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Extraction Extremism: Connecting the Dots on Global Warming

Extreme events, global warming, and the extreme consequences of failing to take extreme action now

High school Students connect the dots on climate change near Dallas, Texas in 2012. (Photo: 350.org) Back in the bad old days of the Bush Administration in the run-up to the Iraqi war, conservatives spoke a lot about “connecting the dots” by which they meant taking data points that seemed disparate and separate, and linking them into a larger narrative that made sense. 

Turns out, those dots were disparate and separate, as many tried to point out at the time to a deaf, mute press and a war-frenzied administration. 

Fast forward to now, and in the case of global warming, conservatives are bending over backwards to disconnect dots that are clearly linked.

Let’s start with extreme weather-related events.

The National Weather Service, not an organization typically associated with hyperbole, is calling the rains in Boulder Colorado “biblical.”   

In California, the recent Rim Fire—the third biggest fire in California’s history—was not contained until it burned for over a month.  Some 1,791 firefighters battled the fire and it has caused $113 million dollars in damage.  The driest winter in 50 years helped make it more intense, and the extreme heat from the super-fire made it biologically devastating, unlike most natural fires. Ecologists describe the burned out area as “Nuked” or a “moonscape.” 

In Australia, bush fire season arrived early, with four major fires burning around Sydney and the Blue Mountains.  After a record-setting summer heat wave and a warmer than average winter, grasslands and forests have been reduced to kindling.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Typhoon Man-yi dumped what the Japanese Meteorological Agency called an unprecedented amount of rainfall in Kyoto and two neighboring prefectures, reaching as much as 8 centimeters (3 inches) per hour.  Kyoto, it may be remembered, is where the last serious—if inadequate—attempt to tackle global warming was made, more than 16 years ago.  

England is wrapping up one of the hottest summers on record.

According to Munich Re, an insurance company that keeps the most comprehensive data there is on global extreme weather, the number of events and the loss from those events has been going up dramatically as the world warms.  One of the frequent taking points among climate denialists is that this is only an “apparent” increase since more people and property are located in the pathway of floods, storms and fires, and droughts effect far more people than they used to.  But if that were the sole cause, then disasters for tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes, which are not associated with climate change, would be skyrocketing in frequency and intensity too.   And while there has been a comparatively small blip in losses associated with these disasters, global warming-related incidences and costs dwarfs them. 

Bottom line—extreme weather events are happening more frequently, costing more, and are more severe.  And this is exactly what science tells us will happen in a warming world. 

Let’s connect a few more dots in the area of national security and human welfare.

In the Middle East, one of the worst long-term droughts in modern times is being cited as a possible contributor to the Syrian civil war.  Epochal long-term droughts and water shortages also preceded and contributed to the conflict in Darfur and fueled in key ways what became known as the Arab Spring. 

And it’s not just Africa and the Middle East.  Admiral Samuel J. Locklear the III, Commander of the US Pacific Forces, recently said that climate change is the biggest threat to security in that region.

A recent National Research Council report commissioned by the CIA found that climate change related events like droughts, famines, floods, heat waves and extreme storms would cause humanitarian and strategic consequences for which the US was unprepared. It was issued 10 days late because Hurricane Sandy occurred on the day of its scheduled release. Irony can be cruel.

IPCC reports have been low-balling projected sea levels from the beginning, and it appears the next one will be excessively conservative as well.  Essentially, modeling assumptions and the models themselves lead to projections that have failed to keep pace with … well … reality. 

One of the key assumptions is that we will not burn all the fossil fuels presently counted as proven reserves.  So far, this has proven to be a bad assumption.  In fact, since we are now exploiting unconventional oil reserves and lower quality coal seams, we’re emitting more carbon per unit of energy gained, and we’ve increased the amount of recoverable reserves. 

A recent paper by James Hansen—a man who has been right on climate change more often and longer than anyone in the field—examines the consequences of burning more carbon than the IPCC models suggest.  The paper also considers the effect of “slow-feedbacks,” and looks at paleo-data from periods when similar amounts of carbon were being released by volcanic and tectonic activity – albeit at a much slower rate that what humans are doing today.    The conclusions are literally frightening. For example, Hansen says:

Burning all fossil fuels” would warm land areas on average about 20°C (36°F) and warm the poles a stunning 30°C (54°F). This “would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”

We can’t burn all the fossil fuels in the ground without destroying the Earth as we know it.  We know that the situation is already bad and it will get worse the longer we continue to burn it. These are simple dots to connectwe need to transition off of fossil fuels, and we need to do it soon.

So to paraphrase Winston Churchill:  If not now, when?  If not us, who?

These dots are connected, and they form a coherent whole and that whole leads straight to the most devastating tragedy humanity has ever faced. The bad news is time is running out; the good news is, we still control a measure of our future.