instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Global Warming or 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.
 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

The New Normal

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.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Climate Change: Adaptation or Prevention

Elli and I attended the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference last month. It was designed to bridge the class divide between those working to stop global warming, and those struggling for economic justice. I was impressed with the age, race and class diversity of the more than 250 participants who included both middle-class professionals and college students who live in the smaller towns of our area, and poorer people, many of color, concentrated in the cities of Springfield and Holyoke. It was a very encouraging start to what hopefully will be a region-wide alliance of people who realize that health, environment, climate and economic justice are inextricably entwined.

But bridging class and race gaps is neither simple nor easy. Before the conference one of the organizers contacted the director of a local group that is focused on protecting the water quality of the Connecticut River. The organizer wanted to discuss participation in the conference. She was told that this group had decided not to work on issues around preventing climate change, but instead would focus their energies on mitigating the damage caused by - and adapting to - global warming.

It turns out that the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, provides some of that group’s funds. I don’t know how much impact this funding has had on the organization’s decision not to work directly against climate change, but I’m concerned that this environmental group is avoiding work on climate change prevention because it would force them to take a strong position against the pipeline.

This interaction got me thinking more generally about climate change “prevention” strategies verses “mitigation” or “adaptation.” (Perhaps “adaptation” is a better word than “mitigation.” The latter is ambiguous. Efforts focused on mitigating global warming can contribute to its prevention, but efforts designed only to lessen the damage merely try to adjust to climate change.)

There is a strong class bias built into strategies that primarily promote adaptation. Adaptation is expensive. The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of their country lies below sea level and global warming is causing sea level to rise. They have committed to spending 140 billion dollars to raise the gargantuan levies that protect them. Many millions more are threatened by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, but they can’t afford such public works. That nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was only 115.6 billion dollars.

Those of us who live in wealthier communities have more resources to help us adapt: to clean up rivers or toxic waste sites or set aside nature preserves. But adaptation is at best a short term and piece-meal approach. It will protect some people and some resources, but it is more likely to bypass the most vulnerable, and will never solve a planetary problem. This is not to say we should ignore the threats to residents of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, or Staten Island for that matter, but efforts to protect them must complement rather than compete with prevention work.

We’ve reached the point where we must always take the big picture into account. To adjust the phrase, we must act both locally and globally. And that means, among other things, that overcoming our class differences has become essential. That’s why the Springfield Conference was so important.  Read More 
6 Comments
Post a comment