Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Georgia climate no longer very 'peachy'

The warmest winter in the global record has had a devastating impact on Georgia's signature peach industry, reducing the expected crop by as much as 80 percent. Most locally grown varieties of peach trees require 750 to 1,000 "chill hours" -- hours with the temperature below 45 degrees -- to induce the trees to go dormant and then produce healthy blossoms.

And last winter, it just didn't happen.

"We have never been so short," Tom Beckman, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told a Macon TV station.  "Hardly any of the commercial material that’s out at growers' orchards was designed to deal with chill this low. We’ve never seen trees this low on chill before. I haven’t, in my entire career, seen trees in some cases receive less than half the chill that they normally expect.”

And while the winter of 2016-17 was extreme, it unfortunately marks the continuation of a long-term,  multi-year trend of insufficient "chill hours" that have made it increasingly difficult for Georgia peach growers to make a living. The winter of 2015-16 was also too warm, as were earlier winters, and projections for the winter of 2017-18 again call for above-average temperatures throughout the region. Year by year, the zone in which peaches can be profitably grown in the Peach State continues to shrink, costing the state economy millions of dollars. In a couple of decades, it may not be viable at all.

What we're seeing, right here at home and almost before our eyes, is a local example of the type of crop failures that scientists warn will become much more widespread as the planet continues to warm.

Meanwhile, up in Washington, President Trump may have decided that climate change is indeed a hoax created by China to destroy U.S. industry, just as he once claimed it to be. Despite pleas from international leaders and corporate executives, Fox News, Politico and other outlets report that he will soon withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed in 2015 by 195 nations.

If that happens, it will leave the United States as just one of three nations -- the other two are Syria and Nicaragua -- that refuse to join the accord and refuse to commit themselves to reducing carbon emissions.

Once again, "America First" would become "America Alone." Once again, on a global challenge, we would abdicate not just global leadership but global participation. Once again, the political party now in control of every power lever in the U.S. government would turns its back not just on the rest of the world but on science as well.

For 40 years or more, scientists have been warning us that sharply increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere would lead to planetary warming, and those warnings -- unlike Georgia peach trees -- have borne the expected fruit. Yet we still refuse to acknowledge it. And why?

Because political conservatives, fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from oil, gas, coal and related industries, took a scientific issue that ought to be debated and decided on scientific terms, through a scientific process, and transformed it into an issue defined solely in terms of tribal loyalty.

If  tribal loyalty requires that they believe that climate change is a Chinese-created hoax, tribal loyalists will believe that. If it requires them to believe that scientists across the globe, in multiple disciplines, are participating in a secret conspiracy, tribal loyalists will believe that as well. It's willful idiocy, and that's a mighty hard wall to breach.

It's gotten so bad that even many in the fossil-fuel industry are now aghast at the monster they helped to finance and inspire. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, has reportedly pushed President Trump hard to remain in the Paris accords, apparently without success. The current leadership of Exxon also takes that position, telling the Trump White House earlier this month that the agreement provides "an effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change."

"We believe the United States is well-positioned to compete within the framework of the Paris Agreement, with abundant low-carbon resources such as natural gas, and innovative private industries, including the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors," the company told Trump.

But again, such appeals appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Issues that ought to be debated and decided in terms of right vs. wrong, true vs. false and good vs. bad have instead become mired in the struggle between left and right, with permanent global consequences.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.