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Cooling Off Cincinnati

The effects of climate change will end life as we know it in the Queen City

By Margo Pierce · September 23rd, 2008 · Cover Story

Don’t expect Cincinnati to be covered in a polar ice cap any time soon, but our actions are speeding us toward a period of global cooling.

A natural part of the warming and cooling cycles of the planet, climate change isn’t anything new, but it’s conveniently re-labeled “global warming” so it can be ignored by those who point to the weather as proof that most of the world’s scientists have it wrong. Therefore, the “junk-science” people conclude, we can just keep doing things the same way. Not to worry.

Kenneth Tankersley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati who’s also an Ohio Valley archeologist, says by looking at the past we can see our future. Based on what he’s learned, we’re heating this place up, which means it’s eventually going to cool back down.

“Global climate change is a natural process, it happens all the time,” Tankersley says. “We can accelerate or slow down that change. We’re living in a period of very rapid, profound global climate change, as well as mass extinction. The answers to our current change can be found in the past. As an anthropologist looking at how the climate changed, I look at, ‘Did species adapt?’ ”

Referring to both plants and animals, Tankersley says the choices are the same. “When the climate changes, you can move,” he says. “If the way you’re making a living is threatened by climate change, then you move to somewhere to keep that livelihood. You can downsize, you can become smaller; you maintain that livelihood at a smaller scale. The only other alternative is you go extinct.

“People say, ‘So what a minnow goes extinct? A weed goes extinct? Who cares that a new bird is discovered and is about to go extinct?’ Most of our pharmaceuticals are extracts of plants and animals.”

As scientists learn about and study various plants and animals, they identify how those species might be able to help humans.

“In my own case, I’m a cancer survivor and the chemotherapy that put my cancer into remission came from the extract of a little blue flower in the continent of Madagascar,” Tankersley explains.

“Imagine if that plant was allowed to have gone extinct. Think of all the cancer patients who are alive today because of that plant.”

Another medicine that helps Tankersley regulate his high blood pressure is made from the poison of a Burmese Pit Viper, a snake he describes as a dangerous animal “some people would like to have exterminated off the planet.”

“People want to dismiss the realities of climate change and say, ‘Who cares about endangered species,’ ” he says. “But at the same time, when people get sick, they want their medicine. When they get sick … will the medicine they need be there?”

Tankersley points to the diseases not yet faced, like AIDS was in the 1940s, and notes that reducing biodiversity eliminates a number of possible cures. When the temperature of the climate increases plants and animals must adapt, move or go extinct. We’ve already lost thousands of species, he says.

With human population on the increase — it hasn’t declined in a long time and shows no trend to suggest a drop in population — we continue to put ever-increasing demands on the various ecosystems we inhabit.

More people demand more jobs that require more companies that demand growing profits. That translates into stress on the economy for more housing, more business buildings and more resources to support all of the growth.

And that’s before considering the most fundamental needs for survival: water, food and clean air. All of this strains our environment.

“Now you’re changing the availability of food resources,” Tankersley says. “We’re already seeing a strain in the grocery stores. Every now and then I go to buy a red onion and the bins are empty.

That used to be a problem in Russia. Now we’re seeing that in Cincinnati. “(Shoppers) don’t realize that what is producing those vegetables are their very low-mileage vehicles of … gigantic agribusiness machinery.”

This all comes back to familiar culprits: the greenhouse gases of carbon monoxide, methane and water vapor. These gases occur naturally and help keep the planet warm, but too much of them and the adapt/move/die response kicks in.

“It is very true that the earth has had periods of warming and cooling in the past,” Tankersley says. “These are directly related to things like carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. What is the answer to reducing the build up of these gases in the atmosphere? What provides the planet with oxygen? Trees. They take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

“If you look at the amount of trees on the planet this year and 10 years ago, 100 years ago, we have less. How can that not have an effect? We’re destroying what we need to survive. In addition to that, we’re producing an unnatural reservoir of carbon dioxide the way in which we live, primarily in the use of fossil fuels.”

The change isn’t visible to the average person, except maybe on a smog alert day. But scientists are seeing dramatic changes in the not-too-distant future. We have to take steps now to help cool the planet’s temperature.

“It’s not like Hollywood,” Tankersley says. “It’s not going to happen in a week or a day. It might not happen in my lifetime, but it can happen within a human life, within a 100-year period.

“People say, ‘I’m just one individual, what can I as an individual do?’ If everyone did something to reduce carbon dioxide production, it would make a big difference.

Think twice: Can I drive there or can I walk there? Leave the car where it is. Walk.”

PHOTO: KURT STRECKER

Kenneth Tankersley says everyone can make a difference by reducing carbon dioxide production.

 
 
 
 

 

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