August 1, 2012

The New Normal?

I recently started working on a sequel to The Magpie's Secret, which came out in January 2011. As I began writing, I realized that I had ... uhm, well, forgotten key elements of the book, it having been a while since I last read what I wrote. The immediate need was to refresh my memory on certain events at the end of the book, so that's where I began. Somewhere in there, I came across this passage about global warming. (My books are delicious and nutritious.)
Think about millions of people displaced by increasingly severe weather, rising sea levels and long-term shifts in food supplies due to drought and flood. Think about how we are going to pay for the social and economic costs of that displacement when we are already in debt up to our eyeballs. Think about the groups out there that would just love to blame all that on us. The hell of it is, they would be right. And who is going to save us? A bunch of politicians who have been bought and sold by industries that want to continue business as usual until it’s too late to do anything but damage control in a world literally drowning in problems beyond our control?
The nexus described in that paragraph--a changing climate, a broke and broken economy, and inept politicians--hasn't gone away. Oh, hell no. It is bigger and badder than ever. One thing has changed, though. In 2010, when I was writing The Magpie's Secret, the deniers of global warming were absolutely winning the debate. We had just been through the collective failure of Copenhagen, where the world's leaders left little doubt as to the hollowness of their promises. Belief in climate change was trending steadily downwards, especially in the United States, and then along came Climategate.

Things are a bit different now. The consequences of climate change--once thought to be decades away--are showing up a little ahead of schedule, and people are beginning to realize that there's something happening here, what it is they're pretty sure ain't exactly too good.The latest concern is the prolonged drought that has covered a broad swath of the country's midsection.

The USDA has declared that more than half of the counties in the United states are a disaster zone because of the high heat and low rainfall.  Scientists worry that these droughts could be "the new normal," along with extreme weather events. Besides sending corn prices skyrocketing, the droughts are disrupting the storage of carbon that typically occurs in wooded areas, adding to the pace of climate change. And, as if things weren't worrisome enough, climate scientists are beginning to think that climate models are underestimating the extent and severity of drought, leading to speculation that the great drought of 2000-2004 may seem like the good old days by the next turn of the century.

While more people are beginning to accept a changing climate, we are still as broke as ever, and the politicians are still unwilling and unable to mandate a serious reduction of fossil fuel usage. Republicans push for more reliance on dwindling stocks of harder-to-get-at fossil fuels. But, as the New York Times observed with some asperity in a recent editorial, "A country that consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s oil supply but owns 2 percent of its reserves cannot drill its way out of high prices or dependence on exports from unstable countries."

From the Tea Party all you hear about is debt, except the one that matters most: the debt we will owe to future generations for the climate mess we have left them with. President Obama urges a balanced approach that places equal weight on exploration conservation, and innovation. A good idea backed with little concrete action, the hallmark of his administration.

Climate scientists share the same concern: Have we waited too long? Too long to avoid a dangerous rise in average global temperature. Too late to prevent the impact of extreme weather on millions of the world's most vulnerable people. Too late to prevent a rise in sea level that will threaten major cities around the world. Too late to prevent the spending of billions of dollars we don't have to deal with all this.

If you want a glimpse of a possible future, check out the map below. It shows the extent of the ongoing electric power outage that has afflicted 60 million people on the Indian subcontinent, stretching over an are bigger than the United States. Is climate change responsible for India's power outage? Maybe to a small degree, but this is due more to an aging infrastructure and regional governments not playing by the rules for allocating power in the grid. But think about it. Everything you read about climate change portends hotter weather and more extreme weather. Ask yourself this question: Will we be seeing more or fewer of these types of massive power outages in the coming decades?

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