While oh-so-rural Arkansas isn’t the first place you might think of when the phrase “Global Warming” enters a conversation, a new group says The Natural State will still have to face the impact of the coming crisis — and could reap significant benefits in helping to solve it.
Started early this year, the Arkansas Climate Awareness Project (ARCAP) is trying to help spread the word about climate change due to the greenhouse effect. ARCAP is the brainchild of environmental consultant Don Richardson of Clinton. Richardson ran the Arkansas State Association of Conservation Districts for nine years before he was appointed by the Clinton administration to a post with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since returning to Arkansas, Richardson has devoted most of his time to trying to spread the word about how air quality, pollution and the release of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide are going to change the way Arkansans live.
“You look at things like wildlife and the duck migrations,” Richardson said. “That’s a big economic impact on the eastern part of the state. If that changes and we don’t have our duck population like we did, that’s going to be a big impact on Arkansas.”
Right now, a large part of getting out ARCAP’s message is a series of 12 conferences on global warming that the group is hosting throughout the state between now and October. Last week brought the group to Conway, and to the Stephens Center at UALR in Little Rock.
In his talk on “Global Warming 101,” UALR professor Mike Ledbetter talked about the science behind global warming; how researchers use computer modeling to predict how greenhouse gases will affect climate, and how the rise in global temperature will change humankind. Ledbetter said that even with modern supercomputers, trying to predict the exact impact of global warming is difficult
”The modeling for this is really tough,” he said. “There are so many variables. We know so little about how those things interact.” Globally, he said, melting ice sheets could inundate some of the world’s most populous countries, leading to war over the shrinking amount of dry land. For Arkansas, Ledbetter said, a change of climate could alter things like wildlife migration and the amount of water available for recreation and crop irrigation.
In another session at the UALR conference, Gerald F. Talbert — an agriculture, biomass and climate change consultant — addressed the use of bio-energy; fuels like ethanol, which can be distilled from renewable sources. Essentially pure alcohol, ethanol can be mixed with gasoline and used to power so-called “flex fuel” vehicles.
While current ethanol-making methods require starch- and sugar-heavy crops like sugar cane, beets or corn, Talbert said that with new research into cellulosic ethanol (made by using an enzyme to break down and extract sugars from cellulose), refining plants will soon be able to make ethanol out of waste products like wood pulp, cheese whey, wheat straw, switchgrass, brewery leavings and pine needles. Talbert said that these new technologies would be particularly lucrative for a rural, largely agricultural state like Arkansas, which has both major forestry operations and an abundance of farmland. “We are on the brink of having production-ready plants that can make ethanol out of anything — far simpler and from more readily available sources,” he said. With the need to construct ethanol plants near where crops are grown, Talbert said that biofuels could lead to healthier and more viable rural economies and the reinvigoration of the family farm. Currently, Talbert said, 37 percent of ethanol plants in the U.S. are farmer-owned co-ops.
“We’re going to see a lot of opportunities over in the biofuels area,” said Richardson, “especially in the eastern farming region of Arkansas and in the forestry region. We see it as creating a lot of opportunities, besides the problem of global warming itself.”
Asked what the average Arkansans can do to help, Richardson said that in addition to simple things like buying more efficient appliances, replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents, and turning up the thermostat in the summer, one of the most important things is letting elected officials know how you feel.
“I think the people are ahead of our politicians on this,” he said. “If we’re providing the kind of information out here that gets people to think about it, and they think it’s a problem, then they’ll pass that on to their politicians. Out of that will flow good public policy.”
While Richardson said that global warming is a real problem, it’s one that can be solved through new technologies and conservation. “We can do something about it,” he said. “We can all take some personal responsibility to go out and do those little things, and little things add up.”
For more information about the Arkansas Climate Awareness Project and their upcoming seminars on global warming and how it will affect Arkansas, visit their website www.arcap.org.