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State watchdog says climate change set to undermine decades of environmental progress

WEST SIMSBURY, CT - AUGUST 4, 2020: Frank Sales of Hartford fighting his umbrella on RT 44 East as the wind and slight rain of Tropical Storm Isaias caused power outages and downed trees on August 4, 2020 in West Simsbury, Connecticut.
Joe Amon
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Connecticut Public/NENC

A new report from the state Council on Environmental Quality released this week says climate change threatens to undo decades of environmental progress.

In its latest report, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) said Connecticut has seen significant progress in cleaning up its air over the past half century. And while it celebrates the return of charismatic species like osprey and bald eagles, the agency warns that climate change is poised to threaten new species and undermine efforts to clean up the state’s air and water.

“If we’re looking for a single trend, I think the overwhelming theme that runs through the council’s report for the last few years is the effect that climate change is having ubiquitously on just almost every indicator,” said Peter Hearn, the CEQ’s executive director. “It is, truly, the challenge of the time.”

The CEQ has tracked the health of the state’s land, water and air for more than half a century. The agency functions independently of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and was established in 1971 to report annually to the governor on the condition of the state’s environment and ways to improve it.

Hearn said the ubiquity of air quality pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which can irritate breathing for some people, have declined since the 1980s due to pollution regulations.

But bad ozone days persist in the state. Connecticut saw 21 days of unhealthy levels of ozone in 2021, which the CEQ report said was the highest in New England. Bad ozone quality can negatively impact breathing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The state also saw recent exceedances for other air quality pollutants due to wildfires in the Western United States and Canada that sent smoke plumes floating into the state.

Connecticut appears to be getting more rain and more days of intense heat as well, according to the latest CEQ analysis.

“If we take days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit for 2021, it’s 24 days,” Hearn said. “Contrast that with back in 1960, when it was three days. Pretty dramatic increase.”

The report also notes that annual precipitation for 2021 was 20% higher and the number of days with rainfall greater than one inch was 37% higher than the annual average since 1960.

While data show that the weather is getting more extreme, the report does note some positives.

The CEQ celebrated the return of bald eagles, which in 2021 posted the highest number of observed active territories and chicks over the last 25 years. Ospreys have also seen a dramatic return.

But the report notes that warming waters have shifted fisheries in Long Island Sound, perhaps most dramatically for lobster.

“Fish species in Long Island Sound are trending away from species that prefer cold waters to species that are more comfortable in warm waters,” Hearn said.

“The number of fish – the weight, the volume of fish – is not changing. It’s just the populations are changing. It’s evidence of a warming climate,” Hearn said. “It’s not necessarily negative, the possible exception being lobster, which have virtually collapsed in their population. And that’s mostly attributed to the warming waters of the Sound, which the lobster can’t tolerate.”