’s Guide” says.
Global warming, or climate change, or whatever tag one puts on the planet’s race back to the ice-free Eocene, isn’t a new subject. But the public in general isn’t losing a lot of sleep over it. It’s complex, abstract, hard to see in everyday life.
Ducks, on the other hand, aren’t. So, to generate debate, the NWF zeroes in on greenheads and their ilk and the threats a warmer world poses to the “duck factories” of the Great Plains’ prairie potholes and wetlands. The guide looks at predicted changes in migration patterns and coastal winter habitats. It reports that one model, based on current climate trends, concludes that unless the world does something to check its greenhouse gas output, nearly every prairie wetland — areas that, by the way, produce 75 percent of Arkansas’s ducks — will dry up and 70 percent of the duck population will be, figuratively, shot down.
Carruth is no wild-eyed lefty. He’s a Republican, in fact. He just parts ways with his party on the environment. “I’ll maintain a doubting Thomas attitude,” Carruth said, “but if what they’re saying is true and I keep the same attitude, we’re going to have some really bad problems in 15 to 50 years.”
Global warming’s impact threatens more than the success of duck season. The state’s agricultural economy depends on sun, but not too much, and rain, but not too much — which is how it was for much of the 20th century.
Despite this year’s drought, farmers aren’t raising much hell about global warming. Yes, they know that hot, dry weather creates drought. They know that high nighttime temperatures like we’ve had in the past decade will throw plants into survival mode and reduce crop yields.
But they’re more likely to debate who should pay for draining the White River than what would happen if the White were drained. They’re worried about the here and now, not how we got here now.
Randolph County rice, bean and corn farmer David Smith doesn’t know if global warming is real. “I know one thing,” he said. “When I’m out there on one end of a shovel handle and it’s hot, it’s a problem.”
“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Smith said. “Last year we went through one of the coolest and wettest summers and this year one of the hottest and driest.”
But, Smith recalled, when he was a kid, “we always made bean crops without ever watering. Now if you plant a bean crop without irrigation, you’re pretty well taking a gamble that you’re going to lose. So maybe it is getting hotter and drier.”
Arkansas has had such a mean drought this year that Gov. Mike Huckabee is asking the USDA to designate Arkansas’s dusty 75 counties a disaster.
Fields have failed; farmers have had to replant. Hay production is about half of what it should be by now, so cattle farmers are having to buy feed from out of state. But the expense that’s killing the farmers of Randolph County, Smith and extension agent Mike Andrews said, is the cost of running the pumps to get water to the fields.
“Imagine,” Andrews said, “if you owned 40 cars and you started them up Monday and kept them running, while you were at work, home or asleep, to next Monday. … Some of these guys are running 30 or 40 power units.” Farmers are having to run the pumps when prices for diesel fuel have skyrocketed.
Smith said he’s paying anywhere from 60 cents to a dollar more a gallon this year. “We’ve got 20 power units just screaming,” he said. “It’s tearing our head plumb off.” It takes a man’s mind off climate science, he says.
So they’re not talking about carbon sequestration over coffee at Brenda’s Sale Barn cafe in Pocahontas?
“In Pocahontas, it’s more of a hate situation for George Bush,” Smith said. “He’s a petroleum company owner and he’s getting rich. It sounds convenient.”
So, the NWF is betting, Arkansas duck hunters might be the better group to lead a charge on Washington, D.C., to shake Congress out of its comfortable, oil-fed complacency and do something about the United States’ enormous role in polluting the planet’s skies.
Last year, judging by licenses issued, 78,000 duck hunters pulled on their waders and greeted the Arkansas sunrise to shoot more than a half million mallards out of the sky. They spent $118.3 million in Arkansas on their passion.
People come to Arkansas to duck hunt because the state has the largest population of wintering ducks in North America. Almost without exception, more mallards are killed here every year than any other state. Arkansas likes duck hunters and duck hunters like Arkansas.
But last year’s harvest of 556,000 mallards was a poor showing compared to the 1.15 million mallards taken in the 1999-2000 season.
Whether duck hunters buy the NWF’s thesis that the ducks are “short stopping” — landing in historically frozen but now thawed feeding grounds north of Arkansas — because of warming temperatures, they know they aren’t seeing ducks like they used to. The number of hunters doesn’t seem to be a factor. There were 2,000 fewer licenses issued that terrific 1999-2000 season than in 2004-2005.
The “camo bunch” in Arkansas mostly pooh-poohs global warming, Carruth said. “There’s a theory in the duck world that a reason we don’t have ducks is that [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife flies over refuges in the Mississippi flyway dropping corn to ducks.” Persuading them to take a look at the evidence on global warming is going to be quite a job, he says.
The science, Arkansas Wildlife Federation executive Terry Horton agreed, “is very hard to sell.” But, he added, “It’s coming, it’s reality, it’s going to have dramatic changes in fish and wildlife and in the way people live. We need to get excited about it.”
Experts say we need to get excited about it fast. They predict that we’ve got about 10 or 15 years to get emissions under control and avert a catastrophe. The European Union figures if the world could reduce greenhouse emissions 60 percent by 2050, it could hold the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
But will the world crack down on industry that much? And even if it does, a rise of only 2 degrees C. could bring enormous changes — turning Arkansas’s rice- growing Delta into a dry pine savannah, for example.
Larry Schweiger, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, was in Little Rock on a 102-degree day in August to participate in the Arkansas affiliate’s annual awards banquet. He is a native of Pittsburgh, Rachel Carson’s home town, and was inspired to tackle environmental issues by her book, “The Sea Around Us.” Carson’s book, published in 1951, took note of warming winds and oceans even then and the changes in the movements of fish and birds that could be observed. It was surely the first popular book to talk about El Nino and the devastation the warm water current periodically visits on the people and cold-water fisheries of coastal Peru.
“Wildlife have been speaking to us for a long time,” Schweiger said. Seabirds and sparrows and dolphins and whales are moving to colder climes. Even opossums, Schweiger said, “are marching toward the polar regions.”
Anecdotal evidence abounds. Globally, the month of July was the second hottest on record for land and sea surface temperatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That month, 800 people drowned in Bombay, India, after a monsoon — a predicted effect of global warming — dumped 37 inches of rain on them. More than 20 homeless people died in an Arizona heat wave. In Virginia, 300 Boy Scouts at the National Jamboree were treated for heat distress.
The Swiss are putting blankets on their glaciers to slow their melting.
But if the movement of ’possums and isolated instances of weird weather events don’t set your heart racing, consider less subtle clues.
An expanse of Siberian permafrost the size of France and Germany put together has started to melt for the first time in 11,000 years. Cranked-up greenhouse gases are taking the perma out of Siberia’s permafrost and turning it to mud. But it’s not the mud that’s got scientists worried. The area is a vast peat bog. As it thaws, it will begin to release its stores of billions of tons of methane gas — which as greenhouse gases go is worse than carbon dioxide by a factor of 20.
The melting of the Arctic has been much in the news. It’s warming at twice the rate of the temperate zones, with temperatures up as much as 4 to 7 degrees F. in the past 50 years. Seward’s icebox has been on the blink since the 1990s; retreating ice and rising ocean levels are inundating Alaskan towns; the thawing of frozen areas is leaving crevasses in the land. This past July had the smallest mean amount of sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere since record-keeping started in 1979. The mean average of ice cover was one million square kilometers below the previous average.
In 25 years, U.S. researchers predict, there will be no glaciers in Glacier Park.
Janet Carson, Arkansas’s gardener laureate, won’t weigh in on global warming. “I don’t have a clue,” she said.
But she knows this. Last year, a hibiscus was in bloom on her deck on Christmas Eve. Her oleander, a species native to Southeast Asia, over-wintered in a pot. Cannas, elephant ears and gladioli are over-wintering in people’s gardens. People are planting annuals that make it through the year, like Mexican heather. Palms are being used in landscaping.
Twenty-five years ago, Carson said, no one referred to fig trees as trees — they froze back to the ground every winter and only grew to bush size. Today, she sees healthy fig trees — they’ve had “no problems in 15 years,” Carson said. “Frosts have been happening later, and we haven’t been getting as cold in winter.”
The change is marked enough, Carson said, that in 2003 the American Horticultural Society published a new hardiness zone map that put Arkansas in Zone 8 rather than the cooler Zone 7. The map, created with temperatures recorded from July 1986 and March 2002, was published in the May-June issue of American Gardener Magazine. “Many areas have experienced zone creep, with zones edging northward slightly,” the magazine noted.
But no sooner was the map published than the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had awarded the Society the grant to create it, demanded that it be withdrawn. It says a new map that takes into account temperatures over 30 years instead of 15 is in the making. Judy St. John, a USDA spokesman, said she would not characterize the 2003 map as “wrong,” but that it needed fine-tuning.
The creator of the map, Dr. Marc Cathey, said plant growers on the review board at the USDA feared people might complain if plants they bought using the new zone guides didn’t survive. “Everyone has their own agenda,” Cathey, who does not believe that global warming will be long-term, said. Did he think the USDA was politically motivated to pull the map? “I don’t think they’re that organized.”
Does the new map show zone creep? “There are some shifts, as you would expect,” the USDA’s St. John said. She could not recall whether Arkansas had shifted into the more tropical Zone 8 or not.
Earlier this year, Jimmy Reynolds, a duck hunter and environmental science teacher at Mansfield High School, paid a call on Sen. Mark Pryor. Reynolds wanted Pryor to get behind a bill drafted by Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut that would put caps on industrial CO2 emissions and create a system in which companies that were getting under the cap could trade credits, selling to companies in violation. The bill follows acid rain model legislation.
“His aide was giving me this long spiel,” Reynolds said, about the bill being too harsh on business, and Pryor wasn’t talking. Reynolds, frustrated, finally looked at Pryor and said, “So, senator, what should I tell the students of Mansfield High your position on global warming is?” Suddenly, Pryor sat up. The aide “wanted to start back in again,” Reynolds said, but Pryor waved him silent. “You tell them we’re going to lead on this issue.”
Pryor joined Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in sponsoring an amendment to the energy bill to encourage voluntary emissions reductions, a bill seen as fairly toothless.
As enacted, the 2005 Energy Policy Act actually promotes pollution, granting oil and gas companies exemptions from compliance with the Clean Water Act, weakening the National Environmental Policy Act’s role in assessing impact, and promoting oil drilling on Alaska’s North Slope.
President Bush has finally acknowledged that global warming is real and humans play a role. But Bush rejected the United Kingdom’s recent efforts to coax the U.S. into taking responsibility, because, he said, the U.S. economy would suffer. Why the U.S. economy won’t suffer when Raleigh has a seashore and the bread bowl has turned to desert, it’s hard to say.
Washington’s startling indifference to the implications of a greenhouse world doesn’t surprise the National Wildlife Federation’s Larry Schweiger. “The road to Congress is a limited access highway,” Schweiger said, “and it’s a toll road.”
At the second annual Arkansas Watershed Conference last September, Arkansas Audubon director Ken Smith gave a paper that posited “it’s not a what if. It’s coming and how do we respond?”
The arrival of human culture has proved to be one big, if slow-falling, meteorite crushing the world’s flora and fauna. More than 17,000 species wink out every year, or one out of 1,000 species, Smith said. Extinction is a fact of life, but today’s rate is 10,000 times greater than it was before human settlement — greater than it’s been in 65 million years.
For every rise in temperature of 2 degrees C., Smith told the conference, a species will have to expand its range by 180 miles or gain altitude of 1,500 feet to find comparable habitat. Picture loblolly pine savannahs ranging up into the shadows of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Insects will flourish. Without the necessary rain they need to recharge, wetlands will start to wither. “Hardwoods would essentially be eliminated from where they’re growing now,” Smith said, retreating to north-facing mountain slopes. Fish, too, would seek refuge in cooler, deeper waters to the north. Arkansas would no longer be famous for its ducks.
Besides the obvious things that must be done — reducing use of fossil fuels and moving to energy-efficient buildings and transportation — Smith said we need to plant trees by the millions to suck up the CO2, hold soil and offer habitat. Agriculture must speed up research to create drought- and pest-resistant plants. Towns should consider creating underground, non-evaporative reservoirs for water.
In Arkansas, Smith would create “arks,” biological refuges. The arks would take in existing parks and forests and natural areas and connect them by wide corridors to allow for the movement of animals. Smith would protect streams and rivers and the habitat they create, and build new wetlands.
If possible, Smith said, Arkansas should conserve 25 to 30 percent of its land for the arks — not by condemnation, but via incentives like tax credits and voluntary management agreements.
“To hedge our bets,” he told the watershed conference, “we should consider temperature-controlled botanical gardens and zoological parks” to save threatened species endemic to Arkansas.
Smith’s talk was received well by some in the audience. Others, he said, “were still in the category of wishful thinking and thought the talk was not appropriate.”
To those who would argue that curtailing industry profits would hamper the world’s economies, Smith said: “We can’t afford not to do these things.”
Arkansas Audubon is raising money to build a nature center in Gillam Park in east Little Rock. The need to reduce greenhouse gases and stop smothering the planet will be addressed in its displays.
The center may bring Arkansas up to speed in the debate on global warming.