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Climate change: New warnings require leaving behind old ways in Maryland and beyond | COMMENTARY

Heavy traffic is not unusual where the Capital Beltway meets the I-270 spur in Montgomery County but whether widening the highway is the best choice, particularly as climate change worsens, has been a subject of considerable debate. Recently, Maryland transportation officials announced a major reduction in highway expansion plans. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post).
Heavy traffic is not unusual where the Capital Beltway meets the I-270 spur in Montgomery County but whether widening the highway is the best choice, particularly as climate change worsens, has been a subject of considerable debate. Recently, Maryland transportation officials announced a major reduction in highway expansion plans. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post). (The Washington Post)

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report that points out that climate change is getting worse than previously believed, and the evidence can be found across the United States. Wildfire seasons are starting earlier. Tracts of Alaskan permafrost have been lost. Heat waves are more numerous, pollen seasons begin sooner each year, and the destructive bleaching of vital coral reefs advances. The report was notable not just for its alarming content but for the alarming timing of its release. The Trump administration had kept it under wraps for no fewer than three years, apparently fearful that the findings of nonpartisan government scientists didn’t dovetail with their pro-fossil fuel, anti-regulatory political views.

Yet, this is good news, not bad. Just as science is helping Americans overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, when unleashed it is more than capable of saving the human race from the potential nightmares around the globe — even as waters rise, productive cropland is lost, weather becomes increasingly severe, natural habitat is destroyed, pollution worsens and nations wage wars over diminished resources. And so the most essential element for a rational response is for this vital information about climate to be shared and for people to recognize the threat and take action to address it. The better informed we are and the more aware we are of the consequences of the choices we make, whether individually or as a society, the better the chances that we will act in our own best interests.

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Take, for example, this nation’s worrisome dependence on gasoline-powered cars, the transportation sector providing the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions: 29% of the total. The Maryland Department of Transportation recentlyannounced it was abandoning much of its plan to widen the Capital Beltway with toll lanes, a project that received widespread criticism. The state is still moving forward with plans to widen the American Legion Bridge and a chunk of I-270 but the difference is stark. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich called the decision “welcome news” and pledged to work with state officials to find a “better plan to alleviate traffic and protect our environment.”

There were probably any number of reasons for state transportation officials to make this choice, from potential legal challenges to the project’s high cost, but surely among them was the widespread opposition. People can be heard. And while there is always hope that elected leaders will make smart choices on climate on their own — setting tougher 10-year targets for reduced emissions, for example — the voices of ordinary citizens count, too. One hopes this will hold true with another poorly considered transportation project: the potential construction of a third span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. In a well-reasoned, written response to a draft environmental impact statement, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman recently observed that the new bridge is not only unjustified by traffic demands but would feed a development corridor destined for serious problems with sea level rise. “Let’s stop pretending that this kind of transportation investment is our future,” Mr. Pittman concluded.

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In the Maryland General Assembly, there’s a common saying that “everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” to describe the way politicians will talk about big ideas like climate but are less interested in the sacrifices needed to do something about them. Expanding highways and building bridges are 20th century solutions that we are loathe to abandon. Reducing dependence on motor vehicles is a 21st century idea that would clearly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (even electric cars aren’t as environmentally friendly as most rail and transit options), but it requires hard choices. Under Gov. Larry Hogan, MDOT has shown too much interest in roads and not enough in climate change solutions.

Armed with data from the EPA and similar sources, Marylanders can make a difference in this regard. And not just in matters of highway planning. Local master plans must be updated to discourage sprawl and encourage “smart,” more concentrated growth that preserves open spaces. Solar and wind energy ought to be promoted. Greener building standards, more tree plantings, investments in walkable neighborhoods — the list of climate change solutions that could be influenced by community action is long. Granted, it’s still not an easy path. People are still bound to protest sensible development policies even as some object to masks and vaccinations today. But an informed, involved electorate remains the world’s best hope for a rational response to the existential threat posed by climate change.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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