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Going local: How to talk about climate change in your own backyard

Written by Dawn Bickett

Plenty of DC Ecowomen work day in and day out on addressing climate change. Phrases like ‘anthropogenic carbon emissions’ or ‘ocean acidification’ may simply roll off the tongue.

But when we talk to family, friends, or colleagues about climate change, that knowledge just isn’t useful. Mentioning the momentous discovery that an area of Antarctic ice is now melting unstoppably and will raise sea level 1 meter? Not exactly motivating to dinner guests.


Flooding from climate change? Not the easiest dinner topic.


As The Atlantic writer Josh Cochran puts it: “How is one supposed to respond to this kind of news?”

That’s the challenge. How do we broach the subject of climate change without shutting people down (ourselves included)? How can we make climate change something we can talk about and plan for?

It starts by making climate change real in our own lives, and something we can actually imagine tackling. It starts in our own backyard: the DC metro. Here is a glimpse of the challenges the DC metro area will face in the next few decades.

The DC of the future? Hotter and steamier.

Fast forward to 2047. Things will have warmed up considerably in the District. Assuming a higher emissions scenario (we don’t significantly reign in carbon emissions) even the coolest year after 2047 will be hotter than any year before 2005, according to a recent study in Nature. Basically, even the hottest summer you’ve experienced in DC will be considered cool by the middle of the century.

Over the next few decades, the DC area – and much of the country – will gradually become more at risk for extreme precipitation events, aka flooding. Remember the flooding that happened just weeks ago around the metro area? More of that.

And last, but certainly not least: hurricanes. There isn’t clear evidence to suggest that more hurricanes will be hitting the DC metro, but there is evidence that storms forming in a warmer Atlantic Ocean will be stronger. That means more rain and higher winds when they do hit.

Climate and the Potomac

The Potomac River is the source of water for 75% of our area’s drinking water. As temperatures rise, the surface temperature of the water will increase. That means the risk of toxic algal blooms – like the bloom in Lake Erie that poisoned water in Toledo, Ohio for days – will also increase.



Stay away from these algae blooms.


And water supplies may not be as consistent. Steam flow into the Potomac could be down 35% by 2040 due to climate change. Even a mild drought could lead to water restrictions in the DC metro area 25 years from now.

Parts of DC used to be a swamp, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as sea levels rise and land around us actually subside, the flooding risk from the Potomac River will increase. Climate change will make the behavior of the Potomac much more variable than it is today.

What now?

Armed with these facts, talking about climate change is still no picnic. Climate forecasts certainly doesn’t hold a lot of great news for DC. But by knowing what the issues are, we can visualize these problems, discuss them, and prepare for them: doing everything from cutting local emissions, to supporting infrastructural change that makes our city more climate-ready.

So the next time you feel tongue-tied when explaining climate change, do what you do with your veggies: go local.

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