Understanding Climate Change
As the Buddhists would say, we’re living in “interesting times.” It certainly hasn’t been boring. If you’re in the Northeast, or been watching, during the period where I was started working on this Four Quarters InterFaith Santcutary’s 2013 Wheel of the Year calendar, the big news of the past year of course has been Megastorm Sandy, the biggest and most costly weather event we’ve seen in a long time. The storm hammered coastlines from North Carolina to Massachusetts, and felt as far inland as Buffalo. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut shores were hardest hit, with widespread and dramatic damage on the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, the South Shore of Long Island, Red Hook, the Battery, Breezy Point and the Rockaways, Sheepshead Bay, and my old neighborhoods, Coney Island and Sea Gate. In Coney Island, essentially a sandbar, “high ground” is about eight feet. The storm surge was fourteen. I am not a climate scientist, but I can do that much math.
For a few days after the storm, we hosted some old friends who’s high-rise became uninhabitable after the storm, without power, heat or water. State and municipal governments and agencies, FEMA, the Red Cross, the Occupy Movement still struggle at relief, repair and recovery, but it’s still going to be a while digging out of this one. There’s been plenty of criticism of storm response, mostly of power utilities in the region, Responding to disasters of this sheer overwhelming magnitude, we’re still learning how to DO this. As for us in the ‘burbs, the house is sound and on high ground, with no trees crashing through the roof or walls. We had power back relatively quickly and we keep flashlights at hand and a fair stash of supplies in the cupboard. Cleanup for us was fairly straightforward, but for hundreds of thousands, it will be months of effort and struggle.
What’s coming out of this is, of course, after two hundred-year storms in less than two years, the “Halloween Surprise” Storm, 5 drought summers, a winter of incessant snow, then a winter without snow, monsoon months, extended heat waves, semi-regular tornados in Brooklyn... Climate change is now a topic people are starting to take seriously again, at least in the Northeast. Insurance companies certainly are. They are getting the claims, and feeling the financial impact of more volatile and extreme weather events very directly. People are also starting to think more realistically about disaster preparedness, toughening up and becoming more self-reliant.
I get into the fundamentals and the implications under the fold. Carry on...
So what’s the story about Global Warm– oh, sorry, Climate Change?
The very short version of course, if you missed An Inconvenient Truth, is that the overall temperature of the planet has been slowly and incrementally rising over the past two centuries, and the process seems to be accelerating. An overwhelming majority of Climate Scientists agree that an accumulation of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide chief among them, causes the atmosphere to retain more solar heat than it radiates, over time, slowly warming the Earth. The long-term consequences include a very high probability that the habitability of the Earth for humans would grow increasingly untenable. Effects include ocean rise, Arctic region thawing, searing summers, ocean acidification, and loss of arable agricultural land among others. A temperature rise of +2deg. C is considered extremely dangerous, +6˚C would be apocalyptic.
As the burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere. There has been considerable controversy in the media as the fossil fuel industries dispute the findings of climate scientists. They seem do be doing everything in their power to add noise to the signal, and contest the science. If you recall the tobacco industry’s efforts to suppress the health effects of smoking in the 60s and 70s... this is very similar. But the money at stake is massive. It is the largest and most profitable industry on the planet; they have a huge financial stake in sustaining the status quo and their power.
People are of course confused by all this. One of the problems is that while climate and weather are related, they are not the same thing. However, all the weather on Earth is heat driven. Even very small increases in global temperature add more heat to global weather systems. Planetary warming does not necessarily mean that Baltimore becomes Miami, but it does mean we get more volatile, more random and more extreme weather. We will still have warm and cool winters and summers, more or less rain and snow in any given season. A climate scientist describes it like this—take a standard six-sided die, previously two sides would say “normal”, two sides say “cooler” and the remaining two “warmer.” Each season, toss the die and get what you get. Now the die still says “normal” on two sides, but “cooler” on only one, and “warmer” on three. Climatologist James Hansen suggests four.
"Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.We’ll still have varied seasons, but the long-term trendline will continue to tick upwards. In temperate zones, with more variable weather, the effects are less obvious, but in the more extreme environments, such as the arctic and tropical zones, the effects are more seriously felt. For instance, Alaskan Native villages built on permafrost, are sinking into mud. The Greenland Ice Sheet is rapidly melting at unprecedented speed.
"But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the die would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.
"But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you." — James E. Hansen, Climate change is here — and worse than we thought, Washington Post, Aug 3, 2012
One of the problems is that people’s perception of time is very immediate. While we perceive decades to be different from years or centuries, a century and a millennia and ten thousand years feels exactly the same to most people. What most strongly reveals the likely human element in the warming trend is the unprecedented rapidity of the heating: slow, but still far swifter than any possible natural cycles that deniers put forth.
As for the controversy and deniers, the overwhelming majority of reputable climate scientists and meteorologists are in agreement about the evidence of climate change. I’ll go with their research and the science over the self-serving opinions of politicians and dissident opinions and studies sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, which are inherently suspect.
I think it’s an, “if this, then that,” problem. If anthropogenic climate change is real, then the disturbing implications are that we’d have to, as a species, make sweeping and unpleasant changes of our global lifestyles. The most dislocation would be experienced by those in the industrialized nations, Americans most acutely. Developing nations are also swiftly adopting fossil intensive economies. If the peoples and governments of the world took on the tasks of significant carbon emission reductions, it would require our entire species to change literally how we go about just about everything.
It’s also damn scary. Some of the scenarios of planetary devastation and species extinction being put forth in the scientific community are positively terrifying. We just don’t want to believe, it’s too much to contemplate. This can’t be happening, it’s just too horrible to be true! So, it’s not, dammit!
"The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is probably the natural variability of local climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?But of course, we also really don’t want to change our comfortable habits. I don’t think we’re up for it. In the United States in particular, we have tremendous cultural momentum, and attachment to our lifestyles. The idea that, “the fossil fuel party’s over,” just isn’t going down well. Denials and dissenting voices, no matter how unsupported by science, reach fertile ground. So for most people, and those involved with the fossil fuel industry, if it’s not true? Great! It was all a hoax after all? Socialist hippie tree-hugger conspiracy? Carry on!
"The question is important because actions to stem emissions of gases that cause global warming are unlikely until the public appreciates the significance of global warming and perceives that it will have unacceptable consequences. Thus when nature seemingly provides evidence of climate change it needs to be examined objectively by the public, as well as by scientists.
"Therefore it was disappointing that most early media reports on the heat wave, widespread drought, and intense forest fires in the United States in 2012 did not mention or examine the potential connection between these climate events and global warming. Is this reticence justified?"
— James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Reto Ruedy, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies via Think Progress
I expect there will be scant progress towards a national effort towards emission reductions, or any significant international agreement without American leadership or example. Shortly after megastorm Sandy, Rachel Maddow pointed out on MSNBC that 63 Million Americans live in major coastal cities, all at increasing risk, sitting at the edge of rising oceans.
The Rachel Maddow Show: More ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ weather events likely - MSNBC, October 31, 2012Our corporate and governmental structures seem unsuited to this task, appearing far too short-sighted and profit-focused to plan beyond the next election or financial statement. But the time frame required to pursue climate change mitigation is measured in decades. Despite relief, recovery and rebuilding being far more costly than preparedness, political debate over costs will likely hinder investing in infrastructure to help protect our coasts in the face of accelerating sea level rise. As effects manifest over time, adaptation to climate change will likely override efforts towards mitigation.
And then there’s that other thing...
Another complication is that climate change also violently collides with issues of sustainability and resource depletion that we’ve been discussing at Four Quarters in these Age of Limits essays for the past few years. The effects of climate change will only make the consequences of population pressures, peak oil, environmental degradation, resource depletion, sustainability and global economic stresses all the more devastating and disruptive to human civilization and survivability.
"That’s the kind of conversation we need to have now, and the subject is the end of industrial society.For those of us trying to look ahead with open minds, the path is quite simply not to expect our political leadership or the world of commerce to take care of these issues — or of us. In the face of a changing world, we must seek out adaptability, preparedness, broad practical skills, coping strategies and both self-reliance and community. Know where your flashlights, batteries and candles are. Have decent boots and gloves. Gather emergency and survival gear, accumulate stout practical tools. Stash away non-perishable food and water. Learn. Know that things are changing. Start getting ready for tougher times, expect to put up with some inconvenience. Once again, the advice of both shamans and Zen Buddhists applies — pay attention.
"Our entire society has been edging around that conversation uncomfortably for decades now. There’s been plenty of talk about the mismatch between popular fantasies of perpetual growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, to be sure, but nearly all of that talk has treated the mismatch as a problem that can be solved by some gimmick without giving up either the extravagant lifestyles we’re used to, on the one hand, or the hope of a decent life for our descendants on the other. Year after year, we’ve heard the same weary chatter about technological breakthroughs, great social movements, transformations in consciousness, and the rest of it; year after year, we’ve all heard the equal and opposite chatter about the overnight catastrophes that will relieve us of responsibility for the future our own choices are creating, for us and for our grandchildren’s grandchildren; and too many people manage not to notice that neither the breakthroughs nor the catastrophes ever get around to happening, while the jaws of our predicament close more and more tightly around us.
"Off beyond the daydreams of progress and apocalypse stands the shape of the future that always comes to civilizations that overshoot their resource base—a shape that’s called decline..."
— John Michael Greer, The Conversation We Need to Have