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Are There Silver Linings To Climate Change In The Pacific Northwest?

Šar?nas Burdulis via Wikimedia Commons

The predicted effects of global climate change are grim, to say the least. Global warming is expected to cause more extreme weather events, as well as a rise in sea level, drought and flooding; it’s not a pretty picture.

But, according to weather blogger and KPLU commentator Cliff Mass, it won’t actually be that bad here in the Northwest.

Mass teaches Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. Back in August 2014, he put together a blog post in which he depicted the region as a potential refuge from climate change.

“Not all the changes are going to be negative.”

He started with an empty map of the United States and plotted out the most serious effects - from inundated shorelines in Florida to major water shortages in the South and Southwest - hurricanes and tropical storms in the Southeast and along the East Coast; and deadly heat waves throughout the interior. But none of those calamities marred the northwest corner of the map.

“So, I can go through one item after another - major changes that are going to happen under global warming -and most of them will not produce serious effects here in the Northwest, mainly because of our proximity to the ocean,” said Mass on KPLU about that blog post. He says the cool eastern Pacific will stave off dramatic warming here.

And Mass says there are plenty of other silver linings to climate change for the Northwest, from fewer injuries caused by black ice, to a longer growing season for wine grapes, and in many places, just generally nicer weather.

“Not all the changes are going to be negative,” Mass said. “I think that’s a real problem with the media, they only paint global warming as gloom and doom, everything is bad, a complete disaster. And it’s not that way. Some things will get better, some things will get worse. There’s the opportunity for us to adapt [in] places like the Northwest.

That positive spin on climate change in the Northwest went viral. Mass was quoted about it in media outlets all over the country. So the idea definitely resonates nationally. But it doesn’t sit well with the majority of climate scientists who live here and work on this stuff.

“Warmer temperatures do not act in isolation.”

Lara Whitely Binder is an outreach and adaptation specialist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. She says there are some positives - the prospect of warmer summers and milder winters in places like Seattle, for one.

“The non-climate person in me … sitting there looking at the forecast when it says it’s going to be 70 degrees in April and thinking, ‘excellent – this is great, I’m gonna really enjoy this week!’”

She admits, she has reveled in the warmer forecasts and she knows that’s a common experience. But she also wants people to pay attention to the downsides of record-breaking, hot summers, like the one we had this year.

“When this becomes the new norm, that brings with it a whole host of other changes that are much harder for us to deal with – and we can’t forget that warmer temperatures do not act in isolation,” Whitely Binder said.

“Never go out to happy hour with climate scientists.”

Look, for example, at how the five degrees or so above the norm played out in eastern Washington this year: lower snow pack combined with drought meant water shortages for many farmers; the dry forests burned in what became the state’s worst-ever fire season; poor air quality compromised the health of many vulnerable groups and drove tourists away from resort areas.

And if you start looking at the projections of what warming could do over the next century, she says it starts to get downright frightening.

“I’ve often joked that one should never go out to happy hour with climate scientists – because it is not happy. It’s not a happy hour!” she said. “[That’s] because in the line of work that we do, it’s very hard to see the positive in the research,” she said. “There are projections out there that really call into question the ability to sustain agriculture and they’re pretty cataclysmic.”

Still, she says there are some bright sides to climate change. More temperate weather for some people could indeed translate into opportunities to grow new crops, for example. Other than that, her optimism focuses on our ability to adapt. She says there’s a growing consciousness about the threat of a changing climate, caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

“Somewhere between 2005 and 2007, I saw this profound shift in the public dialogue around climate change, climate impacts - both adaptation and mitigation,” she said. “It was as if people said, ‘I get it.’ And this is both in the public, as well as in local governments, state governments [and the] public sector.”

She says that’s fueling momentum which she hopes will accelerate the transition to positive outcomes.

“At least that it’s leading us in the right direction for dealing with the impacts of climate change,” she said.

And she says that shift has also led to the development of an incredible amount of knowledge about how climate may change and how it may affect systems.  

“There has been no time in history where we’ve had the ability to model and project these kinds of impacts the way that we can now. So the ability to see what the future might look like if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions or we don’t develop adaptive strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change,” Whitely Binder said.

A Step In The Right Direction

“The ability to have that foresight or to have knowledge gives us a tremendous tool to change direction,” she said. “So we’re not going through this process completely blind.”

On that point, she and Cliff Mass see eye-to-eye. She also says there’s merit in the points he makes in that popular blog post about the Northwest as a potential refuge from the effects of climate change. She says the danger is that people will fixate on the positive and forget the negative effects.

But on the upside, she says it keeps people discussing a subject matter that can be so depressing that many people shut down once the conversation starts.

Whitely also says, this is difficult stuff to talk about. She admits she doesn’t even talk about it with her young daughters.

“We don’t have lengthy conversations. We don’t really talk much about climate change in my house,” she says.

She says it’s a touchy and very personal subject – kind of like deciding when to have the “birds and the bees” conversation with your children.

“They know I work on climate change issues, they know I work on impacts and adaptation. But it’s funny - I haven’t really – we haven’t - had the sit-down conversation. It’s kind of like ‘the talk’. Do you have this sit-down conversation with your kids and say, ‘let me tell you about the ways that your future may be awful.’?”

Instead, she says it ends up being 90-second snippets of conversation here and there when they see something in the paper about sea level rise, or a heat wave. She focuses on positive actions and solutions.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about the fact that we need to drive less, bike more - all the things that we need to be doing as individuals and as a society - supporting clean energy, doing what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint,” she says.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to