A year and a half-ago, we had two weeks of hard rain in Southern California where I live, totaling about twenty inches, followed by a storm burst on the morning of January 10th.
Here’s what the stream where I live looked like like the day before the storm burst.
Then came the storm, with no less than six inches of rain in a little over two hours.
The flood that followed closed the little state highway I live on in one direction for nearly six months, and devastated my property. We’re still putting the pieces back together.
Naturally, I suspected global warming might have had a hand in this, what with the "intensification of the hydrological cycle" that one study from the US Global Climate Research Program for this region predicted back in 2003. Another study estimated a likelihood of stronger El Ninos, and rainstorms 5-10% wetter. (Because higher temps lead to more evaporation lead to more moisture lead to wetter storms, the effect should be quantifiable, within probable ranges.)
But interestingly, experts such as my equaintance/friend Bill Patzert at JPL/NASA, who knows a great deal about global warming, nonetheless did not name it as a cause for the January 2005 storms. Bill pointed instead to a "jetstream on steroids" with "wild fluctuations north and south."
And my neighbors too, were quiet. I think most of my neighbors accept the reality of global warming, having noticed one effect or another (fewer frosts, for example), but to my surprise, global warming was a conservation killer when I alluded to it and the storms together.
"Just too much water," one hard-hit guy my age said. ‘We had just too much water for us to take."
Partly, I think, the reluctance to talk about it came out of seeing so many ripped-out trees, tumbled vehicles, torn-up roads, and mud-soaked houses. No one wanted to "vent" on the subject; after all, in La Conchita, ten people died in that storm. (For a sense of what that felt like, see this excellent story from T.C. Boyle called La Conchita.)
I told people that it felt Biblical. Sometimes they’d nod and sometimes they’d laugh, but nobody I can recall doubted me on that.
Back on the East Coast, the same concept came up regarding the recent storms that swamped the Capitol. (See the Tom Toles post below.)
Only one report that I know of linked these deadly storms to global warming, by Bill Blakemore of ABC News.
And just as my neighbors didn’t much want to talk about it, nor reporters, neither did the ordinary people in the Mid-Atlantic region, according to the NYTimes [$].
Right or left, the politics don’t seem to matter.
Lefties are probably more willing to speculate in disaster; righties probably more willing to accept that the universe can turn against us at any moment.
But most people I encounter, regardless of their politics, don’t really want to talk about it.
I don’t think this mutual reticence is ill-intentioned.
On the contrary, I think it comes out of a respectful wariness. As the Times Editorial said:
There is no minimizing the deaths or the damage, but these storms have affected most people on a more mundane level. In parts of New England there is almost a grim refusal to talk about the weather, as if it has all been said already and proven useless. Anyone who works outside for a living — gardeners, painters, contractors — has more or less used up a year’s supply of stoicism already, with most of the summer still ahead of them.
But, fascinatingly, the reticence to talk about global warming in polite company has been utterly reversed in print, where all sorts of writers and thinkers are going at the subject with vigor.
I’m sorry it had to come to this, but the writing in the last couple of months from not the usual experts has been original, surprising, sometimes even dazzling.
See below for examples from a couple of boys from Harvard, the sociologist Robert Puttnam, author of "Bowling Alone," and Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist who recently published a book called "Stumbling on Happiness."
I expect this type of item will become a regular feature; I hope all these good pieces go straight to the top of the opinion leader charts.
Robert Puttnam wrote a column for Time last week about a hugely important new study by a team of sociologists, called social_isolation_in_america.pdf, which shows that Americans are much more lonely than they were just two decades ago.
This has big environmental effects, but, as Talking Heads once said, we have no time for that now. Here’s the point from Puttnam that deserves attention:
Just as the debate about global warming began with controversial claims made by a few iconoclasts, so too were many sociologists skeptical of my findings about lonely bowlers. No complex issue is ever settled by a single study. Advancing the global warming argument has required decades of research, and it may take another decade to convince the final doubters that social connectivity in the U.S. has, in fact, disintegrated.
As a friend said, "So what if the average American now has two close friends, not three? Two is plenty." But that’s exactly like saying, "If global temperatures rise from 65°F to 70°F, I wouldn’t even notice." That’s fine, as long as you ignore the indirect effects, like mega-hurricanes in the Gulf.
Exactly. From small acorns (slight changes in sea surface temperatures) big things (hurricanes) grow. But if we wait for all the doubters to be convinced, which will probably take another ten years, it’ll be too late, according to the scientist most respected on this question, James Hansen .
Politics vs. climate; which matters more?
But even better is the remarkably witty piece by Dan Gilbert in the LATimes, which explains why our puny little brains are having trouble taking in the big facts about global warming.
Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.
Now if it was all Lex Luthor’s fault; now then, we might actually do something…