Georgia is already feeling effects from climate change. On the coast, sea levels are going up. Temperatures are going up around Georgia, too; last year was one of the state’s warmest on record.
Rising seas threaten highways, bridges and homes. Heat affects people’s health. Drought is not good for farmers.
“It’s not this academic exercise,” said Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program. “At the end of the day, we have kitchen table issues that affect all our lives, our households, our budgets and so forth that are directly tied to this crisis.”
President Joe Biden is making climate change a priority in his administration. He’s already made some moves, like beginning the process to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
And more is expected soon.
While the Paris agreement might feel pretty distant, other climate policies the Biden administration may roll out could have more on-the-ground effects here in Georgia.
Helping People Use Less Electricity
As of 2018, the electricity sector accounted for more than a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
So one way to reduce the emissions that cause climate change is to generate less energy in the first place. Using more efficient appliances that need less energy helps lower demand.
The Trump administration relaxed energy-efficiency standards for appliances.
Marilyn Brown, a public policy professor and director of the climate and energy policy lab at Georgia Tech, said she is looking forward to the potential of Biden reversing those changes.
“Air conditioners and refrigerators, anything you buy that consumes electricity, including your computer, could be required to be much more efficient,” she said.
The Biden administration could also encourage initiatives to make buildings more efficient, too.
“There’s lots of win-win opportunities there,” said Dan Matisoff, who teaches energy policy at Georgia Tech.
He said the federal government could distribute loans or use tax incentives or rebates to help upgrade homes and buildings with LED lighting, smart thermostats and better insulation, all things that would reduce energy use, save people money and potentially create jobs. (Some of that work got a boost in December, too; the omnibus coronavirus relief bill included funding for weatherization, among other climate-related issues.)
Boosting Electric Vehicles
The only sector that releases more greenhouse gases than utilities in the U.S. is transportation. So advocates say switching to electric vehicles, even though that means more electricity use, is better than sticking with less-efficient gasoline-run cars.
Georgia has had a sort of an on-again-off-again, love-hate relationship with electric vehicles.
The state used to have a pretty generous tax incentive for people to buy electric cars. That went away, and now Georgia actually charges electric vehicle owners an extra fee.
There are other things the Biden administration can do to help bring down the cost of electric cars, such as improving efficiency standards, again reversing a Trump administration policy.
“That is all going to be reviewed in a rapid-fire pace, I am sure,” Brown said. “And we’ll be back on track, either to the Obama standards, or maybe something stricter and more long-lasting.”
Biden has also pledged to build out the electric vehicle charging network. And he says he wants to replace the federal government’s fleet of vehicles with electric vehicles.
Working With Farmers
Agriculture is Georgia’s biggest industry. And farmers here are both affected by – and contribute to – climate change.
“Climate change is going to have a huge impact on farmers. We’re already seeing it,” said agricultural climatologist Pam Knox, director of the UGA weather network.
Some farmers can benefit from a longer growing season, and some are growing new crops to Georgia, like satsuma mandarins and olives.
But there are downsides, too.
Extreme storms and increased drought can wipe out crops. Fruits like peaches and blueberries need a certain amount of cold over the winter, and there have been recent Georgia winters where they didn’t get enough.
Knox said there are ways agriculture can be more efficient, and the Biden administration can use loans or regulations to encourage the change.
She said smart irrigation systems can cut down on how much diesel pumps have to run; methane digesters can process methane from animal waste and use it for energy; cover crops can keep more carbon in the soil.
“I’m hopeful that USDA will not only provide more research money, but will also provide ways to talk to the farmers and make sure that what we’re doing is what they need,” she said.
Kim Cobb, who directs Georgia Tech’s Global Change program, said she sees a lot of overlap between Biden’s work on racial justice and on climate change.
“Very low-income, often communities of color, are hit first and worst from any number of a range of climate catastrophes,” she said.
Improving efficiency, thereby reducing how much people have to pay for electricity as the temperature rises, is an area where there’s overlap, Cobb said.
“We can reduce the crippling vulnerabilities of these communities to extreme heat, while making sure that we are positioning Georgia as a front-runner in the clean energy and low carbon economy,” she said.
Georgia has already embraced utility-scale solar power.
Blair Beasley, a consultant for the Drawdown Georgia project, said even though more federal climate action might be coming, it’s still worth emphasizing work by state agencies, local municipalities and institutions, especially because it may still be tough to get big-climate legislation through Congress or past the courts.
“Some of these big-ticket items like power plants, standards for CO2, those are going to be slow to trickle down to be a state impact because they’re going to have to survive court challenge,” she said. “The most ambitious of them will likely face Supreme Court challenge.”
Still, Cobb said, it’s a “heady” time to be working in climate science.
“No matter what you hoped for, and how you thought you might feel, it feels like somebody flicked a switch, and we’re all still kind of blinking in the bright lights here,” she said.
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