ATLANTA — As Earth Day 2022 arrives, it might seem like the climate is on the back burner - there's the war in Ukraine, COVID remains top of mind and several contentious social issues continue to swirl as the country barrels toward mid-term elections in November.
But climate change, which has long been framed as a "future" problem, is really a "here and now" problem, as one expert explained to 11Alive.
"People think about climate change as something that's far off in space and far off in time, impacting somebody else somewhere. Maybe it's impacting me in my lifetime, maybe my grandkids, but it's really not considered a here and now issue," said Georgia Tech professor Dr. Kim Cobb. "And it really is a here and now issue for Georgia."
Dr. Cobb has long been a leading voice in Georgia for raising awareness to our warming planet and advocating for change in policy and daily habits to lower greenhouse emissions. She is a professor in the school of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences as well as ADVANCE Professor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Georgia Tech. She is also on the leadership team with the Georgia Climate Project.
"The Georgia Climate Project is something that’s about four years old. It’s really a group of colleges and universities across Georgia that have come together to say 'we want to be part of the climate solution… we want to help Georgians understand what the impacts are, we want to help folks learn what the solutions are,'" she said. "Georgia can lead on climate and this is one of the ways we can connect experts to stakeholders and really begin a conversation about where Georgia can be as a leader on climate."
Georgia's future impacts from a warming planet stretch across all corners of the state.
"Of course, we have a economy that is largely agriculturally based, so we think about extremes in water, whether it's flooding or drought, when we think about rising temperatures impacting crops," she said. "We're talking about people's livelihoods here, and the biggest piece of our economic puzzle here in Georgia."
And in metro Atlanta, extreme heat becomes more prominent in the warmer months.
"Right now, we have about 90 days or so of extreme heat per year where we're tipping into triple digit heat indices, those most dangerous levels that's going to triple it to 2050 under current trends of warming," Dr. Cobb said.
A study from Climate Central shows that from 1970 to 2018, Atlanta saw on average an increase of 15 more days each summer with a heat index at or above 90 degrees. This is not just a number - it plays an impact on health with outdoor exercise in the extreme heat conditions.
The U.S. has made substantial progress in lowering carbon emissions - according to the Environmental Protection Agency, total emissions dropped by 9% from 2019 to 2020. Part of that was due to COVID interrupting normal activity, but emissions have still dropped more than 7% since 1990.
But it's not close to enough yet - Dr. Cobb said we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and then get to carbon neutral zero emissions by 2050.
Georgia Climate Project's website details out impacts to our state's ecosystems, water resources, agriculture, health and more as the planet continues to warm.
But as much as education to impacts are important, generating solutions is where Dr. Cobb believes the state can thrive.
"This is an opportunity where we can actually use the science to generate solutions and think about how we can build a resilient economy, be part of the low carbon economy, but also think about how we can help farmers over these next couple tough decades where we know additional warming is coming down the pike," she said.
Georgia has a growing green economy, with recent increases in electric vehicle manufacturing and solar panel farms increasing.
"This is about really preparing today for tomorrow and leveraging science along the way," she said.
A substantial majority of Georgians care about climate change, Dr. Cobb said - 70% - and want to make a difference.
So how can you help?
- Think about how you travel
"Thinking about biking to work, but also thinking about using mass transit, supporting mass transit at the ballot box," said Dr. Cobb.
It may not always seem easy in and around Atlanta. MARTA has limited heavy rail coverage, and bike access is - to put it generously - rarely prioritized.
But some of that is changing. MARTA is expanding rapid bus lines and there are options even in areas notorious for public transit avoidance - Cobb County's CobbLinc bus system can take you up and down the county and into Midtown and Downtown Atlanta, and there are multiple bus lines in Gwinnett County that take you into Downtown Atlanta.
- Think about what you eat
Dr. Cobb said there are several ways to "reduce our reliance on beef and animal proteins where possible in our diets."
According to the EPA, 11% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were a byproduct of agriculture.
You could reduce that number by shrinking your own carbon footprint eight pounds by forgoing eating meat one day a week, according to the University of Colorado, through initiatives such as "Meatless Monday."
And the organization behind Earth Day says that if you skipped meat and cheese one day a week with your family, "it would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for five weeks."
The point being - there are lots of little dietary habits you can change in small ways that can make a big impact.
- Think about what you prioritize
Dr. Cobb said it's also a social issue - "thinking about the education of our children, how we talk about this among our family and friends is one of the most overlooked pieces of solutions that we can do as individuals."
She said she learned from her own students about the Carbon Reduction Challenge - noting that dialogue has the power of bringing new ideas and solutions to the forefront.
"Sometimes just having a conversation with a friend or a family member," she said. "Here in Georgia, we we want to be engaged in solutions here in Georgia. We understand it's a problem. And so actually sharing what we're doing, what we care about with climate change is part of the solution because we just don't talk about this subject enough."
And there's one other thing Dr. Cobb stresses - don't be pessimistic.
"I think one of the interesting trends lately is people who are concerned about climate and waking up to climate already coming into this impression that it's too late, it's already done. And it's just an overwhelming problem that we can't solve," she said. "And that is so far from the truth."
"The science tells us that every little bit of warming that we can reduce in this decade or next decade is going to reap dividends in future generations and also protect our economy and keep us safe today and going forward. So it's not too late."