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 Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.

Off the Climate Cliff?

Right on the heels of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a startling paper appeared last week in the journal Nature. It was the proverbial train coming down the track, driving home the message that dramatic, life altering global warming is just a few stops away.

According to the study, the new normal for millions of people in a few decades will be hotter than the warmest years between 1860 and 2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Go back in your life to think about the hottest, most traumatic event you have experienced,” lead scientist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “What we’re saying is that very soon, that event is going to become the norm.”

Analyzing data from 39 different climate models out of 12 countries, the team of scientists from Hawaii and Japan sought to predict the timing of a move to the new climate regime rather than examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2030 or 2050, as most previous studies have done. The paper concludes that the tropics will undergo this extreme shift first, as early as 2029, and by 2047 more than half of the planet will experience average temperatures hotter than anything recorded between 1860 and 2005.

Coming in the midst of the confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. In politics, when playing “chicken,” the first rule of game theory is throw the steering wheel out the window. It’s one thing for Republicans and Democrats to pursue this tactic, however, and another thing for the human race to try to pull this stunt on nature.

Even in the most intractable situations, political parties can negotiate with each other and come to some reasonable resolution, but as Bill McKibben has pointed out numerous times, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Go ahead and throw the steering wheel out the window; it’s not going to change the outcome one whit. When it comes to climate change, better to acknowledge that reality than drive the car off the cliff.

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.”