Winter 2010-2011: A Climate-Awareness Inflection Point?
The world remains mired in blind indifference to a primal scream emanating from our future. If we could hear it, or pay attention to it, we would connect with a frightening level of rage leveled at our short-sightedness in 146 languages plus binary code and cuneform:
“You people were privileged beyond all reason, you knew, and you did nothing!!”
“Ustedes tuvieron el privilegio más allá de toda razón, te conocía, y que no hizo nada!”
“Sie waren Menschen jenseits aller Vernunft privilegierten, wussten Sie, und Sie haben nichts!”
“Vous les gens ont eu le privilège au delà de toute raison, vous le saviez, et vous n’avez rien fait!”
Climate effects everyone, and its change will change all of our lives dramatically. From the crops of subsistence farmers to the coastal infrastructure of major metropolitan areas, the way of life of billions is in peril. Climate change is going to impoverish us. It will cost untold trillions of dollars, create higher levels of human misery, has the potential to ruin teetering economies, and could set in motion military and political change that threaten the very notion of a modern liberal international system. If you think I’m exaggerating, just read the links I’ve provided.
Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to live at the top of Earth’s food chain in the incredible period of prosperity from 1945 to the present have the most to lose. You’d think people with so much at stake would pay more attention. I’ve argued that it’s precisely our experience of bounty, our sense of entitlement and exceptionalism in the post WWII period that makes Americans uniquely vulnerable to the clue-by-fouring that’s most assuredly on its way. This has been nowhere more painfully illustrated than the pathetic whining of people with disrupted travel schedules. As if being whisked across the world at will with blinding speed was some kind of basic human right. From TIME:
…the sheer number of canceled flights—and the number of angry passengers stranded in terminals up and down the East Coast—was more accurate reflection of just how common air travel had become, and with it, our expectations for our easy movement should be. On one level, after all, the global air travel system really is a technological marvel—with a few clicks, you can book yourself a ticket that can take you halfway around the planet in a day. (OK, maybe not right now, but usually.) What was once extraordinary had now become another form of commuting, and we think it our due to be able to fly thousands of miles to visit family for the holidays and fly back home in time for work….Perspective can get lost—let’s not forget, this was a major, major storm, and it shouldn’t be surprising that when lots of snow falls, travel is going to get gummed up—and then some….it’s as if we’ve become a “nation of wussies,” unable to deal with obstacles, turning a delayed cross-country flight into something out of the Odyssey.
Or the fury at government that’s so au courant, what with the Tea Party and all, as Alexis Madrigal points out in The Atlantic,
We assume that if only city government worked better, the hassles of the weather could be avoided. We blame The Man…While I’m sure weather emergencies can be handled better or worse, if the weather is crazy enough, the government-quality signal gets drowned out by the weather signal. Cities were built with certain tolerance levels in mind, certain climactic baselines, and if you go outside of them, everyone looks terrible because they’re pulling levers of power and control that are not commensurate with the task they need to fix….What you need to know is that your city — pretty much wherever it is — was built for a climate that it may no longer have. That’s going to mean tough commutes during the winter and spending more money on air conditioning in the summer. It’s going to mean that your city shuts down more often because some freaky thing happened that no one can remember happening in their lifetimes. [emphasis added] It’s going to mean the power’s going to go out because the electric system in your area wasn’t designed to handle the stresses it will be put under. Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine.
I can’t stress this point enough. Cities are located where they are based on human migration patterns over centuries of the basically stable climate of the late Holocene. Change the climate into what promises to be Anthropocene hell, and all of a sudden, crops don’t grow the same way the same places they used to, urban economics don’t pencil, and there’s little to nothing we can do but become poorer and more stressed as more and more of our resources go toward staying in place, replacing and beefing up infrastructure we took for granted, battling nature, and less toward things that make life better and richer like education, health care, and the arts. And that’s just us, the lucky ones. What about the billions who are only just now thinking they have a shot at getting out of the $1-a-day crushing poverty of the developing world?
It’s not like we haven’t been warned. Starting in the 1950’s, scientists began to discuss the greenhouse effect. In 1958, an amazingly prophetic Frank Capra produced an educational film “The Unchained Goddess” which included this segment on global warming. Campy as it is with its dramatic music and overstatement of immediate consequences, it was essentially right on the mark. In the late 1970’s President Jimmy Carter was run out of office for merely suggesting we connect with our energy reality by turning our thermostat down in the winter and putting on a sweater.
But Daddy Reagan told us it was “morning in America,” and Grandad George H.W. Bush agreed. By 1989 or 1990, we had missed our chance to avoid the worst of it by getting off fossil fuels. Earth passed the “safe” atmospheric CO2 threshold of 350 ppm around 1990. But in the 1990’s and 2000’s we reveled in our $30/barrel oil, and bought bigger houses, and ever-more-powerful shiny new cars, and other gewgaws.
As we did so, we happily whistled past the graveyard of old Earth, unaware we were irrevocably on the pathway to Eaarth, as described in Bill McKibben’s scary 2010 book. Then of course there’s the warnings from Al Gore, a name that’s been relentlessly vilified since the release in 2006 of “An Inconvenient Truth.” For his tireless humanitarian work, Gore’s been everything but tarred and feathered, including having a 10-foot-tall hot-air-spewing bust of himself paraded through Fairbanks, Alaska on the back of a pickup truck. We’ve made a national sport of killing the messenger, when the messenger was saying anything other than “turn down the air conditioning” or “turn up the heat,” “crank up the big screen” and “pass the Nachos.”
Now there’s clearly nothing wrong with Super Bowl parties or large screens or indoor climate control. But what they have the potential to do is to numb us to what’s really going on in the real climate, namely that we’re burning a lot of coal to keep the beer cold, the cheese sauce hot, and make that social gathering possible. And the carbon emissions from all that partying is going to make future partying more difficult and expensive. Just like all the past on-time flights have precipitated the weather that makes our current flights late. Would the Super Bowl party be any less fun if it was being held sustainably, powered by the wind or sun? And would we pay just a little more for electricity for just a few years if we knew it would help our kids and their kids to enjoy the same privileges we do? “Of course,” it’s easy to think. “We would gladly do that, there’s too much at stake not to,” right?
When it comes to the polling booth, apparently we won’t. And we won’t stop electing people who self-righteously sabotage the future for paltry present gain–which doesn’t amount to even pennies on the dollar.
Now what exactly is happening to the future (and the present)? Well–already–things that haven’t happened for 1,000 years.
In that sense, Matt Drudge must be feeling pretty good right now. But his headline from the Daily Star: “UK Winter May Be Coldest in 1000 Years…” should move the irony meter just a little bit. For the incurious majority of Drudge readers, the conclusion is as obvious as the snowdrifts are high: Al Gore is still wrong, just like he was yesterday, just like he’s always been, and spectacularly so. ‘Global Warming, right?’ Hahahahahahahaha!
But let’s look at the kind of real sentiments we’re hearing near and far. In a facetious Facebook status update a friend said, “Snow in Arizona? Look out for raining frogs and rivers of blood next. The Apocalypse must be starting.” More seriously, the Premier of Queensland, Australia, Anna Bligh said of recent flooding, “It’s without precedent in our recorded history, with so many places in so many diverse parts of the state each affected so critically at once.” Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport slashed flights Christmas week because of a shortage of de-icing fluid. New York’s snowbound airports (the result of a blizzard not matched since 1983) top the list of places where you hope you’re not stuck watching tomorrow’s countdown. In Los Angeles, we’ve had the wettest December on record, and howling hurricane-force winds (at 94 mph) are ringing in our New Year. Tonight it’s supposed to dip below freezing in supposedly sunny Southern California. What the hell kind of crazy is going on??
To the right-wing cohort, it’s all as it should be. The chortling over winter weather is about validating their broad view of science as enemy, and private enterprise under siege from every angle. Drudge’s banner headline screamed NYC SNOW JOB: SLOW CLEAN-UP WAS UNION ‘PROTEST’. I don’t know if it’s possible to be more wrong on more levels. At some point, such propaganda crosses the threshold from just wrong to sinister. Yes, this is the Most Important Lesson we’re supposed to take from the effects of global weather weirding: “The Unions in New York City are Just Too Powerful and Corrupt.” Gawd.
But what is science really saying about these strange weather extremes? Two phrases sum up what we know, or more correctly, what is the probable cause of some of these troubles. “Siberian Snow,” and “Arctic Oscillation.”
On Siberian Snow from Washington Post:
…Judah Cohen and colleagues which finds above normal fall snow cover in Siberia leads to cold winter over eastern North America. As a long-range forecaster with theCommodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Md., I can confirm that this relationship has some legitimacy….It is amazing to watch these powerful atmospheric waves propagate across our planet and grow over Siberia. We recently saw such a wave develop in December that helped establish the recent cold, and a new one is expected to move across Eurasia in the coming week. You can watch these waves (way up toward the top of the troposphere) via an excellent National Weather Service animation.
On Arctic Oscillation from Wikipedia:
…in February 2010 the Arctic Oscillation reached its most negative value, -4.266 (for a monthly mean), in the entire post-1950 era (the period of accurate record-keeping) and that month was characterized by three separate record or near-record snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic region, the first two dumping 25 inches on Baltimore, Md. on the 5th and 6th of February, and then another 19.5 inches on the 9th and 10th. In New York City a separate storm deposited 20.9 inches on the 25th and 26th. This kind of snowstorm activity is as anomalous and extreme as the negative AO value itself. Similarly, the greatest negative value for the AO since 1950 in January was -3.767 in 1977, which coincided with the coldest mean January temperature in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and many other mid-Atlantic locations in that span. And though the January AO has been negative only 60.6% of the time between 1950-2010, 9 of the 10 coldest New York City Januarys since 1950 have coincided with negative AOs.
Now of course, there are all sorts of caveats, and we must be clear that Earth’s weather is an incredibly complex and difficult-to-understand system. And we can’t say that this correlation between Siberia, the Arctic and crazy blizzards is an open and shut case. But here’s what we do know: On a global basis, 2010 was the hottest year of the hottest decade since records have been kept. So something odd must be happening, and it is along these lines: Warmer air holds more moisture. A warmer atmosphere has more energy to move things around. And both tend to amplify the effects of any weather system, summer or winter.
So keep these facts in mind over the next few months as the Northern Hemisphere goes through weather disruptions in the form of extreme cold and massive snowstorms: On a global average basis, the Earth as a whole is warmer than it has ever been in the modern era, and that’s not in dispute. Therefore something must explain the strange paradox of winter nastiness. If the American public can wrap their heads around that “something,” we might actually get somewhere.