Friday, March 1, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Polar bears are invading Russian villages because melting arctic ice pushes them toward civilization. That’s just the latest story in a string of disasters, ominous warnings and strange happenings brought on by global climate change.
Clark County environmental wins
While Clark County doesn’t have a dedicated plan to address climate change, it has taken steps to conserve energy and resources, according to a county representative:
• Has the largest hybrid fleet in Nevada at 2,837 vehicles
• In process of converting 55,000 streetlights to LED
• Saved 76 million gallons of water annually by reducing 1.4 million square feet of grass
• Clark County has five solar panel sites
While we may be distant from polar vortexes and sea-level rise, Southern Nevada faces its own existential challenges because of climate change. The American Southwest is at risk of rising temperatures, drought, flooding and declining ecosystem integrity, according to the Trump administration’s fourth National Climate Assessment, which was released in November. The report predicts that these changes could strain water resources, hamper food and hydropower energy production, hurt human health and harm indigenous peoples.
We might be seeing climate change at work already. Average summer temperatures in Nevada have been above normal since 2000, according to Nevada’s Deputy State Climatologist Stephanie McAfee.
On the bright side, we’re finally getting the message. According to a January poll by Colorado College, 74 percent of Nevada voters view climate change as a serious problem. That’s up 16 percent, since the question was asked in 2016.
UNLV physics professor George Rhee likens public perception to passengers on the Titanic. As the doomed ship headed toward the iceberg, most were oblivious. And then at a certain point, people very quickly shifted their mindsets from “what’s for breakfast” to “how do we survive this.”
City of Las Vegas environmental wins
• Recipient of U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Award
• Completed solar facilities that generate six megawatts, which is enough to power about 6,000 homes.
• Replaced 52,000 streetlights with LED lighting
• 40 acres of water conserving landscape
• Six LEED certified building standards. To be LEED certified, the building adheres to strict environmental standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council.
• More than 450 miles of bike lanes
• 55 percent recycling rate at city facilities
What can be done?
Since there are no lifeboats from planet Earth, we just have to solve this problem. Physicist George Rhee, who teaches a UNLV class called “Physics for a Better Environment,” has created one practical way to get at a solution.
Did you know?
The largest rooftop solar array in the country sits atop Mandalay Bay and consists of 26,000 panels.
He created an online calculator for Nevada’s energy use in the year 2050. You can play with both “energy supply choices” (such as wind energy, hydroelectric, geothermal, nuclear, etc.) and “energy demand choices” (tourism aviation, industry growth, home insulation, etc.), to see how you might address climate change in Nevada. It’s a fun and educational tool that brings home these big abstract ideas. Try it here.
“There’s not one answer to the question,” Rhee says about the switch to renewable energy. “There are various ways to do it.” With a scientist’s mindset, he sees climate change as a practical matter to be solved, rather than an emotional crisis to be fretted over. He says the calculator allows people to make up their own minds, weighing the pros and cons of different policy choices, and urges everyone to “think positively rather than negatively.” He says, “Let’s come up with pathways to get from here to there. Let’s see if there’s a consensus that people can agree upon.”
But don’t let his can-do attitude lead to a false sense of security. The consequences of not addressing climate change are dire: hundreds of millions of deaths in the next century, swaths of species wiped out, aridification of our already arid deserts. “I see right now as a World War II-type problem,” Rhee says. “We need World War II-type efforts, where you mobilize countries, roll up sleeves and get on with it.”
Should climate change make you concerned about owning a home in Las Vegas?
Go ahead and buy that house, advises UNLV climate scientist Matt Lachniet, who studies paleoclimatology (climate variations throughout the past 100,000 years). He says we have to solve the policy issue of sharing the Colorado River, but we are concentrating on conserving water locally, at least according to the Las Vegas Valley Water District. “There’s nothing unique to Las Vegas to suggest we shouldn’t be living here,” he says, pointing out that Phoenix summers are already hotter than ours. “We can adapt to higher temperatures by having smart engineering that allows us to get through hot summers. But we do have to be smart about it.”
If he were to set his own Nevada climate calculator, Rhee would double down on solar energy, stating that wind energy is more reliable offshore, and nuclear power is a political no-go because of the drama of Yucca Mountain and our history of nuclear weapons testing. He’d use water pump storage to turn Lake Mead into a giant battery to access solar power at night, and he’d consider tapping into some geothermal energy. He says we need electric cars and, preferably, electric transport. But mainly, Rhee says that Nevada’s energy wealth is in solar power, and we have enough capacity that we could even make good money by exporting it to places such as California, which has mandated 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“It think it’s a solvable problem,” Rhee says of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal of preventing 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming. “We can’t solve the problem for the world, but we can be an example for the world.”
The most important thing is to figure out where to best focus our efforts, Rhee advises. Driving a hybrid rather than a gas-guzzler is commendable, but it’s not a big enough change. “The best thing we can do at individual level is to vote people in office who will acknowledge the problem and put laws in place. [We need to] make clear to politicians that our vote is connected to the actions they take on this problem.”
Halting climate change is not an all-or-nothing pursuit. Think of it more like a summer day in Vegas. It feels hot at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, but it feels worse at 110 degrees and even worse at 115.
“Even if we don’t reach the target, we shouldn’t quit,” Rhee says. “We have the technology to do this in Nevada.”
And now is the time to act. According to Rhee, we have a 20- to 30-year window to solve the problem.
“The sooner we act, the easier it is to solve. The longer we wait, the more difficult it gets,” Rhee says. “I tell young people that you have to deal with this because the older guys are letting you down. We’re not doing it fast enough.”
Las Vegas government efforts
Did you know?
Boulder City gets 30 percent or $10million of its operating budget from renting land for solar panels to California, according to Rhee.
With its blazing lights and mega-buildings, Las Vegas might not come to mind as a beacon of sustainability. But we’re doing more than meets the eye.
After Mayor Oscar Goodman signed the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, the City Council went on to adopt the Sustainable Energy Strategy, which included goals of reducing emissions and increasing renewable energy.
The changes made to meet these goals have led to a $5 million annual reduction in energy costs as well as an annual reduction in water consumption of 256 million gallons (from 2008 levels). According to a statement by a municipal representative, the city’s carbon footprint is the same size today as it was in 1950. At that time, fewer than 50,000 people lived in the entire Vegas Valley.
In December 2016, Las Vegas became a 100 percent renewable city government. This was thanks to a Renewable Energy Agreement with NV Energy that taps a solar facility near Boulder City among other renewable sources.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.