Will Alaska Be the New Florida?

The current debate over the proposed construction of the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline raises a fundamental question: at what point will we acknowledge that we can no longer conduct “business as usual”?

Implicit in this question is another one: what does it actually mean to put this understanding into operation? Are we willing to move in a radically different direction, as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing as that may be? When will we stop saying, “yes, but …” and recognize that the time to act is now?

The County target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not just a nice idea; it’s the minimum necessary to avoid runaway climate disruption. If we can’t accomplish this task in Tompkins County, then where in the U.S. will that target be met?

A New York Times article in late September examined the issue of climate refugees, not in Bangladesh or the South Pacific, but in the United States. At current rates of global warming, one of the climate researchers observed, “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”

Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts that “millions of people” will be moving inland to cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit to escape coastal flooding in the East and Gulf Coast. By the middle of this century, California and the Southwest will be experiencing catastrophic water shortages and extreme heat.

Aside from the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be among the few refuges left. Even in these places the weather will be dramatically altered. “Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma – the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” according to Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center.

We still have time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we recognize that the decisions we make now will determine whether we do so or not.

A Drought in Common Sense

Thousands of people from across the U.S. marched past the White House on Sunday, February 17, calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline and fracking, and take other steps to fight climate change.The record attendance at the rally in Washington, D.C. highlighted the growing movement in the U.S. among ordinary citizens who sense that the point of no return for runaway climate change is fast approaching.

Coming on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he challenged Congress to deal with the issue of climate change, the outpouring of people at the rally was good news indeed. As the president put it, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Perhaps anticipating the demands of the thousands who would flock to Washington a few days later, President Obama struck an unusually combative tone in his annual address. If Congress refused to act, the president warned. then he would exercise his executive authority “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will remain true to his word. But all signs indicate that he better do so, for our sake. Just one recent example: reports of a thin snowpack in the western mountains suggest that the High Plains, West, and Southwest are likely to experience a third summer of withering drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought projections, which the agency released February 21, promises little relief. Forecasters predict that drought will continue in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, which has suffered a severe drought since 2011.

According to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, the February streamflow forecast predicts a decline in nearly every state and basin in the West. The winter snow season still has two months left, but “if the remaining season turns out dry, water supply conditions could end up in the 50 to 70 percent of average range.”

Those dry conditions and poor snowpack have also increased the risk that the Mississippi River could drop to levels later this year equal to or worse than last fall’s record dip, once again seriously disrupting barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway. According to Time magazine, if conditions do not improve soon, “the stoppage could last for months.”

We are fortunate, thanks to the abundance of water in the Finger Lakes region, not to have this kind of severe drought looming on the horizon. But we will not be unaffected by developments west of the Mississippi. One wonders what kind of national economic disaster it will take to finally force Congress to act on climate change, but perhaps the shutdown of a river that sees $180 billion of goods travel along it each year will do the trick.

The Planet Is Not the Same

We’ve all noticed the increase in extreme weather over the last few months. Almost two-thirds of the lower 48 states are now suffering from drought conditions, the Washington Post pointed out last week. Nearly all of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois are in extreme or exceptional drought, making this the worst dry spell since the 1950s.

It’s not only been dry; the New York Times reported that the first six months of 2012 were the hottest since record keeping began in 1895. In early July, another Times article noted, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted to a greater extent than ever observed in 30 years of satellite monitoring. About half of the surface of the ice sheet usually melts, but from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt reached 97 percent.

More and more people are making the connections between the extreme weather and climate change. The percentage of Americans who now believe that climate change is occurring rose to 70 percent in July, according to a University of Texas poll, and those insisting that it was not fell to 15 percent. A 2010 survey showed, in contrast, that only 52 percent of the American public thought that the climate was changing.

The following video from July 2012 shows Earth’s land surface temperature data from 1800 to 2009, tracking deviation from the mean temperature and overall global warming since the Industrial Revolution. For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org.

The story told in this video, even though it’s statistical, couldn’t be more dramatic. All one has to do is watch the spread of yellow, orange, and red across the map to understand that the planet is not the same place it was in 1800. The real question is, what are we going to do about it? In Bill McKibben’s words, “Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue.”