The climate change deniers point to snow falling at the end of President Obama's State of the Union Address, and laugh about the 'global warming hoax." Let it get cold anywhere, and they snicker. And while they've got their heads stuck where the sun don't shine, they're only kidding themselves - and anyone else they can con.
Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get. Weather is what's happening right here and now and in the immediate future; climate is the range of expectations for what the weather can do at any given time in a particular area or region. Weather is a tornado ripping through your town; climate is how likely you are to need a storm cellar where you live.
Weather in Atlanta, Georgia is snow and freezing rain/ice, now melting; climate has us expecting something quite different this time of year in the southeastern coastal states. And if you're watching the Winter Olympics, you already know what's happening in Sochi.
Weather is local; climate is regional, even global. We talk of tropical, temperate, and arctic climates; mediterranean and alpine, etc. Those broad categories are about what range of weather conditions we can expect in those areas, a matter of averages and trends over the course of a year.
And those trends are shifting - that's why it's Global Climate Change, not just Global Warming anymore. Follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon for a round up of climate stories and weather events.
UPDATES - including a write up of the Bill Nye - Marsha Blackburn debate on Meet The Press can be found at the bottom of the extended section of this post.
The difference between climate and weather is why it is not easy to hold up a smoking gun; it's difficult to point to one event and definitively say it's because of climate change. BUT… and it's a big but, when looking at those single events in a larger context, it is possible to start picking out the ones that are starting to fall outside normal expectations. Think of it like baseball; you can't look at a single ball game during the season and proclaim a team on a winning streak or a losing streak - but as the season plays out, it becomes obvious. There is almost no disagreement now that human activities are having an effect on global climate, at least among scientists, and that we're running out of time to do something about it. Elsewhere?
If people seem confused or only somewhat concerned about Global Climate Change, there's no shortage of reasons. One, of course, is the deliberate effort by people with a huge financial incentive to cloud, confuse, and otherwise spread lies about it.
The climate change countermovement is a well-funded and organized effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This countermovement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians.A second problem is the failure of the media to grasp the urgency of the matter, advance beyond one-hand-other-hand reporting, or address the people behind reason number one above. Along with that throw in parochialism - the tendency to focus on stories that connect directly to their audience. (For Americans, no disaster elsewhere in the world seems to count in the media here unless there is at least one American in it. Ditto for too many American politicians.) On the same note, media ADD has trouble dealing with/remembering anything that didn't happen in the last five minutes, and can't be bothered with anything too far in the future. Dot connecting is a hit or miss thing - and only certain narratives seem to get through the media screen.
A third is the failure of our political leadership to address the challenge of Climate Change - they can barely cope with Weather Emergencies as it is. (That is, the political leaders who aren't in the pockets of the denialistas.) No one wants to face up to the necessity of making real changes in the way we live, what we have to invest in - and who pays for it, and how. It's not as though people haven't been working on it, like William D. Nordhaus. In an NPR interview, he spelled it out:
"Actually from an economic point of view, it's a pretty simple problem," he says.It's not rocket science - but it might as well be given the level of intellectual rigor in our political discourse, especially among the denialistas. So, let's take a look at news stories from the past few weeks that bring out the Global in Climate Change, and demonstrate the manifold aspects of what it means.
If people would simply pay the cost of using the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide, that would create a powerful incentive to dump less and invest in cleaner ways to generate energy. But how do you do that?
"We need to put a price on carbon, so that when anyone, anywhere, anytime does something that puts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there's a price tag on that," he says.
Tracking, With Closeups:
While the United States has been dealing with winter storm after storm, the British Isles have been getting drowned. As in the U.S. a shift in the Jet Stream is skewing expected weather patterns, putting Scotland a bit behind in expected precipitation while other parts of England are seeing rain exceeding anything in the records. There is widespread flooding; the ground is so saturated, it may take weeks or even months for the land to drain. The latest problem is extreme high winds. This has been been going on for weeks. Heard much about it on the news if you live outside the U.K.?
Meanwhile, although the focus in the U.S. has been on the storm after storm, the flip side of the polar vortex and the shifts in the jet stream has been a California drying up. Blizzards, ice storms, downed powerlines and crashing cars make good video footage for the news; lakes going dry over a period of months less so. But, that doesn't mean it won't be in the news later on as consequences unfold...
Experts offer dire warnings. The current drought has already eclipsed previous water crises, like the one in 1977, which a meteorologist friend, translating into language we understand as historians, likened to the “Great Depression” of droughts. Most Californians depend on the Sierra Nevada for their water supply, but the snowpack there was just 15 percent of normal in early February. And the dry conditions are likely to make the polluted air in the Central Valley — which contributes to high rates of asthma and the spread of Valley Fever, a potentially fatal airborne fungus — even worse.emphasis added
The current crisis raises the obvious question: How long can we continue to grow a third of the nation’s fruit and vegetables?
At the moment, the Pineapple Express is bringing some relief - but California still has serious water problems and a lot of the precipitation the state would normally get is going to the Pacific Northwest. And, the jet stream kink that has been drying out California has been heating up Alaska.
Now this is some pretty extreme weather - but California has had extreme weather before, sometimes going to the opposite extreme. The current drought seems to be part of a shift however in the overall climate that is making the southwestern U.S. drier. The trends are not encouraging.
While American politicians scoff at Climate Change because - surprise! - we still get snow in winter, they forget there's an entire other hemisphere where it's currently summer - and things are not looking good. Among other things, Australia has been experiencing record high temperatures. Other trends are of concern as well.
Cyclones (the southern equivalent of hurricanes) are decreasing in Australia. While that might seem like good news, there are implications. For one, this may translate into fewer but more intense storms. For another, development in storm-prone areas during lulls will be all that more vulnerable when a storm does hit. And, the increasing gap between cyclones will exacerbate a cycle of droughts, brush fires, and floods.
Again, weather happens. Weather over time gets averaged into climate. Extreme weather events happen - but if they happen more and more frequently, they become the new average, and that's what is underway as humans continue to trap more and more heat in the atmosphere as we continue to churn out greenhouse gasses. We are shifting the subtle balances that shape weather; we are changing them in ways that are perturbing customary equilibria and destabilizing long established patterns of climate. And that has serious consequences that cascade out in all directions.
The examples above are just a sampling; picture comparable changes happening around the globe. Picture the effects of monsoons that don't arrive 'on time' or in the wrong place. Think about spring run off that doesn't happen, because the mountain snows and glaciers feeding the rivers that run to the plains are melting away. Think about the forests and grasslands drying up and burning in brush fires. Think about the countries descending into chaos because their food supplies are disrupted by crop failures. Think about new diseases emerging because habitat loss is driving animals into contact with humans in unanticipated ways…
Let's go back to baseball for a moment. Imagine that, for some mysterious reason, the dimensions of the field are starting to change. Distance between bases is shrinking. The pitcher's mound is getting higher. The shape of the boundaries around the field, the diamond itself, the foul lines, are changing - and none of it is symmetrical and it's happening at different rates. Sometimes the changes even reverse direction briefly, and the interaction between all the changes makes it more difficult to predict their combined effect.
The rules of the game aren't changing, but over time the outcomes start to look very different. You can't point to any single play being different because of the changes - at least at first - but the cumulative effect is inexorable. That's what we are doing to global climate, but unlike the baseball example we can't just put everything back to where it was overnight with some corrective grounds-keeping. Further, it's no mystery why it's happening: humans are just putting too much garbage into the atmosphere.
It's About More Than Managing Crisis To Crisis
Climate Change would be difficult to deal with all by itself, but alas it's not happening in a vacuum. There's been a perfect storm of stupid in political trends making it almost impossible to deal with the problem. Take the blind worship of 'free market capitalism' and its domination of the global economy, the deliberate crippling of government in order to aid and abet that domination; the single biggest reason we are falling to aggressively address climate change is because too many people have too much money invested in keeping us all on the road to perdition.
It’s simple math: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times the safe amount.We're talking about some of the most corrupt people and institutions on the planet here, people who have invested heavily in a hostile takeover of our government and have the best interests of no one else except themselves at heart.
There is this about the current episodes of horrendous weather - they get peoples' attention. People who complain about Big Government and taxes that are too high have suddenly discovered that having snow plows on the roads, safety services to rescue them, regulators that have required utilities to have repair resources on hand… this stuff matters at a gut level. All of a sudden government isn't an abstraction - it's vital.
In England the horrific weather is serving to focus attention on Cameron's Conservative government, and the choices it has made. It's rather interesting to see the chickens coming home to roost.
David Cameron convened a special cabinet committee on flooding for the first time on Thursday, when ministers were given an update on the extent of power and transport disruption caused by overnight storms.The relative amounts of money involved are trivial, compared to other choices being made in the budget in the U.K.
The meeting had originally been called to discuss a longer-term government response to the floods crisis, but is also having to look at wider infrastructure disruption.
The meeting came as the shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle, said spending on climate change adaptation and mitigation had been cut by 40% in the past year, a figure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had revealed in a freedom of information request. The environment minister was forced to admit that spending had been cut in the UK from £29.1m to £17.2m this year.
During the three financial years spanning 2008 to 2011, annual R&D spending on all aspects of UK nuclear weapons systems was over £320 million per year. This included: over £100m a year on warheads; over £120m a year on early development work for new submarines planned to carry the nuclear-armed Trident missiles; and over £90m a year on R&D for new nuclear reactors to propel those submarines.It would be a surprise if comparable figures in the U.S. would look any better, given the vast amounts of money spent on defense and the corrosive effects of sequester cuts on everything else. The knee-jerk reaction of conservatives to any government spending (that doesn't go into their pockets) is penny foolish as well as pound foolish. The longer action is delayed on really addressing Climate Change, the more expensive it is going to be once it gets too catastrophic to ignore. (One need only look at the GOP idiots who tried to block relief efforts for the northeast after Superstorm Sandy. I suspect they have far less reluctance to take any Federal help they can get in the Red States right now.)
This is against a background of real-term cuts across UK universities and other publicly funded R&D. And it is in stark relief to spending in areas such as renewable energy – crucial to help tackle climate change and resource depletion. Figures reported to the International Energy Agency put the UK's public R&D spending on renewable energy at only £60m a year over the same three-year period – less than 20 per cent of the nuclear weapons spend. And, unlike nuclear weapons, public spending on renewable energy R&D has fallen since 2011 due to government budget cuts.
A similar picture emerges for other security-related research during this period. R&D for strike planes averaged nearly £260m a year. For attack helicopters the figure was £200m a year. By contrast, spending on energy-efficiency R&D averaged only £80m a year.
Conservative arguments against doing anything about Climate Change are roughly:
• It's not happening - it's a hoax cooked up by scientists for more money and liberals who want an excuse to expand government to dictatorial extremes.
• It's happening, but man has nothing to do with it. It's the sun, natural cycles, God, etc. No action possible or needed.
• It's happening, but nothing can be done about it because nothing CAN be done, or it'll be too expensive, taxes would go up, it would kill jobs, etc.
• Climate change is a good thing, because crops will grow better with more CO2, we'll be able to open arctic shipping routes, etc. etc.
To put it in terms conservatives can understand, we are already effectively paying a huge tax due to Climate Change. Every natural disaster that's exacerbated by Climate Change is more expensive to clean up. Events that happen more often are adding to costs. Jobs are being destroyed by weather events like flooding, travel being interrupted, power blackouts, droughts killing crops and crippling shipping on rivers, etc. etc. Every bit of development, every bit of new construction that does not take changing climate into account is money that may end up going to waste. Ecosystems shifting or even collapsing because of changing climate impose costs of all kinds. Allowing companies to continue using carbon based fuels is being heavily subsidized by the rest of us, contributing to the vast growth in inequality.
Doing nothing about Global Climate Change is - in the long run - going to be far more expensive, possibly even fatal, than taking action ASAP. While conservatives may hate the idea, it's only government that can take action. And worse, from their point of view, it will take coordinated international action. (Odd isn't it, how the existence of multinational corporations with their own agendas do not raise the same level of concern on the right?) The markets left to themselves will do nothing, not so long as the imperative for immediate profits overrides the need to act for the long term. Deregulation and tax cuts will not save us; they'll simply continue to pass the costs along to everyone else and make them far higher.
Not So Great Expectations
Here's the reason why Climate Change is such a big deal, and ignoring it is idiocy of the highest order. Everything humans do at some point turns on expectations about what climate will do: what crops to plant, and when; how much to insulate a building and how much heating/AC to include; where is it safe to build above flood waters; how high and strong do bridges have to be; what standards to roads have to reflect; how to cope with runoff; how to ensure sufficient water supplies; and so on.
Climate changing on a global scale doesn't just mean we have to do things differently in the future. It means the stuff we've already built, the things we've always done are increasingly out of sync with what's going on with the weather. Our cities, our transportation networks, our energy systems, our infrastructure, even our culture - they're built for a world which no longer exists.
And it's not going to get better. It can't be ignored to death. Here's a pretty dramatic illustration. The greatest military in the world can't ignore it. There's one sector of the business world that is paying attention - although it appears they're mainly concerned that they don't end up footing the bill.
The fight over food stamps is bad enough - but what happens when the food supply starts to fall short? The USDA is beginning to make preparations for dealing with the inevitable.
We can no longer take water for granted; it may be too abundant, or too scarce and management needs to be comprehensive. We have to use it more effectively. This will require some serious efforts. Pumping more water out of the ground has limits with consequences that can't be ignored.
Twenty years ago, the water table under the Willeys’ farm measured 120 feet. But a well test in late January revealed that it is now 60 feet lower. Half of that decline, Tom estimates, has occurred in the last two years.emphasis added
The Willeys have done what they can to cope. They’ve cut back on less profitable crops, and they are already dedicated practitioners of sustainable agriculture. But many farmers aren’t, and the future is worrisome. Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. It’s no surprise Tom Willey wakes every morning with a lump in his throat. When we ask which farmers will survive the summer, he responds quite simply: those who dig the deepest and pump the hardest.
There are indications that we have more Climate Change to deal with in the near future. 2014 may turn out to be the warmest year yet. If that wasn't bad enough, the frequency of disruptive weather will double. Climate change deniers have been making much of a recent slowdown in warming. It looks like the pendulum is about to swing back the other way.
It's Not Just About Us
As always, humans tend to focus on humans - but the Global Climate Change we are causing affects everything on this planet. The web of life that holds the Earth together is becoming increasingly frayed. It's under stress and strands are in danger of snapping. The discussion above of how our infrastructure was built for a world that no longer exists? Biological communities are having to adapt to the same problem - where they can. Everyone has been looking at polar bears and even walruses as ice melts in the arctic. Denialistas are having a hard time spinning the specter of polar bears starving as not a problem.
If so, there are other photogenic species facing climate armageddon that should only increase the pressure on the deniers. The monarch butterfly is under threat because of changing climate and habitat loss. Either alone would be trouble, but the combination is making the problem worse. Magellanic penguins at the opposite end of the Americas are in trouble. Changing weather means fewer chicks survive.
The chicks are already vulnerable to predation and starvation. Now, the study at Punta Tombo, Argentina, found that intense storms and warmer temperatures are increasingly taking a toll.While humans can ignore weather - up to a point - plants and animals do not have that luxury. Life cycles are interlinked; insects hatch at times that depend on plants growing and blooming; birds need to have a supply of insects and/or plants available at the times when they are nesting and raising young. Some plants can't survive without certain insects to pollinate them at critical times. Shifting climate puts stress on all of those relationships.
“Rainfall is killing a lot of penguins, and so is heat,” said P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington scientist and lead author of the study. “And those are two new causes.”
Climate scientists say more extreme weather, including wetter storms and more prolonged periods of heat and cold, is one impact of a climate that is changing because of emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While monitoring the penguin colony, Dr. Boersma and her colleagues also documented regional temperature changes and increases in the number of days with heavy rains.
We've arrived at the modern era, the anthropocene, after centuries of exploiting the natural world with little comprehension of the consequences. We nearly hunted whales to extinction and they are still under threat. Yet, it turns out they play a vital role in keeping plankton growing - soaking up CO2. After nearly being wiped out by the fur trade, it turns out sea otters are critical in keeping the kelp forests thriving. An ill-conceived massive water project in Russia has destroyed the Aral Sea, causing serious problems. The great plains are being pumped dry; the mix of wildlife and vegetation that could survive a dry climate is long gone.
If Not Now, When?
Global Climate Change is just the latest (and possibly last) playing out of the Tragedy of the Commons. It's a dilemma that free market capitalism has repeatedly failed to deal with. The recent string of extreme weather events is an opportunity to bring the issue of Global Climate Change front and center.
This is why we need involved citizens and a government that answers to them, not oligarchs. This is why we need to raise consciousness among the public in general, and politicians in particular. This is why we need policies based on science and investments in the public good. This is why we need to stop reducing everything to purely economic considerations skewed to immediate returns, and look at the larger picture. Triangulation, centrism, Reaganism, conservatism, corporatism - these have been tried and failed. We need the kind of effort that won World War II, the spirit of the Apollo Program, the G.I. Bill, the New Deal. We need to fully embrace the consequences of living in the anthropocene and deal with them.
And we need to do it yesterday.
UPDATE: President Obama spoke in California while touring the drought-stricken state on Friday.
"We can't think of this simply as a zero-sum game. It can't just be a matter of there's going to be less and less water so I'm going to grab more and more of a shrinking share of water," Obama said after touring part of a farm that is suffering under the state's worst drought in more than 100 years.It's a start. It remains to be seen if the media will start to pick up on the climate change talking points. Given that the President was speaking in a place where climate change is a little too obvious to ignore, it would have been surprising if he didn't mention it... If the Keystone XL pipeline gets approved however, that will send the message that it's still going to be lip service as usual on climate change. Keep your fingers crossed.
"Instead what we have to do is all come together and figure out how we all are going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed," he said.
Even if the U.S. takes immediate action to curb pollution, the planet will keep getting warmer for a long time to come because of greenhouse gases that already have built up, he said.
"We're going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for," Obama said, announcing more than $160 million in federal financial aid. The sum includes $100 million in the farm bill he signed into law last week for programs that cover the loss of livestock.
UPDATE 2: I have the TV on at the moment, and I'm watching an infomercial for the Free Market 'solution' to Climate Change: a Generac home power system. The commercial keeps stressing how severe storms are increasing in frequency "for whatever reason" while the nation's electrical grid is increasingly out of date and stressed. Satisfied homeowners testify how happy they are, and talk about things like Hurricane Irene or Sandy. Life can go on as normal - as long as you've got at least $1899 and natural gas or LP. Meanwhile, they're talking about how the aging national power grid needs billions of dollars of investment and it's not happening any time soon. And if that weren't enough, we can expect even more severe storms. "We call these 100 year storms. But these days? It seems like they're an annual event."
I'm waiting for the followup infomercial where they talk about home defense systems, when your neighbors who've been without power for days realize you have the only house for miles with food, heat, water, power… Pity that trying to deal with problems like this through community action and government can't be done because it would be job-killing, tax-raising Socialism.
UPDATE 3: On Sunday February 16, 2014, Meet The Press featured a segment where Bill Nye the Science Guy 'debated' Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) over the recent string of severe weather events and Climate Change. There was a lot of pre-emptive disparagement here at Daily Kos and elsewhere, but watching the actual segment, it turned out to be better than I expected.
Blackburn's arguments were practiced and polished; she's been working this schtick for some time; Nye started out a bit hesitant, but became stronger as it progressed. Blackburn's position was predictable and repetitive: Nye's an engineer not a climate scientist (and neither is she), scientists disagree, there's no consensus, we have to look at cost-benefits, the President's executive actions ignore that Congress has said no - all the while with a smile on her face that seemed completely at odds with the seriousness of the issue. At one point she tried to say that going from 320ppm to 400ppm CO2 was really small; Nye called her out on it - a 30% increase is NOT small. Blackburn used just about all of the conservative talking points listed above.
That's the thing about Climate Change. We can either choose to deal with it - or IT will deal with us.
Help Us Spread the Word About Climate Change
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