Climate change impact studied

The National Conference of State Legislatures has released a study that examined the economic effect of climate change on Georgia industries, from timber to tourism. Carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" help trap heated air within the earth's atmosphere and are thought to be slowly warming global temperatures, potentially causing more extreme weather and rising sea levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of 2,000 scientists recognized as experts in their fields, agreed last year that global warming is a problem partly caused by people. Humans add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from cars, power plants and industries such as paper and oil. The recent study of effects on Georgia, co-produced by the University of Maryland and released last week, was based on changes that could be expected if the state's average winter temperature increased 4.5 degrees and the summer temperature increased 5.4 degrees, as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Among key findings: Sea level rise and intense hurricanes would leave Georgia's coast very vulnerable, with potential harm to the tourism and real estate industries as well as the transportation system. On the flip side, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could promote growth of trees for the forest products and paper manufacturing industries, creating an estimated 6,531 new jobs and contributing nearly $350 million to the economy by 2040. Global warming likely would reduce farm yields and farm income, the report indicated, but not enough information is available to assess the impact on particular crops. After reviewing the study, Marilyn Brown, a professor with Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy, said it's the first one she's seen that pinpoints impacts at the state level. "Really creditable sources have been used. It's very good," she said. "State governments can get motivated by this information." The study, one of eight that examined global warming's potential effect on specific states, was partly funded by the Environmental Defense Fund. Glen Andersen, program principal for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the states were chosen to represent a variety of regions and types of industry. The National Conference of State Legislatures is a sort of advocacy, resource and professional group for state representatives and senators. Andersen said the state climate change reports were created to help state policymakers make more informed decisions about climate change policy and to enable them to balance the immediate costs of reducing greenhouse gases with the long-term costs of climate change. All but 12 states have climate action plans. Six of them have enacted mandatory greenhouse reduction laws, and 13 others set voluntary targets. An additional 26 states passed renewable energy portfolio standards. Georgia has taken none of these steps, although this year the state Legislature created a tax incentive to encourage renewable and energy-efficient building. During the past year, committees in the state Senate and House have held a few hearings on the question of whether global warming exists and whether it's caused by people.

COASTAL RISKS? Environmental advocates have been pushing for Georgia to follow the lead of other states. Environment Georgia recently released a report that chronicled successful efforts made by various local and state governments to reduce their contributions to global warming. For example, New Jersey, a state with notably less sunshine than Georgia, doubled its solar-power generating capacity in two years through public policies to promote solar panels on rooftops. Jennette Gayer, a policy advocate for Environment Georgia who was at the National Conference of State Legislatures last week, said Georgia needs to set energy efficiency and renewable energy goals. A Georgia Tech conference this summer was the first ever to focus on the effect of climate change on the state, with many participants voicing support for creating a climate action plan. The University of Maryland/National Conference of State Legislatures report highlighted risks to Georgia's coast. Storms and sea level rise could wear away the protection that salt marshes provide to homes, beaches and to the ports of Savannah and Brunswick, the report indicated. Storms also could pose a risk to Interstate 95 as it runs along the coast. Both droughts and storms could erode real estate prices. On the coast, the tourism industry likely would suffer. The report even looked at the cost of replenishing sand washed away from Georgia beaches, a cost that could range from $154 million to $1.3 billion by 2100 if the sea level rises 20 inches. But much of the analysis in the report did not come with specific price tags. Brown said the report makes her think Georgia should take the politically unpopular step of limiting development along its coast in order to minimize the economic devastation caused by global warming. But the report showed global warming could offer some advantages for Georgia. In addition to increased timber revenues, the state is expected to see an overall increase in precipitation. But the report noted that the benefit could be offset by the evaporation of surface water caused by higher temperatures. Despite these sometimes-dire predictions for business, George Israel III, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said there remains little scientific proof of climate change. He cited past fluctuations in global temperatures based on solar activity and Earth's orbit, among other possible causes. He said states with a climate action plan are trying to be politically correct without accomplishing anything meaningful. "You've got to have some idea of thresholds and trends before you can develop a meaningful plan," Israel said. "Carbon dioxide occurs naturally. How much is too much?... In Georgia they've got enough other serious issues to focus on without making a hypothetical plan to deal with a hypothetical problem." Israel has voiced concern that irrational fears about global warming will harm Georgia industry. He has been a vocal critic of a recent court decision ordering the state to require a carbon dioxide permit for a new coal-fired power plant. Federal environmental laws do not require limits on carbon dioxide, so this would set a new precedent in Georgia that could affect other proposed plants, such as the Plant Washington facility proposed near Sandersville.