January 5, 2014

The Big Chill

An Arctic air mass has settled over the entire mid-section of the country, bringing with it the coldest temperatures in 20 years, up to 30 degrees below zero in the upper mid-west. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh have led a chorus of deniers who have taken great delight in pointing to these record cold temperatures as proof positive that global warming is a false alarm. And let's not forget those climate change scientists who got stuck in the ice in Antarctica. Uh, guys, here's a news flash: climate change does not mean the end of the seasons. We will still have winter. So, yeah, it's going to get cold, especially in Antarctica. But guess what? A very long and very hot summer is coming, maybe a whole lot sooner than we thought.

The confusing thing about climate change is that there are a lot of different things that affect climate, the introduction of massive amounts of greenhouse gases being but one, albeit a big one. For example, scientists are still puzzling over the role clouds play. Depending on the assumptions used, clouds can either retard or accelerate the warming process. The latest thinking is that the cloud cover will diminish as we move towards the next century, resulting in even higher temperatures because clouds have a cooling effect, so fewer clouds means less cooling.

This gibes with what I have been seeing more often: scientists are finding that as they refine their models, the results more often than not show that earlier estimates of the pace of climate change have erred to the low side. In fact, it seems that climate change is coming at us faster and harder than we thought even five years ago. One thing is indisputable: levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are still climbing and governments aren't doing squat to address the problem. Okay, so that's two things.

Look, it's not that the world is going to end. But the living conditions of millions of people have and will continue to take a turn for the worse. Rising sea levels threaten most of the world's mega-cities: Boston, New York, Miami, San Francisco,New Orleans, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Calcutta, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tianjin, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City ... even a slight rise in sea level will result in huge losses. Throw in extreme weather events and you have costs that significantly affect the world's GDP or gross domestic product, a common measure of a country's wealth.

A recent paper suggests that the tipping point --  when the average temperature of a location's coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year between 1860 and 2005 -- could come as early as 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. New York City could hit the wall about 2047. The best case scenario delays the increasingly inevitable until  2069 or thereabouts. Think about that. We are not talking about some remote time in the future. We are possibly talking 50 years from now.

My bottom line remains the same. The train has left the station. Given the current levels of carbon emissions and the potential from other, even more potent greenhouse gases such as methane that will be released in larger quantities as the ice melts ... if you combine that with the continued lack of significant action on the part of world governments, then you get a lethal chain reaction of cause and effect that is about to pass a tipping point of no return.

I won't be around to see it, but my children likely will be. Certainly my grandchildren will be right in the middle of it. Things will be worse in ways we can easily predict, but maybe better in ways we can't see right now. There are always winners and losers in anything ... the trained and the untrained, the prepared and the unprepared. Which will your children and grandchildren be?

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