“A Flickering Climate” is No Joke

A flood of news on climate change this week. Here’s a short list, with a few brief comments:

This week in Washington a conference was held to celebrate the once-proud Environmental Protection Agency’s thirty-fifth birthday.

Six former EPA chiefs–five of them Republicans–lambasted the Bush administration for failing to lead against the threat of global warming. Christine Whitman said:

You’d need to be in a hole somewhere to think that the amount of change that we have imposed on land, and the way we’ve handled deforestation, farming practices, development, and what we’re putting into the air, isn’t exacerbating what is probably a natural trend. But this is worse, and it’s getting worse.

"You’d need to be in a hole somewhere"…strange choice of words, if you ask me. Also noteworthy was the defense from the current chief, Steven Johnson, who said the Bush administration has spent $20 billion on researching the issue (and nothing to combat it, evidently).

When yours truly wrote a long story about this issue two years ago, the figure for Federal research I heard bandied about was $2 billion. A year ago administration defenders said $5 billion. A few months ago, that jumped to $18 billion. Now it’s $20 billion? Where are these figures coming from? Now, if I had some actual time…maybe I could find out.

Much more serious is this story from Fortune, which is drawn from a new book by Eugene Linden called "The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations." The publication is noteworthy: a lot of businesses, especially the insurance business, are very alarmed by the potential cost of climate change.

The Earth’s heat-distribution system has already begun shifting massively in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases. Precipitation patterns, the change of seasons, storm intensity, sea ice, glaciers, temperatures on the tundras–all are in flux. As scientists nervously monitor sea and air currents for signs of major shifts, many believe that today’s proliferation of weather extremes may be the prelude to another epochal transition–a possibility first flagged by the great oceanographer Wallace Broecker in the journal Science in 1997.

How bad could it get? Imagine Europe suffering floods and heat waves on a vastly greater scale than those endured in 2002 and 2003, while northern regions experience intermittent deep freezes as atmospheric and ocean circulations struggle to find new equilibrium. At the same time, droughts and floods not seen since ancient times would afflict some of the most densely populated regions on earth. The probability of drought in the American breadbasket would rise, and along with it the possibility that the U.S. grain surplus–which accounts for the dominant share of world grain exports–would disappear.

A flickering climate wouldn’t just clobber countries with the wealth and technological resources to try to cope. It would affect every part of the planet, and in so doing reduce the resiliency of the global community. With every nation dealing with local emergencies, it would be more difficult to mobilize resources to aid victims in other areas, and there would be fewer resources to mobilize.

Municipalities around the world would struggle under the burden of greatly increased demands on funds to maintain and repair basic infrastructure.

Forget about safety nets–FEMA and its ilk would be bankrupt. In the world’s tightly coupled markets, financial tsunamis would surge through the system, leaving banks and corporations insolvent. Financial panics, largely absent for more than 70 years, would return with a vengeance.

The book considers two broad scenarios: gradual climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change. The latter almost certainly would be disastrous. But even the former is more threatening than many may realize:

Tim Barnett, an oceanographer at Scripps Oceanographic Institution, took part in a study of the likely effects of climate change on the Los Angeles area. Surprisingly, he says, even modest decreases in rainfall during what he called a "best-case scenario for future climate change" (a gradual and small change, decades in the future) could reduce available water for the area by 50% by 2050. The region has limited storage capacity for water and relies on the winter snowpack that builds up in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies for water during the dry summer months. Under even modest climate-change scenarios, however, the snowpack would be smaller and would melt earlier. The region would dry up before its driest months.

Angelinos wouldn’t necessarily go thirsty. California has plenty of agricultural water that could be diverted to human needs. The ancillary effects would be harder to manage. Farm output would be reduced, and water shortages could idle hydroelectric plants. Drought also makes trees more vulnerable to pests, such as the pandora moth that afflicts ponderosa pine. Dead trees are tinder for wildfires, like the ones that destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California in 2003. Such impacts would roil the economy. Consider how increased fire risk and other effects of acute water scarcity might affect housing prices or the job market.

People of color are looking at the threat, and don’t like what they see, according to this story on a Black Entertainment Television site:

Citing Katrina as a case-in-point, some environmentalists say global warming impacts minorities and the disadvantaged harder than other groups.  If global warming gets worse, many African-American communities will be more vulnerable to breathing ailments, insect-carried diseases and heat-related illness and death.

But the bizarre news of the day comes from Japan, via the British National Business Review, which discusses the invasion of giant jellyfish invading Japan.

Why the early appearance and the elevated numbers [of the giant jellyfish] are appearing in the Sea of Japan is a question that many are trying to lay at the door of global warming because jellyfish prefer warmer water — but it appears that the more proximate cause is heavy, early rains in China.

Note the key word: Proximate. It’s not an either/or situation. Global warming could very well cause early, heavy rains in China. But despite the attempts by some media outlets to spin it as a big joke, Japanese fisherman aren’t laughing. A glance at this picture will show why:



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