Hunker down: We were right about global warming all along!
“The bougainvillea are in bloom,” John swooned as we relaxed in our garden watching our giant Shih Tzu sniff the flowers on yet another 83-degree January afternoon. It was a wave of winter warmth unusual even for this part of Florida, and it had persisted for the better part of two months. I smiled to John, acknowledging how much we both enjoy this climate, but my sanguinity was slammed by a thought of global warming: This really isn’t normal; what if it never cools off, just gets hotter and hotter still? If it keeps up, how will we tolerate the summer swelter? More important, will our beautiful bougainvillea fry?
Not to panic (at least not yet). We’ve also had a couple spells of ridiculously chilly temps this winter, with records broken on the down side. Such cold waves, as pointed to by global-warming naysayers, are the reason a lot of us decided a year or two ago to stop talking about the heating of our planet and to adopt the more inclusive term “climate change.” Extreme weather, rather than rising temps, has become the more politically correct way to describe the disturbing environmental symptoms our orb is experiencing as a result of mankind’s enduring addiction to fossil fuels.
In recent months, however, new research has confirmed that we were right all along about global warming. The most definitive and dramatic finding came in a study partially (and ironically) financed to the tune of $150,000 by ultra-rightwing oil billionaires The Koch Brothers, who have long been global-warming deniers. In the wake of “Climategate,” when skeptics argued that scientists were basing their claims on biased statistical research, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project reviewed all the temperature data. The project’s director, physicist Richard Muller, himself a critic of the prior stats, and his team put their calculations and methods online for all to see. Their finding: The planet is indeed getting hotter and the increase has been “substantial” (Muller’s word) in the last 50 years during which temps have risen about two degrees Fahrenheit.
The existence of global warming is “pretty much beyond dispute now,” Muller acknowledged in issuing the report. “We’ve closed the questions on that.”
Adding to a barrage of new information, we now know that the U.S. alone experienced more than 1,400 record highs in the month of August last year. “This is the future,” according to Jerry Neil of the Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado—and the reason is our incessant release of greenhouse gases, which are created by burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. “Green-house gases are the steroids of the climate system,” Neil recently told NBC News. “They increase the chances of record-breaking heat. We’re already having three record breaking heat days for every one record cold day.”
One result of global warming is the wave of weather-related catastrophes Americans witnessed last year, from the deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, to Hurricane Irene’s costly race up the East Coast. Tornadoes caused nearly 500 fatalities in the U.S. in 2011, the most since 1953. Ten weather events last year produced over $1 billion in damages, for a total cost of at least $45 billion. Those staggering figures reflect the real hardships that climate change is now creating on individuals and societies. Our cash-strapped government is hard pressed to come up with funds to help survivors of so many disasters, and insurance rates are rising so fast that many home and business owners are unable to afford property protection anymore.
2012 is already off to a rough start, as we saw with January’s deadly tornadoes that killed at least two people and destroyed about 200 homes in Jefferson, Alabama. Texas was hit with five tornadoes one recent evening, and we can expect more of the same.
As NBC News environmental correspondent Anne Thompson recently reported in one of a series of powerful stories on climate change, “If you think the weather is wacky now, just wait.”
Wherever we live, we can expect to hear a lot more calls by our local weather prognosticators to “batten down the hatches” and “hunker down.” (Keep in mind that even Massachusetts was surprised by strong tornadoes last year.)
Even before the latest research was announced, CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano explained during last summer’s coverage of the tornadoes in Joplin why planetary heating was a factor: “Increasing the temperature of the globe increases the moisture content—more evaporation—and that adds fuel to the fire” that sparks severe twisters.
But, Marciano said, an even bigger question has yet to be answered definitively: “Does global warming increase the sheer? Does it increase the power of the jet stream? It’s the sheer, winds coming one direction at a lower level and a different direction higher-up, that really spawns tornadoes. We don’t know what climate change will do to that…. It’s the elephant in the room.”
While the number of tornadoes is clearly on the rise, the frequency of hurricanes may actually lessen. However, their intensity is likely to increase significantly.
According to a new report by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “It is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world. Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease.”
The good news, if there is any, is that global warming most likely will not destroy human civilization this century. That will probably take a couple hundred years more. But people and their governments are going to have to start making significant changes in where and how they live, the IPCC study said.
“There are many options for decreasing risk,” said Vicente Barros, co-chair of the panel. “The best options can provide benefits across a wide range of possible levels of climate change” if sound decisions are made regarding infrastructure, urban development, public health, insurance and disaster-risk management.
Among the panel’s recommendations:
•Cities should create more green spaces and plant more trees to reduce heat island effects.
•In drought-prone areas (the number of which will increase despite stronger rain storms generally), building materials and landscaping need to reflect the heightened danger of wildfires.
•With the rapid melting of polar ice caps, development along the coasts should be limited and people moved further inland.
•With massive loss of permafrost (permanently frozen ground), new building standards must be applied to stricken regions. Already, buildings in traditionally cold-climate places such as Siberia have tumbled due to the sagging earth.
•Because of the increased disease risk in hotter, wetter climates, improvements in public-health surveillance, water supplies, and drainage systems must be made worldwide.
As environmentalists have harped for decades, the more we do to protect what’s left of our fragile ecology, the fewer bandages we’ll have to apply to its cancers. But, as the U.N. report suggests, we’re reaching a point where damage control is also necessary.
Sadly, politicians in this country and abroad still cannot agree on the existence of a problem, much less answers. As President Obama pointed out in frustration during his State of the Union address, “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.”
The President announced several specific programs to get the ball rolling in government agencies. But, as he also pointed out, almost every effort to advance cleaner energy is opposed by powerful fossil-fuel interests.
And too few citizens rise up in anger against them. As I’ve argued in these pages before, salvaging our environment is simply the most important domestic and international priority we face in the 21st century. It will do us little good to win any other political battle—from health-care rights to marriage equality—if we fail to keep our planet habitable for humanity. And safe for the bougainvillea, too.