October 29, 2012

Frankenstorm

Regular readers of this blog (we few, we happy few) will already know that I am a long-time believer in climate change induced by global warming that in turn is the result of burning billions of tons of fossil fuels in the geological blink of an eye. One of the hallmark predictions of the impact that climate change will have is more extreme weather events. So now every time there is a major weather event like the Frankenstorm that is passing over my head as I type these words, folks try to make it a link in a chain of evidence leading to proof positive that climate change due to human-induced global warming is real.

The problem is you can't quite get there from here. A single weather event is just that, a single weather event with its own unique causes. Climate is all about patterns over time. So ten years from now, we will have a truer sense of the context within which to place the current Frankenstorm, along with all the other storms before and after it. That said, I would offer a few thoughts to mull over as you stare out the window at the rain and wind for the next couple of days.

If ... and I say if ... this storm is a harbinger of the extreme weather events predicted by the science supporting climate change due to global warming, then, as they say, you ain't seen nothing yet. Think of a teapot over a gas flame. As the water gets hotter and hotter, the surface roils and more steam escapes into the air. The longer you apply the heat, the more energy you put into the water vapor.

Starting to get my drift? The average global temperature has risen 1.4°F over the last century. Unless something is done, oh, like yesterday, we will easily double that by the time my grandchildren are my age. Teapot Earth will be well on the way to a full boil. Imagine the Frankenstorms we will be seeing then. Quite honestly, I can't.

So much has changed in my lifetime, and yet I stare out the window into a future that looks as scary and uncertain as anything you could find short of a shift into an Ice Age. Of course, there weren't 9 billion humans when we had the last Ice Age. This raises a second huge issue.

When a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, no one cares. When that tree falls into the wires that bring electricity to your house, you're damn right someone cares, someone who will expect money to be spent to repair the damage. Governmental budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point, well, it ain't going to get any easier.

According to an article in Scientific American, natural disasters around the world last year caused a record $380 billion in economic losses, double the previous record set in 2005. (Get used to hearing the sound of breaking records, part of what feeds my gut instinct that something terrible is happening.) Two-thirds of the losses were due to the tsunami in Japan and a very destructive earthquake in New Zealand. That still leaves about $125 billion due to weather, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the natural disasters in 2011.

Since 1980, severe floods has almost tripled, and storms have nearly doubled. As Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re's Corporate Climate Centre, noted, "It would not seem plausible that climate change doesn't play a role in the substantial rise in weather-related disasters." Here is a chart they produced:



Note the cautionary language, "this cannot be conclusively attributed to climate change." This is true for the moment. I believe time will vindicate those of us who have been arguing that we should have done something about this long before now. I also believe that the political and social gridlock over this issue has been driven by a literal handful of very wealthy individuals who have poured millions of dollars into the campaign to deny global warming, and they have done so to protect their own interests at the expense of all of us.

Big Tobacco was eventually required to shoulder the cost of repairing the damage caused by their products. I believe the day will come when Big Energy will be required to either compensate us for the loss or price the costs into their products. I don't want to face that any more than you do, but we have worked ourselves into a position where we are between a rock and a hard place.

Business as usual has taken us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe beyond our reckoning and close to be being beyond our control. The only thing more painful will be the adjustment to a world based on choices governed by the true cost of energy.

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