Year 3, Month 11, Day 14: Semolina Pilchard?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s energy writer, Thomas Content, is one of many to stir the climate-change pot a bit. His column for November 10 is titled “Climate change is here, even if election skipped it.” Indeed:

Neither climate change nor the wacky weather of 2012 stirred much attention during the presidential campaign – a couple of conflicting snippets during the political conventions, a brief line in President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech, a mention here or there.

But climate scientists say the record warm weather of the past year, punctuated by extreme events such as superstorm Sandy in the Northeast, provides a glimpse of things to come and should push the issue higher on the list of national priorities.

Already, businesses, households and governments in Wisconsin are dealing with some of the climate-related changes that scientists expect to proliferate as the planet warms.

The extremes that Wisconsin has experienced this year include a record warm winter, a severe drought that gripped much of the country, and widespread flash flooding in far northwestern Wisconsin.

“A lot of these things that we’re seeing are the kinds of things that we might expect more of in the future,” said Dan Vimont, climate scientist and leader of an ongoing research and public outreach project, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

One can hope our culture will wake up. The comments on the article, however, are not encouraging. Sent November 12:

As climate change disrupts the regional ecologies in which they flourished, innumerable species of animals are migrating to new territories in search of food and resources. We can observe these shifts dispassionately, through the eyes of science — while recognizing that many of these adaptive behaviors are bad news for our own species and for the civilization we’ve built. While millions of acres of new territory to colonize is great news for the mountain pine beetle, there’s no upside for us in watching once-green forests turn into dessicated matchsticks waiting for a spark to surrender their trapped carbon to the atmosphere.

Our inability to address climate change — or even simply to acknowledge its existence in our national discussion — is the central failure of our age. While an insect or mammal species can move onward to a new ecological niche, humanity’s “niche” is Earth itself. Where shall we go when our planetary home no longer welcomes us?

It’s time for our politicians to do the math on climate change. Further delay is unacceptable.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 12: O-Bla-Di, O-Bla-Da

The Athens Banner-Herald (GA) runs a column by one Eugene Linden, who is trying to hell people something:

Even as Sandy underwent its bizarre metamorphosis from hurricane to winter storm, the question arose in many inquiring minds (at least those not beholden to a solemn oath of climate-change denial): Was this historic storm a symptom of global warming? Climate science has two ready answers: Absolutely! And, of course not!

On the one hand, a warming globe makes megastorms more probable, while on the other, it is impossible to pin a global warming sticker on Sandy because the circumstances that turned it into a monster could have been mere coincidence.

There is, however, another way of looking at Sandy that might resolve this debate, and also help frame what we really should be worried about when it comes to global warming: An infrastructure created to defend against historical measures of worst-case natural threats was completely overpowered by this storm.

New York City’s defenses were inadequate, and coastal defenses failed over a swath of hundreds of miles. Around the nation, such mismatches have been repeated ever more frequently in recent years.

This summer, barge owners discovered that dredging in the Mississippi River, predicated on the history of the river’s ups and downs, left it too shallow for commercial traffic because of the intense Midwestern drought. And, famously, levees in New Orleans that were largely through the process of being improved even as Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 were still breached in 50 places. Then, seven years to the day after Katrina struck, Plaquemines Parish was drowned by Hurricane Isaac in flooding residents described as worse than Katrina’s.

Will the American public wake up? Details at eleven. Sent November 10:

The relationship between global climate change and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, or the drought that devastated America’s corn belt this summer cannot be understood without recognizing the big difference between specific causation and systemic causation. A specific rock broke a specific window; a specific iceberg collided with the Titanic; a specific O-ring failed on the Challenger. Conversely, a metastatic lung tumor cannot be traced back to a single cigarette, and the catastrophic weather that hammered America’s East coast cannot be attributed unambiguously to the accelerating greenhouse effect. But does this mean that smoking is safe, or that our emissions of carbon dioxide are without effect on the planet’s weather systems? In a word, no.

By conflating these two different kinds of cause, our media has abdicated its responsibility to the citizenry it is supposed to serve. If we as a nation (indeed, as a species) are to survive and prosper in the coming centuries, we can no longer afford ignorance on matters of basic science. It is time for all of us to face the facts.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 8: When You Need Advice On Running An Army, Be Sure To Ask A Hippie

Well, it looks like Wall Street got wet. Forbes Magazine asks, “What If Mike Bloomberg Is Right And A Climate Change Nightmare Is Here?”

Lower Manhattan was almost entirely without power, probably until tomorrow. Staten Island was devastated. At least 38 New Yorkers are dead. The devastation in the nearby Jersey Shore is even worse. Nobody knows when the subway system will be running between Manhattan and other boroughs again. It’s true, as ProPublica pointed out, that the hospital evacuations are part of an epidemic of hospital generators failing during natural disasters, and that the generators were, in the words of NYU Langone trustee Gary Cohn, “not state-of-the art and not in the most state-of-the art location.” We couldn’t come to emotional terms with the destruction a fourteen foot wall of water could do to this city. Now we don’t have any choice.

“In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods — something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable,” wrote New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his endorsement of President Barack Obama. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Why not ask some climatologists for advice on your investment strategies? That’d probably work as well or better than asking an apologist for capitalism for his opinion on climate. Sheesh. Better late than never, I suppose. Sent November 2:

What if Mike Bloomberg is right on climate change? A very good question indeed, but not the one that really needs asking.

If it takes an extreme weather event of Sandy’s magnitude to get him to recognize that climate scientists knew what they’ve been talking about all along, what does that say about the ability of the private sector to recognize and acknowledge expertise in any area? If environmentalists’ predictions are coming true, can the business community even realize that it’s been on the wrong side of both science and history?

If business leaders finally acknowledge that climate change is real, human-caused and dangerous to humanity, can they take the next step, and recognize that our planet’s resources and resilience are finite, and cannot support an economic model predicated on continuous growth? Can market capitalism transform itself into an agent of long-term sustainability rather than accelerating consumption and waste?

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 7: Who Won The War?

The Hartford Courant is one among many outlets seizing upon the hurricane as an opportunity to advocate responsible policies on climate change. Not bad:

Let Hurricane Sandy be our tipping point toward a better America.

First, we’re all in this together. As the wind strengthened and the hurricane neared, the political negativity and hostility waned. There’s nothing like a common adversary to unite us, even a benign atmospheric one. It wasn’t just that Sandy wreaked havoc on campaign plans. It’s that both presidential candidates began to act more like governors than ideological opponents beholden to a spectrum of groups.

Watching them gave me more faith in America’s potential than all the bickering I’ve been forced to hear. Apparently, when push comes to shove, we can work together because we must.

Second, a picture is worth a thousand words. The satellite images showed a white, counterclockwise pinwheel of clouds just like every other hurricane I’ve seen — except for its size. With what the pundits are calling a wingspan a thousand miles across, Sandy was two to three times larger than typical. Keep in mind that one of the most robust predictions of climate change theory is that extreme events will be more powerful, whether this unprecedented storm or last summer’s unprecedented drought.

Let this pinwheel become a pinup to move us toward a saner, safer, smarter future. A cultural shift similar to what I remember happening after earthlings got a chance to see our spherical, cloud-gauzed, green-swathed living planet from space. I refer to the famous “Earthrise” photo taken from the moon during the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969. It helped launch the most potent phase of the American environmental movement, which centered on pollution and wilderness. Let the new pinup energize a third phase already underway, one focused on a sane energy policy and policy adaptations to the good and bad things of climate change.

We can hope. They haven’t taken that away from us, yet. Sent November 1:

Mother Nature has been sending us increasingly urgent messages for quite a few years now, as the burgeoning greenhouse effect has raised atmospheric temperatures steadily and inexorably. Yet climate change has remained on the to-ignore list for almost every single politician in America. This is partially because of the disproportionate influence of fossil fuel money on our political and legislative systems, partially because the subject has been so heavily politicized by (mostly) Republican lawmakers and commentators, and partially because our media is astonishingly incompetent at addressing subjects of any complexity whatsoever. Well, that may have ended a few days ago. In Hurricane Sandy, many Americans got a chance to see the consequences of all those carbon dioxide emissions, up close and personal.

A heart attack can catalyze the transformation of a single lifestyle. Will Sandy’s devastating waves catalyze an analogous change in American society — a step away from feverish consumerism and towards responsible stewardship of our planet? And will our media and politicians heed the call?

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush told Americans to go shopping. Eleven years later, perhaps we need to hear a different message.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 6: Because…Freedom!

The Erie Times-News is one of a number of papers featuring this article about the scientific perspective on our recent FrankenStorm:

WASHINGTON — Climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer stood along the Hudson River and watched his research come to life as Hurricane Sandy blew through New York.

Just eight months earlier, the Princeton University professor reported that what used to be once-in-a-century devastating floods in New York City would soon happen every three to 20 years. He blamed global warming for pushing up sea levels and changing hurricane patterns.

New York “is now highly vulnerable to extreme hurricane-surge flooding,” he wrote.

For more than a dozen years, Oppenheimer and other climate scientists have been warning about the risk for big storms and serious flooding in New York.

Still, they say it’s unfair to blame climate change for Sandy and the destruction it left behind. They cautioned that they cannot yet conclusively link a single storm to global warming, and any connection is not as clear and simple as environmental activists might contend.

It would be a good thing to learn about systemic causation. Sent October 31:

When it comes to climate change and the increasing likelihood of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Sandy, we need a new way of discussing causation. It is absurd to say that global warming “caused” Sandy — but it’s also absurd to say that a particular cigarette “caused” a case of lung cancer. There are direct causes (the baseball that caused your broken window), and there are “systemic” causes, which are no less real for being harder to isolate. The relationship between smoking and lung cancer is one example of systemic causation, as is that between drunk driving and auto accidents, and that between increased atmospheric CO2 and the likelihood of extreme weather.

While precise scientific language won’t allow responsible climatologists to claim direct causation, hardly any doubt that global heating systemically causes events like Hurricane Sandy.

Here’s another example of systemic causation: the relationship between statistical ignorance and climate-change denialism.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 5: Turn Off Your Mind, Relax And Float Downstream…

The San Jose Mercury News wonders:

The debate over global warming has often turned at key points after major weather events. After a presidential campaign in which neither candidate said much on the issue, could Hurricane Sandy put it back in the spotlight?

Sure. News at 11. Sent October 30:

Hurricane Sandy could well do for climate-change awareness what a major celebrity death did for AIDS or Alzheimer’s disease. That is, make the accelerating greenhouse effect and its consequences a focus of the kind of media attention normally reserved for celebrity scandals or TV season premieres.

That’s good news and bad news. It’s good news because climate change is overwhelmingly the single most significant issue affecting our country’s future and the lives of our descendants. Our collective lack of attention has set us back several decades when it comes to addressing the threat — so any coverage is better than none.

It’s bad news because what we need from the media is an intelligent discussion of a complex subject. If climate change is treated with the breathless superficiality that characterizes contemporary news coverage, our citizenry, and our politicians, will never fully understand why action is essential. Let’s get serious. Now.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 11, Day 4: I Know You Are, But What Am I?

The L.A. Times wonders whether Hurricane Sandy is possibly related to, you know, that climate change thingy?

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Eastern seaboard — laden with predictions of drenching rains, fierce winds, snow and extensive damage — some scientists are pointing out ways that climate change might be influencing hurricanes.

No single weather event, be it drought, snowfall or hurricane, is caused by climate change, climatologists say. Rather, climate change amplifies the intensity or duration of extreme weather, akin to “putting hurricanes on steroids,” writes Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental advocacy group.

“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question,” writes Kevin E. Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

Hurricane Sandy poses several threats. Vast and slow-moving, it is expected to pour drenching rains and unleash powerful winds in the Northeast over a protracted period, perhaps several days.

No way they’re going to print this one. Sent October 28:

Despite sober and careful analyses from climatologists pointing out that a heating atmosphere makes extreme storms and anomalous weather increasingly likely, the conservative voices in politics and the media are certain to tell us that Sandy is an “isolated incident,” which cannot be definitively attributed to the accelerating greenhouse effect — even when specific triggering factors (such as a warming ocean) are obviously present.

Indeed. And as those same pundits and politicians hasten to reassure us, the steady drumbeat of right-wing hate on talk radio has nothing to do with the frequent outbursts of violence from the ultra-conservative fringe. Each gun-toting lunatic is an “isolated incident” which cannot be definitively attributed to the accelerating atmosphere of apocalyptic hatred generated by shock jocks and their enablers — even when specific triggering factors (such as a shelf of books by those same polarizing figures) are obviously present.

No connection. None at all.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 7: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Two separate stories in the New York Times make for an exceptionally frightening synergy. Read ’em and weep:

Weather Extremes Leave Parts of U.S. Grid Buckling:

WASHINGTON — From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

Excessive warmth and dryness are threatening other parts of the grid as well. In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.

Strong Storms Threaten Ozone Layer Over U.S.:

Strong summer thunderstorms that pump water high into the upper atmosphere pose a threat to the protective ozone layer over the United States, researchers said on Thursday, drawing one of the first links between climate change and ozone loss over populated areas.

In a study published online by the journal Science, Harvard University scientists reported that some storms send water vapor miles into the stratosphere — which is normally drier than a desert — and showed how such events could rapidly set off ozone-destroying reactions with chemicals that remain in the atmosphere from CFCs, refrigerant gases that are now banned.

The risk of ozone damage, scientists said, could increase if global warming leads to more such storms.

I tried to get some Joni Mitchell quotes into the letter itself, but couldn’t make it work. Sent July 27:

Whether it’s a power blackout, a buckled roadbed, a broken water main or a breached levee, infrastructure’s only noticeable at the failure point. As climate change gets faster and more severe, we’re going to discover just how much we’ve taken for granted over the past hundred years of civilizational growth. If America is to prosper in the centuries to come, we’ll need to retool and rebuild for far more stressful conditions.

But there’s another, grander infrastructure that cannot be addressed with a public works bill. The newly established connection between climate change and ozone loss is vivid evidence that many of the environmental mechanisms which have made our species’ efflorescence possible are endangered by the greenhouse effect and its epiphenomena. Genuine sustainability must recognize that such natural systems — oxygen-producing phytoplankton, the processes of photosynthesis, or upper-atmosphere protection against UV rays — are even more essential than sewers and roadways.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 12, Day 24: Of Course I Believe In Free Will; I Have No Choice.

The Philippines got whacked with some serious weather recently. A lot of deaths, a lot of damage, a lot of tragedy. The Philippine Sun-Times runs an editorial titled “Tempting Fate”:

TWO interesting points in the latest tragedy to hit the country: Sendong poured a month’s worth of rainfall in 24 hours in certain regions, including the worst-hit areas of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, and tropical storms do not hit Mindanao often.

The first point presupposes a calamity, the second complacency. When the two are in one brew, the result is deadly.

“Mindanao is usually not a typhoon-prone area,” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine National Red Cross, was quoted by an Agence France Presse (AFP) report as saying, “that is why most residents were caught unprepared.”

“Climate is changing. We must also change the way we address climate issues,” she added. That’s another way of saying people everywhere, including places that feel safe by tradition, should be complacent no longer.

That can be done if officials dust off warnings left rotting in old files and wield political will to address them.

Meanwhile, American politicians are obsessing about your freedom to buy shitty light bulbs. Sent December 20:

Human-caused climate change is not something looming in the intangible future, but a phenomenon that is unfolding everywhere, right now. Human civilization is rooted in the stable and predictable weather our planet has experienced for the past twelve thousand years or so; it is during this comparatively short span of Earth’s history that agriculture was developed, and that industrialization transformed the world.

Now the atmospheric transformations brought about by the carbon-burning industrialized nations are bringing this time to an end. Consistent weather patterns will soon be a thing of the past; complacency in the face of this transforming climate is a very dangerous attitude.

Politicians from the developed world seem unable to imagine the world we are entering, or to conceive a culture that is not powered by burning coal and oil. Their failure to take responsibility for the disaster they have wrought has grave repercussions for the international community.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 2, Day 9: Auntie Em?

The Kansas City Star takes on the big storms & crazy weather by acknowledging that, as the headline puts it, “Some scientists believe extreme weather events becoming the norm.” The comments on this article are what prompted the closing sentences in my letter (mailed 2/2/11):

The phrase “some scientists” is misleading; it’s just about impossible for the scientific consensus on human causes of global warming to get any stronger. Barring a few petroleum-funded contrarians, the overwhelming majority of climate specialists agree: anthropogenic greenhouse emissions are warming the atmosphere, and the results are going to bring us a world of hurt in the coming decades. The current crop of freak weather events all over the world is just a preview of coming attractions; for decades climatologists have been predicting a worldwide increase in anomalous weather as a consequence of the greenhouse effect. Now their predictions are coming true from Queensland to Kansas as hundreds of millions of lives are disrupted by severe storms, flooding, snow, and drought. But climate-change deniers cannot admit they’ve been misled; their ideologically-driven rejection of global warming’s factuality is not susceptible to actual evidence, no matter how much of it piles up on their doorsteps.

Warren Senders