Robert Meeropol





Robby, Abel, Michael and trains








my perennial chaos

"Robby & Elli" 1968


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Robby speaking at the re-launch of the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund in Toronto

Robby and Cory work on the blog.

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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Global Warming or Climate Change?

May 8, 2014

Tags: Global Warming, Climate Change

Global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing? Environmental activists’ criticisms of the latter phrase concern the lulling effect of this “more neutral” term. They point out that not all climate change is bad. In fact, what is problematic about today’s climate change is its rapid pace and searing direction. However, others hesitate to use global warming because that’s too narrowly focused on temperature. True, global warming doesn’t tell the whole story, but I’ve made it my primary descriptor to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

Mark Hertsgaard, in his book HOT: LIVING THROUGH THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS ON EARTH, does an excellent job of pin-pointing what the two terms denote.

“[G]lobal warming refers to the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on earth’s natural systems, and the impact that can result: stronger storms, deeper droughts, shifting seasons, sea level rise, and much else.”

More simply, the first phrase is the cause and the second the effect.

So both terms have their proper place. I will try to use them accordingly, but I’m still leery of climate change. This is because as I mentioned above, change per se, is not the problem. In fact, our planet’s climate has been evolving throughout its four billion year history. The pace of change has been uneven, but during the vast majority of the last half billion years it has been mild enough to promote evolution without causing mass extinctions.

There have been exceptions. When an asteroid the size of Mt. Everest smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula 67 million years ago, a steamy-hot earth was plunged into “nuclear” winter almost overnight. The temperature increase over thousands of years brought about by a massive spike in the atmosphere’s methane content 225 million years ago doomed 95% of all plant and animal species alive at that time.

I mention these because the changes scientists are predicting echo both mass extinction events. Such nightmare scenarios, rather than the “normal” climate change, are what we face now. Many species today are unable to adjust to the rate at which global temperatures are increasing. And if we continue on our current course, the predicted 6 to 7 degree Celsius rise in global temperature over the next hundred years may trigger massive releases of methane currently trapped in artic permafrost and the ocean depths that could raise temperature even further and render the air we breathe toxic.

This kind of extreme climate change is what we must do everything in our power to prevent. So, no matter how accurate the phrase climate change is in describing the effect of global warming it still does not adequately address our current peril.

The New Normal

November 14, 2013

Tags: New Normal, Global Warming, The Weather Channel

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that the Weather Channel is my favorite TV station. Recently I noticed that when focusing on issues related to climate change, Weather Channel reporters characterized increased weather fluctuations as “the new normal.” While I’m glad that the Weather Channel is finally addressing global warming, “the new normal” phrase is problematic.

I don’t like the label because it gives the impression that we’ve moved from one relatively constant state to another. When, as a teenager, I first started studying climate seriously, I learned that when TV weather forecasters predicted below normal temperatures for the coming week, “normal” referred to average temperatures during that week over the last 30 years. Thus, unlike our understanding of normal body temperature (98.6), normal weather was not a constant, but changeable over time. You could say that though our climate for the first seven decades of the 20th century was relatively constant, there is no such thing as normal weather. Some meteorologists have tried to be more accurate by substituting the word average for normal, but I think the distinction is lost on most people.

Who cares, you may wonder, besides weather-obsessed nerds like me. Accurately describing future climatic change, however, is critical to understanding the challenges we will face over the next 50 years. A discussion I had with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago illustrates this.

We were disagreeing about the impact of global warming on the fruitfulness of the planet. I remarked that changing weather patterns threatened to significantly decrease earth’s productive capacity. Given the extent of hunger today, cutting the world’s fertility by 50% would be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. He responded that climate change wouldn’t necessarily decrease the global food supply. He argued that while, as temperatures warmed, China might grow less rice, Canada and Russia would grow more wheat.

I don’t know enough to balance a decline in Chinese rice production with an increase in Canadian wheat harvests, but my friend’s prediction demonstrates the danger of the concept of moving from the old to a new normal state. This treats global warming as akin to climbing steps. You progress from a lower flat surface to the next higher one, and this concept does not capture the essence of Global Warming. We have entered a rapidly changing environment and we must live with an increasingly dynamic process. The climate won’t plateau after it has gotten a few degrees warmer. The conditions on the Canadian prairies may favor increased wheat harvests for a few years, but those conditions will keep changing.

Moreover, the concept of the new normal does not take into account growing systemic volatility. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as insulation trapping energy and this excess power finds an outlet in bigger disturbances. We’ll see more instability resulting in unprecedented floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Such conditions are not conducive to sustaining more bountiful harvests anywhere.

Perhaps unprecedented weather is what the folks at the Weather Channel mean by the “new normal.” But labeling as “normal” phenomena that have no norm is worthless. It obfuscates rather than clarifies, and we need as much clarity as we can get as we face this challenge.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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