Scientists Look for Climate Trends in High Places

Scientists gather on Freel Peak to take a census of the plants on the summit.

Mountaintops can be good places to study the effects of climate change because there aren’t any things like factories or highways or garden weeds up there. In that way, they’re more like laboratories.

So, even though it involved a tough hike, about a dozen scientists gathered at the top of Freel Peak near South Lake Tahoe earlier this summer to count every single plant at the summit. It was for GLORIA, short for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, a project that sends botanists and plant ecologists to the world’s highest mountains to document the tiny, colorful plants that live on them.

GLORIA surveys are repeated every five years, and this was the second survey on Freel Peak. By tracking the changes here, scientists can gain a better understanding of how alpine regions differ in their responses to climate change, and what the future may hold for lower elevations.

“Because of the nature of the alpine habitat, it is more sensitive to environmental changes,” explained GLORIA coordinator Colin Maher. “It’s kind of a beacon. It’s like a warning sign. We might not know for 20 years what’s happening, but it’s a place where change is more likely to happen and we can detect it.” Continue reading

Poll: Support for Climate Action More Contentious

New polling suggests that Californians may be wavering slightly in their support of climate response policies. The survey, just released by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), also shows a growing rift along party lines, when it comes to climate policy.

Nearly nine in ten Democrats surveyed (86%) said the government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions, while just 54% of Republicans agreed. Among all adults, including “independent” voters, 76% of Californians favored regulation of emissions, similar to a nationwide poll conducted in June by ABC News and the Washington Post.

PPIC chief Mark Baldassare says he thinks that the high-profile debate over national carbon legislation is “splitting Democrats and Republicans in California in a way that they weren’t a couple of years ago, when they saw a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature finding common ground on climate issues.”

Baldassare also observed that the relentless recession and state budget crisis have distracted both voters and their political leaders from environmental concerns.

There was a spike in water concerns compared to last year’s poll, with 18% naming water supply and drought as the state’s most important environmental issue, up 13 points from a year ago, virtually tying air pollution and vehicle emissions (20%) as the top concern. The poll’s margin of error is 2%. The telephone survey was conducted in mid-July.

The PPIC poll also appeared to pick up a groundswell among climate action naysayers. The percentage of respondents saying there’s no need for immediate action was up six points from a year ago, to 23%. Baldassare chalks this up partly to the complex nature of climate science. “People become skeptical when they don’t understand things,” he said.

Overall respondents showed the most concern (59%) over the likelihood of more wildfires, followed by more severe droughts (55%). People seemed less concerned about flooding and coastal erosion brought about by rising sea levels, possibly because they see that as a longer-term threat. Concern over wildfire was strongest in the Inland Empire and L.A. Basin. Interestingly, Angelinos also expressed more intense drought fears (61%) than respondents in the ag-intensive Central Valley, where just 21% described themselves as “very concerned” about the drought threat from climate change. Note that this is not an expression of drought fears in general, just those driven by climate change.

When it came down to the question of what to do about global warming, more Californians favored a “carbon tax” than a cap-and-trade system, by 56% to 49%. California and the nation are currently on a path toward cap-and-trade, at least partly (and paradoxically) because it’s considered more politically palatable than a straightforward carbon tax.