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Climate Change & Washington State

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Impacts, Preparation, Adaptation

Solar Resource Potential in WashingtonDue to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) already accumulated in the atmosphere, Washington will face certain impacts to our forests, agriculture, snowpack, rivers, coastal waters and other natural resources that we so value. The extent and duration of these impacts will largely be determined by our collective success in reducing future emissions of GHGs. However, the Washington State Department of Ecology, along with other state agencies, has already started planning for the unavoidable consequences of a changing climate.

Many of these challenges we will face are similar to those we’ve been wrestling with for decades — water supply and quality, ecosystem health, air quality, shoreline and habitat protection and restoration. But the rate and severity of the changes we are likely to witness in the coming years will be unlike anything Washingtonians have ever experienced.

State agencies will continue to work in partnership with local communities to develop a statewide strategy for responding to the anticipated impacts of a changing climate. Check this website often for updated technical and scientific information about the impacts of climate change on Washington’s communities and natural resources.

A useful definition of “regional climate change” can be found in the federal climate and energy bill that recently passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives. They define regional climate change as,

“...the natural or human-induced changes manifested in the local or regional environment (including alterations in weather patterns, land productivity, water resources, sea level rise, atmospheric chemistry, biodiversity, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of a specific region to support current or future social and economic activity or natural ecosystems.”

It will be these issues, as observed and experienced here in Washington State, which will be the focus of the information provided on this webpage.

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Climate Change and Food Security

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Food SecurityFood security is not only an explicit concern under climate change; successful adaptation and mitigation responses in the agricultural sector can only be achieved within the environmental and economic sustainability goals set forth in both the UNFCCC and the Millennium Development Goals. Use the links on the left to read more on emissions of greenhouse gases; the potential impacts of climate change; and solutions including mitigation, adaptation and the policy framework.

Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries are among the most climate-sensitive sectors. Therefore their production processes – whether for food, feed, fibre, beverage, energy or industrial crops, or for livestock, poultry, fish or forest products – will be heavily impacted by climate change. In the next decades, impacts in temperate regions are expected to be positive, and those in tropical regions negative, although there is still considerable uncertainty about how projected changes will play out locally, and projected impacts could also be altered by adoption of risk management measures and adaptation strategies that strengthen preparedness and resilience. 

Climate change will particularly affect vulnerable people and food systems

More frequent and more intense, extreme weather will have adverse immediate impacts on food production, food distribution infrastructure, on livelihood assets and opportunities in both rural and urban areas. Changes in mean temperatures and rainfall, increasing weather variability and rising sea levels will affect the suitability of land for different types of crops and pasture, the health and productivity of forests, the incidence of pests and diseases, biodiversity and ecosystems. Loss of arable land is likely due to increased aridity, groundwater depletion and the rise in sea level. 

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Emissions Trading

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Greenhouse gas emissions – a new commodity

Parties with commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Parties) have accepted targets for limiting or reducing emissions. These targets are expressed as levels of allowed emissions, or “assigned amounts,” over the 2008-2012 commitment period. The allowed emissions are divided into “assigned amount units” (AAUs).

Emissions trading, as set out in Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows countries that have emission units to spare - emissions permitted them but not "used" - to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.

Thus, a new commodity was created in the form of emission reductions or removals. Since carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas, people speak simply of trading in carbon. Carbon is now tracked and traded like any other commodity. This is known as the "carbon market."

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Kyoto Protocol

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Climate ChangeThe Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions .These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

The major distinction between the Protocol and the Convention is that while the Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.

Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The detailed rules for the implementation of the Protocol were adopted at COP 7 in Marrakesh in 2001, and are called the “Marrakesh Accords”.

The Kyoto mechanisms

Under the Treaty, countries must meet their targets primarily through national measures. However, the Kyoto Protocol offers them an additional means of meeting their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms.

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Unresolved questions about Earth's climate

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Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image of a huge, handle-shaped prominence. Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image of the sun with a huge, handle-shaped prominence, taken in 1999. While there is no evidence of a change trend in solar output over the past half century, long-term changes in solar output are not well-understood.

This website presents a data-rich view of climate and a discussion of how that data fits together into the scientists' current picture of our changing climate. But there's a great deal that we don't know about the future of Earth's climate and how climate change will affect humans.

For convenience and clarity, climate scientists separate things that affect climate change into two categories: forcings and feedbacks.

Also, climate scientists often discuss "abrupt climate change," which includes the possibility of "tipping points" in the Earth's climate. Climate appears to have several states in which it is relatively stable over long periods of time. But when climate moves between those states, it can do so quickly (geologically speaking), in hundreds of years and even, in a handful of cases, in only a few decades. These rapid 'state changes' are what scientists mean by abrupt climate change. They are much more common at regional scales than at the global scale, but can be global. State changes have triggers, or "tipping points," that are related to feedback processes. In what's probably the single largest uncertainty in climate science, scientists don't have much confidence that they know what those triggers are.

Below is an explanation of just a few other important uncertainties about climate change, organized according to the categories forcing and feedback. This list isn't exhaustive. It is intended to illustrate the kinds of questions that scientists still ask about climate.

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