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Getting warmer

05/11/05 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(HOST) It's that wonderful time of year when apple trees and lilacs start flowering in Vermont, but commentator Vern Grubinger says they're flowering sooner than they used to.


(GRUBINGER) It's really kind of big and scary. So we ignore it, deny it, or make jokes about ocean-front property in Vermont.

Climate change.

Some people call it global warming, but it's much more than that. In addition to higher temperatures, precipitation patterns are changing. Oceans are rising. Ice is melting. And plants are reacting to more carbon dioxide in the air.

The enormity of it hit me at a conference on climate and horticulture where scientists from a dozen universities were saying with complete unanimity that the question isn't whether there's climate change, but rather, how much? And it's not a question of when the climate will change, because change is already happening.

Using weather station data from the past hundred years, climat- ologists at the University of New Hampshire figured out that the average annual temperature in New England has already risen by 1.8 degrees. That little change in temperature is a powerful thing. Our frost-free growing season is about a week longer. Lake ice breaks up five days sooner. And apples and lilacs are flowering earlier.

Other changes are on the horizon, but impossible to predict with certainty. New insect pests may turn up, and some cool season crops will no longer thrive. More erratic rainfall will likely mean more floods and more drought.

The main culprit behind climate change is human activity that generates carbon dioxide, primarily by burning fossil fuels. In the U. S., we lead the world by generating over five tons of CO2 per person every year. Our fuel consumption shows no sign of slowing down, and places like China are just getting started.

By studying ice cores, scientists have found that atmospheric CO2 levels have bounced around for the past 400,000 years - up a little, then down some. What's worrisome is that the amount of CO2 in the air has gone up by a third over the past century. And today, the level is higher than ever before, and it's still rising.

All this is not the end of the world; but it's a big change in the world. The question is how much more change we're willing to risk before we hear a call to action.

And there's plenty we can do. Besides using more fuel-efficient vehicles, there's less driving. I, for one, pledge to skip an out-of-town meeting every week. Then, there are alternative fuels that don't add new carbon to what's already above ground.

Some Vermont farmers are already starting to make their own biodiesel from vegetable oil. Others are harvesting the wind for electricity. And guess what? Consumers can help save energy used for transportation by buying local food and other products.

Climate change may be a big problem, but there are a lot of little things we can do to address it.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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