Saturday, June 30, 2012

Public becoming cooler on Climate Change as weather gets hotter


Genesee River 2010At a recent visit to Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, I gazed at a relief map of New York State blanketed by the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. Though it’s almost impossible to imagine our region covered in a mile-high glacier some 20, 000 years ago, it was so. Sometime in the Pleistocene all that ice began to melt and as it did the receding ice sheet gouged out our Finger Lakes as well as those wonderful gorges in Ithaca, NY. Then we entered the Holocene, a relatively stable climate where our ancestors thrived amongst the mastodons and mammoths. Now we are living in what many scientists are calling the Anthropocene—a geological epoch framed by our own grand experiment with Nature.

It took 10,000 years of warming to melt that burden of ice burden on our land, which is significant since “during the Ice Age temperature[s] were only 5 to 10 degrees colder than today. “ (GLOBAL WARMING AND RISING SEA LEVELS - World Topics | Facts and Details)

We’ve become so used to the stability of the Holocene (the level shaft of the hockey stick) that we are blind to the dangers of anthropogenic accelerated (the part of the hockey stick which whacks the puck) Climate Change. For example, a mere one percent rise in greenhouse gas concentrations has increased our growing season by 10 days. But, climate studies project devastating changes to our region if this goes on.

On the other hand, higher temperatures and increased heat waves have the potential to increase fatigue of materials in the water, energy, transportation, and telecommunications sectors; affect drinking water supply; cause a greater frequency of summer heat stress on plants and animals; alter pest populations and habitats; affect the distribution of key crops such as apples, grapes, cabbage, and potatoes; cause reductions in dairy milk production; increase energy demand; and lead to more heat-related deaths and declines in air quality. Projected higher average annual precipitation and frequency of heavy precipitation events could also potentially increase the risks of several problems, including flash floods in urban areas and hilly regions; higher pollutant levels in water supplies; inundation of wastewater treatment plants and other vulnerable development in floodplains; saturated coastal lands and wetland habitats; flooded key rail lines, roadways, and transportation hubs; and travel delays. Sea level rise will increase risk of storm surge-related flooding, enhance vulnerability of energy facilities located in coastal areas, and threaten transportation and telecommunications facilities. Page 3, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)

And it is going on.

Even if you, or your favorite meteorologists, local media, or politicians aren’t connecting the present heat wave with Climate Change, climatologists are.

US wildfires are what global warming really looks like, scientists warn | Environment | The Colorado fires are being driven by extreme temperatures, which are consistent with IPCC projections Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the US west that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday. "What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like," said Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN's climate science panel. "It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future." (June 29, 2012) The Guardian

In spite of this present heatwave and other extreme weather events in the past few years, collectively we’ve done nothing to halt the rapid rise of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Last week’s Rio +20 debacle should raise everyone’s alarm level. Not only is our planet’s temperature rising but we have proven to be unequal to the task of addressing it. Bill McKibben, along with many young people (who will be inheriting this tinderbox of a planet), walked out en masse—probably the only positive event of the conference.

A protest at the Rio Centro led by activists including founder and CSRwire contributing writer, Bill McKibben, called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. On the beach at Copacabana, a two-hour traffic jam away, a giant trillion-dollar bill had been unfurled to represent the trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to "polluters" that could otherwise be used for clean energy and sustainable development. In the weeks leading up to Rio+20, it seemed unlikely that fossil fuel subsidies would enter into the negotiations, but massive public outcry including a viral petition to world leaders signed by over a million people, and a star-studded, record-breaking twitterstorm pushed the issue. From The Minus of Rio+20

They walked out because it was obvious that the leaders at the conference (or any world leaders for that matter) would not do anything to stop the trillions (a million million) in subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry.

To get a true sense of the horror at our species’ inability to address Climate Change you have to watch David Suzuki’s (scientist and educator) despair, as he talks truth to power: . David Suzuki on Rio+20, "Green Economy" & Why Planet’s Survival Requires Undoing Its Economic Model (June 25, 2012) Democracy Now! For someone who has worked his whole life on educating the public on science matters, with Climate Change being the most critical, David seems aghast at our inaction.

We should all be at Suzuki ‘s level of disbelief at our own Climate Change denial; Colorado is burning and there’s a major heatwave heading our way. It’s a hot one: Heat wave suspected in two deaths Kansas City’s current heat wave is suspected as the cause of two deaths, one of them a 1-year-old boy. (June 28, 2012) And it is pervasive:

Heat melts records from Plains to South – A record heat wave will continue to roast much of the USA through the weekend, fanning wildfires in the Colorado Rockies, threatening outdoor workers and causing some municipalities to cancel fireworks in time for July Fourth. The heat has broken all-time records from the northern Great Plains to the Southeast already this week. The rest of the month will bring even more scorching heat from Boston to Atlanta, with temperatures reaching into the low 100s, said Meteorologist Michael Palmer of The Weather Channel. (June 28, 2012) [more on Climate Change in our area]

Rochester is preparing-- City's Cool Sweep in Effect Friday | WXXI News—but is Cool Sweep enough? Does it compare with Toronto’s approach: Heat Alerts and Extreme Heat Alerts - Toronto Public Health? Are we preparing for more heatwaves in our region with pro-active programs to make sure those without adequate health plans will get the help they need? Are we going around our neighborhoods knocking on doors to see if the elderly are staying cool, or walking our sidewalks to see if the homeless get shelter?

Whoops, this essay is getting long, so I’d better wrap it up.

Like the map of the Wisconsin glacier at the museum, we need a visual that will give us a perspective on what a six degree change in Climate—from the end of the Civil War to the end of this century—will look like. The warming that melted a mile-high ice sheet over our heads took over 10,000 years to occur and we are going to accomplish that kind of warming in about two centuries. On the scale of time that describes the heating in the Pleistocene to the Holocene we wouldn’t see a hockey stick on a graph; we’d see a vertical blur.

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