The latest assessment from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute says the state continues to face “new and enduring hazards” related to climate change. OCCRI is housed at Oregon State University, but contributors also come from other institutions around the state, including the University of Oregon, Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. The biannual climate assessments are mandated by the legislature and are intended to be used as a resource for researchers, journalists and the public at large. The latest report is the sixth such assessment.
The Institute’s director, Erica Fleishman, says it details the main hazards posed by climate change, which haven’t changed a great deal in the last two years. But she says Oregonians are responding to many of these challenges, from mitigating the effects of wildfires to investing in sustainable energy, alternative transportation and more. Fleishman joins us to highlight the assessments’ findings and their implications for the continuing response to the effects of climate change in Oregon.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Every six or seven years, scientists from around the world come together to put out a series of massive UN reports detailing the effects of climate change globally. Oregonians also have access to much more granular information: state-specific assessments, put out every two years by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. The latest assessment, the sixth, was just released. It lays out the new and enduring hazards related to climate change. It also catalogs opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Erica Fleishman is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and professor in the College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, and she joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
Erica Fleishman: Thanks very much for having me.
Miller: What is the big idea behind these every two year assessments?
Fleishman: The Oregon Legislature created the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute in 2007, and one of the charges that the legislature gave to us was to do a biennial assessment of the state of climate change science. So that encompasses biological sciences, social sciences and physical sciences as it relates to Oregon and also to the likely effects of climate change on the state’s natural systems and human systems.
Miller: How do you put these reports together? Because you’re talking about a lot of kinds of information from a lot of different places?
Fleishman: We are. The generosity of the community, with the generosity of the scientific community, of NGOs, of people in agencies, and a lot of people throughout our communities in Oregon who are concerned about climate change and interested in climate change.
Miller: What do you see as the top line physical science findings embedded in this most recent assessment?
Fleishman: That’s a really good question. I think one of the major factors for Oregon is that overall, it’s becoming drier. That’s not necessarily because we’re getting less precipitation. Precipitation was below average in much of the past 20 years, but Oregon is projected to have a slight increase in precipitation throughout the century. But because it’s becoming warmer we’re getting more precipitation as rain and less as snow, and so that water is becoming less available to us and that really has ramifications for just about everything that Oregonians do and value.
Miller: We’ve talked about snowpack so many times over the last 10 years but no matter how many times we’re talking about it, it’s probably not enough. Why is snowpack and precipitation falling as snow so central to the world as we’ve known it in Oregon?
Fleishman: It’s water storage. So we can see this now, in what’s happening to our south in California. When you get a lot of precipitation as rain, especially when it’s a lot of rain in a short period of time, it’s difficult to store that water for various uses. So we’re accustomed to the snowpack basically being a reservoir of water and of releasing that water slowly, and releasing that water when it really starts to heat up in what, for most of Oregon, is our drier season. When we’re getting less snow and more rain, our natural storage capacity and our human-made storage capacity decreases.
Miller: What are the projections in terms of temperature increase, and what times of day or what times of year are those increases likely to be the most severe?
Fleishman: The projections are an average annual increase of about 5° [fahrenheit] by the 2050s and 8°[fahrenheit] toward the end of the century. And that’s compared to the late 1900s. You make a good point: in a relative sense, it’s getting warmer throughout the day, throughout the 24 hour cycle. But our nights are warming more, in a relative sense than our days, and our summers are warming more in a relative sense than our winters. That has pretty severe ramifications for human health and for exposure of outdoor workers and for people that don’t have access to shelter or to cooling facilities.
Miller: Why aren’t nights, that don’t cool down as much as they used to, such a big issue?
Fleishman: A lot of it is what we think of as passive cooling. Any organism is often able to counteract the effects of being quite warm during the day by cooling off at night. For Oregon, there’s a major factor in terms of passive cooling of buildings. In essence we’re accustomed to being able to open our windows at night and cool off with nice evening breezes and relatively cool overnight temperatures; when we get warmer temperatures overnight, it’s much more difficult to cool off. So we sort of don’t have that opportunity and our infrastructure isn’t built for those warm nights.
Miller: Are some parts of the state going to be more negatively impacted by this changing climate than others?
Fleishman: It depends. This is something that’s happening across the state. What different parts of the state are acclimated to is somewhat different. There are pockets of the state where it’s generally hotter than other areas. But heat is increasing everywhere, it’s becoming drier everywhere. So there are nuances on the basis of what livelihoods are in different areas and what people are accustomed to in different areas, but these types of changes are affecting everyone.
Miller: The deadly heat dome, as we’ve come to call it, two summers ago, was arguably the most dramatic heat-related event in the Northwest in recorded history. How have you come to think about those five days or so in June of 2021?
Fleishman: It was sort of a realization for a lot of people about what the most extreme circumstances could look like. And I think there was a silver lining in terms of thinking about “how can Oregon protect its population that works outdoors?” “How can Oregon set up emergency facilities to protect people in the case of extraordinary heat?” That was still an extraordinary event. We would have had an extreme heat wave, even if the climate was not changing. It was warmer [than that] because the climate is changing. It was still an extraordinary event. But projections are that by the end of this century we may see that type of extreme heat roughly once in every 6 to 10 years.
Miller: Did that heat dome two summers ago . . .and a number of years with devastating wildfires, including smoke that increasingly is impacting the Portland metro area, in a way that I say people in Medford and Ashland or in Bend are more used to. But people in Tigard and Vancouver have been less used to smoke, less used to thinking about summer as smokey season. Is that impacting the way Oregonians think about our future?
Fleishman: The evidence indicates that it is. A number of surveys led by people in many different universities and organizations in the wake of the 2020 wildfires indicated that most Oregonians, in fact 90% of the people across the state that responded to these surveys, indicated that they had taken some action following the 2020 wildfires to prepare for future events. Whether it was trying to improve their air filtration, whether it was developing an evacuation kit or developing an evacuation plan. People have also indicated in response to surveys, what information they would like to feel better prepared and what services they’d like in terms of clean air shelters or better access to personal protective equipment, what could help them better respond to those wildfires and smoke exposures in the future.
Miller: So let’s turn to what we can do about this. Broadly speaking, we can think about this as adaptation and mitigation. “Adaptation” is saying, “The climate is changing, what can we do? What must we do in response?” And “mitigation” is working to prevent it from being as bad as the worst projections. What notable mitigation efforts are underway right now or could be underway in Oregon?
Fleishman: That’s a great question. The greatest contributor to emissions of greenhouse gasses that are making our climate warmer and drier in Oregon is the transportation sector. In 2022, the state passed what they called The Climate-Friendly and Equitable Communities rules. Those are intended to increase housing options and affordability in mixed use neighborhoods. They’re intended to improve walkability and alternative transit options and to focus planning on decreasing vehicle miles traveled. So the state has identified the sectors that are disproportionately contributing to emissions and is trying to use administrative procedures and interacting directly with communities to say, “How can we improve quality of life while decreasing emissions?”
Miller: How are we doing as a state in terms of emissions reductions compared to other states?
Fleishman: Compared to other states, we have the fifth lowest carbon emissions per capita, and also through much of the first 22 years of this century we decreased our emissions while increasing our GDP. So basically the state demonstrated that we can decrease the factors that are contributing to climate change while still having good livelihoods.
In recent years, our emissions have been trending back upward. They decreased a fair bit during the from about 2005 to about 2015, 2017, and it’s inching back up. But we have already demonstrated that we can reduce emissions and we have the tools, and I think the will, to do that.
Miller: What stands out to you in terms of adaptation efforts in Oregon.
Fleishman: I think it’s the diversity of things that people are doing. It’s the way that people are contributing to the information base, to having really good knowledge about what’s happening. Even as they’re doing things like skiing, people are taking measurements of snow and contributing those measurements to ensure that we have more comprehensive coverage of what’s happening with precipitation across the state.
Tribal communities are expanding workforce development. They are reclaiming a lot of local stewardship of rivers [and the] use of prescribed fire. And a lot of youth, especially, are starting to use other mechanisms to talk about climate change and to talk about adaptations, such as art. So there’s really so many different ways in which Oregonians are thinking about climate change, trying to discuss climate action with their communities and responding in ways that make them realize that they have the agency to do something about it.
Miller: What do you hope that people, decision makers, lawmakers, scientists, just everyday Oregonians, what do you hope that folks will actually do with this assessment?
Fleishman: I hope they’ll think about, if they wish to take action, the ways in which taking action is consistent with having a stable or an increasing livelihood. Of having [a] good quality of life, of being able to act in ways that are consistent with their identity. There’s no one path, but pretty much everyone can do something that protects themselves,
that protects people that they care about and that is positive for our state as a whole.
Miller: Erica Fleishman, thanks very much.
Fleishman: Thank you.
Miller: Erica Fleishman is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. That Institute recently put out its latest Assessment, “The Sixth Bi-annual Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change in Oregon,” along with opportunities in the state for adaptation and for mitigation.
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