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Pacific Division Meeting Focuses on Local Impacts of Climate Change

Rogue Valley vineyard
Vineyards in Oregon's Rogue Valley are exposed to diverse effects from climate change, including rising growing season temperatures and wildfire smoke. | Sean Bagshaw

Global climate change had a very local, if bitter, flavor for Oregon residents last year. It was the taste of wineries rejecting tons of grapes tainted by wildfire smoke and residents watching millions of dollars lost when smoke forced summer tourists inside. And it was the grit in the mouth of an Oregon State University Ph.D. student resigned to wearing a mask in his laboratory to keep from inhaling smoke- and particle-clogged air from the fires.

At the 100th meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Ashland, Oregon June 18-21, community members and researchers discussed such specific and urgent impacts of climate change — and many others — on the regional economy and culture of the western United States.

Just as at other scientific conferences, the numbers on rising greenhouse gas emission levels and average global temperatures were part of the conversation. The AAAS meeting moved beyond that broad overview, however, to examine what keynote speaker and climate researcher Philip Mote called the "texture" of climate change at the local level. Mote, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School at Oregon State University, and his colleagues have been looking at what different levels of future emissions will mean for the Pacific Northwest.

Their work confirms that climate change in the region is "clearly and unequivocally linked to greenhouse gases," he said, before sharing a startling mix of impacts that the scientists have uncovered.

For instance, "when we looked at the coldest night per year [in the Pacific Northwest], we saw some really large increases," Mote said. "There is roughly 8 degrees Celsius [14.4 degrees Fahrenheit] of warming in the coldest night of the year in some of these places, especially east of the Cascades." The change could impact everything from crop growth to power use, he noted.

About 80% of sites west of the 114th parallel — running roughly east of Boise, Idaho and Spokane, Washington — studied by Mote and colleagues had record low April snowpack in 2015. If these changes persist over the next fifty years, the streamflow of the Columbia River could continue its shift toward peak flow in the late winter rather than the summer months, when water is crucial to river basin farmers.

Provisions of the Columbia River Treaty signed by Canada and the U.S., which govern flood control and hydroelectric power generation, are being renegotiated by the two countries, said Mote, "and one of the factors they are considering now is climate change."

Fire and Wine

One of the main goals of this year's Pacific Division meeting was to bring scientists to talk with people in southern Oregon who have been working on restoring pollinator habitat, coping with the effects of wildfires and growing everything from pears to pinot noir grapes, said James Bower, a neuroscientist at Southern Oregon University and the division's executive director.

"We want to provide a service to them, by providing scientists to engage with them, which they are thrilled about," he said.

Bower and his colleagues organized the meeting to provide opportunities for interaction and discussion between researchers and the public, including several town halls, a pub crawl in downtown Ashland and local field trips that delved deeper into the topics discussed at the conference.

The impact of wildfires was a pressing topic at the meeting, with a town hall on the issue attended by a diverse group of Oregon and Washington State residents, forest managers and city employees. During the freewheeling discussion, participants covered a white board with ideas about how citizens can band together to recover, prevent and adapt to wildfires. Several Ashland residents shared stories about how smoke pollution from multiple fires led the city to cancel or move more than 20 performances during its popular Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 2018, resulting in a loss of $2 million for the festival.

Smoke in Ashland Oregon at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Wildfire smoke obscures the hills surrounding Ashland, Oregon in 2018 at the site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. | Kim Budd

Wildfires like these are "a clear signal, a response to the warming climate," said Mote. He noted a 2016 study that examined the area burned by fires in the western U.S. which subtracted the impacts of climate warming since 1985. "They found that the area burned in that fictional, no-warming world was about half what it was in the actual world," he said.

At a town hall that brought together local winemakers and scientists, Alan Journet, a researcher and co-facilitator at Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, presented data showing that the next 50 years will bring a shift in the average growing season temperatures in southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, affecting the range in the ability to ripen certain grape varietals. If greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed by 2085, said Journet, "it's possible that Jackson County, the Rogue Valley, will be good only for table grapes and raisins, which is not too good for the wine business."

Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards said the region is now in a "sweet spot" that allows growers to cultivate a wide range of wine grapes. But looking at the trajectory of future temperatures, he said, "it's very alarming, and we've seen other wine regions that are taking this much more seriously, particularly in Europe."

Many of the winemakers at the town hall asked how extreme events such as hailstorms and heat waves might increase as a result of climate change, since those events can wipe out entire harvests. They also questioned scientists about how rising temperatures might affect the local mix of microorganisms in the soil and wild yeast, which lend essential character to their wines, and urged researchers to develop better tests for wildfire smoke taint in grapes while they are still on the vine.

Think Local, Act Local

As climate change impacts are felt locally, city and state governing bodies and activist groups have stepped in to address the issue. Speakers throughout the Ashland meeting discussed how they felt compelled to act as national efforts to address the challenge have faltered.

In a symposium on regional climate change policy, Journet spoke about a decade-long effort to pass a climate bill in the Oregon legislature. "It would put Oregon on a real steep trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions reduction and it includes this investment component, which requires that funds raised from the auction of pollution allowances should be invested" in renewable energy development and tribal communities, among other areas, he said.

On June 17, the Oregon House voted to pass the bill, HB 2020, which targets at least an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from their levels in 1990 by 2050. Republicans in the Oregon Senate walked out on a floor session June 20, leaving the Senate without a quorum to call for a vote on the bill. On that same day, Governor Kate Brown authorized the Oregon State Police to bring the missing senators back to the capital for the session. A week later, the vote remains uncertain.

In Ashland itself, high school students worked with a community action group called Rogue Climate to pass a city ordinance containing emission and fossil fuel reduction goals as part of a larger climate plan for the city. Symposium speaker Allie Rosenbluth, campaign director at Rogue Climate, said the students did everything from joining the ad hoc committee developing the plan to testifying at city council meetings and soliciting support for the plan from local businesses.

The ordinance passed in 2017. "They were really able to change the conversation," said Rosenbluth, "because they were able to attach these climate milestones to their own lives. They weren't just saying, 'oh, in 2050, this is the fate of the world we're going to have, but 'oh, in 2050, Claire is going to be 40 years old.'"

Local efforts like the Ashland ordinance are becoming more common, said Dan Barry, AAAS's local and state advocacy director. For instance, the United States' withdrawal from the international Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017 has pushed the membership of the bipartisan Climate Mayors coalition from 180 to 450 cities.

At the start of the AAAS meeting, Barry participated in discussions with Southern Oregon community leaders, winemakers, farmers and scientists about how AAAS can help them with local science-based advocacy and engagement programs, and to discover how science can benefit the work being done by these local decisionmakers.

AAAS is experiencing "a generational shift among our members who expect the organization to provide them with guidelines and pathways for doing civic engagement" around issues like climate change, Barry said in a National Public Radio interview about the Pacific Division.

Local engagement by scientists is key when it comes to adapting to climate change, agreed Journet. "We say to them, come out of the lab and help our community solve these problems."


Becky Ham

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