Archive for July 3rd, 2012

Strange Weather

Colorado burns

It’s too early to say the strange weather we’ve been having is due to global warming, but as AP notes, this is what one would expect from global warming.    Consider: temperatures have been rising consistently for decades.   This increase correlates with increasing green house gas levels in the atmosphere, and the models and science have led to a strong global consensus amongst climate scientists: the earth is warming and humans are at least in part responsible.

Yes, there are dissents, but by and large most scientists believe that the odds that humans are creating this problem are too high to dismiss.   Moreover, some scientists believe we are nearing a tipping point, in which human action pushes the earth to irreversible and sudden ecological changes.   Whether humans can survive such a change with our way of life in tact is a questionable proposition.

The map shows in dramatic detail how storms cut power from a very populous part of the US last week.

The AP article states some pretty dramatic facts:  2/3 of the country is in drought, while some rivers have experienced floods from unexpected deluges.  3215 record highs were set in June, wildfires have destroyed 2.1 million acres so far this year (and it’s early in the fire season), and since January 1 over 40,000 new high temperature records have been set, as opposed to 6000 record cold temperatures.   We’re also starting to see predicted changes in parasite and disease patterns as hotter weather (and warmer summers) allow species to survive and thrive where they once struggled.

This year the US has received the strangest weather.   A couple years ago Russia was burning, and awhile back Europe had tremendous problems.    Overall we’re seeing severe weather more often, precisely what one would expect if global warming theories are accurate.

Storms have done widespread damage at a level never before seen in the US northeast.

One of the biggest frustrations for a rational thinker is how something as important and potentially devastating as global warming has been turned into a political issue by opportunistic politicians and corporations with massive resources.   Ask someone if they believe that global warming is real and by and large ideology will dictate the answer.    Even those unable to push aside the mounting evidence tend to add the caveat that “it’s not humans doing this” but some ‘natural’ event.

To be sure, climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s multi-billion year history, as have vast changes in the climate’s ecology.   However there is no causal link between these changes and anything natural, but there is a clear causal link in climate science, with computer models pointing to the rise of green house gasses in the atmosphere.    Looking at the deniers try to rationalize ignoring the data reminds me of the financial analysts of early 2008 dismissing talk of a dangerous housing bubble or threat to Wall Street.   Ideology-driven thinking makes it hard for people to recognize errors; instead they find a way to re-interpret reality within their ideology.    There’s been far too much of that in American politics in recent years, and it threatens our capacity to solve these problems.

Washington DC was hard hit in the recent round of storms.

In the excitement of Supreme Court decisions, political posturing over the 2012 elections and concerns about the economy, the real issue — how we as a planet will deal with a dramatically altered environment in coming years — may by trying to force itself into our collective consciousness.

Humans tend to learn the hard way – we wait until patterns of behavior become unsustainable before we make changes:  The smoker who doesn’t quit until lung cancer hits, or the alcoholic who won’t stop drinking until his or her family and career are in shatters.   Are we in the industrialized West on a similar path – with future generations looking back at how much we knew about what was going on and how little we did?

Smokers also often do quit before they get sick.   Drinkers stop before their lives are destroyed.   Humanity can make changes to avoid the worst case scenarios.   But we have to start now and we have to take seriously the damage we’re doing to our planet.   Given the state of political discourse in the US, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

There is some hope.   The Europeans have met the Kyoto Accord targets, achieving something that global warming deniers claimed was impossible.   Some said it would destroy the economy, one in all seriousness told me it was a European plot to bring down the US economy by stifling us with regulations.   Many European states not only have met and surpassed the goals, but in so doing have helped their economy and put themselves ahead of the US on green technology.   If things keep getting worse, that edge may be a huge benefit to the European economies.

The science behind climate change theory is basic, those who deny it have to go through rather complex contortions to support their alternate theories.

The US has to join in taking this seriously.   So does China, India and emerging markets.   This issue has the potential to bring us together in a way never seen before, as a common threat can induce enhanced cooperation.   However, it can also divide if it’s every one for themselves in a world of immense change.

So to deniers – I ask you to think about it like this.  If somehow your minority view is correct and nothing humans are doing are causing it, the most we risk if we take action is some economic costs (though these costs could turn to benefits if there are technological breakthroughs).   But if you’re wrong and the climate scientists are right, the cost could be catastrophic.   Rational choice theory would suggest you avoid the worst possible outcome, especially if the odds do not seem in your favor.   So as you watch wildfires and power outages, storms and heat waves, think about your children and grandchildren.   Ask yourselves if you are against doing something about global warming because it’s part of a political movement you identify with, or if you’ve really looked at the data and thought this through?

Ask yourself if you try to look at all sides of the argument and assess the quality of the sources, or if you cherry pick sources that agree with the point of view that you already have?   Because if we don’t take our environment seriously this strange weather could get much more intense and deadly in years to come.

UPDATE:  Found this image of last week’s strange weather: