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xcurmudgeon

McKibben: Washington's snowstorms, brought to you by global warming

by: teacherken

Sun Feb 14, 2010 at 08:04:27 AM EST


It won't matter to the likes of Sen. Inhofe, who has his grandkids build an igloo next to the Capitol and label it "Al Gore's New Home."  Bill McKibben is realistic about that.  

And for those who want to harp on emails and some errors in isolation, it probably also won't matter, although as McKibben reminds us,

The British newspaper the Guardian just concluded a huge series on the "Climategate" e-mails with the words: "The world is still warming. Humanity is still to blame. And we still, urgently, need to do something about it."

But for those who are sane, whose minds are not already closed, McKibben's Washington Post op ed, Washington's snowstorms, brought to you by global warming, is a well-written piece, chock full of the material which will reinforce the seriousness of global climate change, aka global warming, as something reinforced, not undercut, by what happened where I live in the past 9 days.

Consider the following:

teacherken :: McKibben: Washington's snowstorms, brought to you by global warming
The cross-country ski race high in the Green Mountains of Vermont Vermont in which McKibben planned to participate was canceled - lack of snow

In Vancouver helicopters are moving snow down Cypress Mountain for the Alpine courses and technicians are burying cooling pipes beneath the moguls to keep them from melting

Artic sea ice is disappearing and glaciers in Greenland are melting

in the Northeastern US lakes freeze later later than usual, and then there is lake Champlain, on the border between Vermont and upstate New York, running up towards Canada:  

Lake Champlain remained open in winter only three times during the 19th century, but it did so 18 times between 1970 and 2007.

McKibben reminds us of basic science - that warmer air holds more moisture, as a result of greater evaporation - this can lead to more severe droughts as we are seeing in some places, but also more severe precipitation as "what goes up eventually comes down."

Even the record snows of Texas and Georgia support the idea of global warming / climate change.  After all, record snows require record moisture in the air.  And when that moisture encounters cold air - as it inevitably will - it will result in record amounts of snow and ice coming down.  

There is an issue that McKibben does not address, and it is important given the politics of energy and climate bills.  It has to do with basic scientific illiteracy.  We are in the Northern hemisphere, as is the strong majority of the world's population.  Too many of our people think the reason Winter is colder than summer is that the Earth is further away from the Sun.  Of course, the issue is really whether the rays of the sun hit the earth directly or at an angle.  Someone who doesn't grasp this may also tend to think the further North you go the colder the weather will be, ignoring or forgetting that on the spheroid Earth that depends from where you start -  if you are in Argentina and Brazil, going North takes you towards the Equator and weather that is far warmer.

Here I am being generous, and assuming that even the New Earth Creationists do not still believe the world is flat, although given their rhetoric I am not always quite sure.  

Most people also do not understand the difference between weather and climate, and will look at local examples of the former and misinterpret the data as (dis)proving something about the latter.

I am not a scientist.  I perhaps have had more education than many relevant to the issues at hand:  for certification as a social studies teacher I was required to take several courses in Geography in which issues of climate and weather were addressed.  Thus I am not stumped when I encounter terms like albedo and adiabatic process, the former having to do with reflectivity -  snow with higher albedo reflects back more sunlight and thus heat keeping the immediate environment cooler - and the latter with why the Western slopes of mountains like the Rockies get far more snow than the Eastern slopes.

Our political debates on issues like climate change and energy use are important, but if the vast majority of the citizens do not understand the basics they will be easily misled by politicians and businessmen who have a vested interest in not addressing the issues appropriately, who may be oblivious (willfully or otherwise) to the science, whose minds are closed whether because of "religion" or concern for short-term profit-making.

Consider something very basic.  It is winter.  It has snowed, and is beautifully white.  Which do you need more, a clear or a cloudy night, and why?  Well, if it is a clear night, any heat will be reflected back out, and the temperatures will drop significantly, while clouds at night will retain heat, and perhaps avoid a hard freeze.  Do I have that right?

It is below freezing.  Need I worry about snow melting during the day, then refreezing at night, giving me perhaps dangerous black ice?  You betcha.  If there are no clouds the energy of the sun will cause some melting, even if the temperature is slightly below freezing.

Storms take energy.  The greater the energy, the greater the power of the storm.   After all, one damaging aspect of storms is wind, and wind requires energy.  Heck, by now most people realize that we can get energy from wind, although far too many underestimate how much energy might be available.  We know the damaging power of cyclonic storms.  We measure hurricanes and tornados by the power of their winds.  That is, we are measuring how much energy they have.  And energy is, or is equivalent to, heat.  More energy requires more heat.  

We confront the issue of climate change on several levels.  It is clearly a political issue, of whether or not we have the will to act appropriately.  It is also a moral issue, because the impact of unaddressed climate change will cause huge disruption - to food supplies, to transportation (as those caught in the results of last week's storms are still encountering on the ground and in the air:  after all, a plane needs a runway to take off and to land, and there is a lot of snow to be removed from a 10,000 foot runway when you have received several feet of snow.  Changes in climate will cause political dislocation.  In some cases water supplies upon which huge population centers depends will be diminished if not eliminated.  Might then the conflict between countries be less for energy and rare minerals and more for one of the most basic needs of life, H2O?

It is also an issue of education, because it will be hard to generate the political will to make the changes we need absent real understanding by the people.  That education should be occurring in schools at all level.  I may teach government - itself given short shrift in much of our educational "reform" - but I absolutely believe that there is some basic scientific understanding that should be require certainly for graduation from a public high school, and which I think should be part of basic education at the elementary and middle levels as well.  

We also need to quickly educate our adult population.  Part of the reason Al Gore became a Nobel Laureate in Peace is because of his efforts to do just that.  The Inhofes, Demints and Limbaughs can make fun of him all they want, but all they do is demonstrate how truly stupid they are.  We need to help the American people understand that stupidity.

I have already quoted the part of McKibben's piece where he quotes the conclusion from The Guardian's piece on the so-called email scandal, that global warming is in part humanity's fault, is real, and we must do something about it.  McKibben then concludes with two paragraphs worth quoting completely:  

Looked at dispassionately, the round of snowmageddons crisscrossing the mid-Atlantic carries the same message. But it's hard to be dispassionate when you're wondering, six hours of shoveling later, if there's a good chiropractor in the neighborhood and what kind of dogsled you might need to reach her.

It's almost like a test, centered on ground zero for climate-change legislation. Can you sit in a snowstorm and imagine a warming world? If you're a senator, can you come back to work and pass a bill that blunts the pace of climate change? If the answer is no, then we're really in a world of trouble.

then we're really in a world of trouble

There are many important issues before our government.  People desperately want jobs, and that concern will be demagogued by those who choose, for whatever motivation, to deny the crisis of climate change.  That requires us to educate people, including emotionally, of the impact of failing to address energy which is a key form of failing to address climate change.

Health care is critical - it affects economics.  It affects health.  It affects jobs.  And the needs will become worse if our water supplies dry up, if the food patterns on which the world depends are severe3ly disrupted, if severity of weather - be it drought or excessive precipitation, extremes of heat or of cold - can unleash some diseases, weaken bodily immunities, cause problems of distribution of the medical treatment that is available.

Every excuse we accept for delaying acting condemns thousands, probably millions, to a lesser life - in length, in quality.  Each day we postpone acting the situation becomes more dire, more difficult, even more impossible to address.

Can you sit in a snowstorm and imagine a warming world?  Last week I certainly could.  I am only a high school government teacher.  If I can, certainly our elected public officials should be able to do likewise.

Will they?  Or will they dither yet again?

Washington's snowtorms, brough to you by global warming.

You'd better believe it.  And act accordingly.  Or we are all doomed.

Peace?

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This also appears at the Great Orange Satan
It belongs here because it is a story with a heavy meaning for those of us who have just lived through Snowmageddon.  It is also a matter of national policy, as the Congress dithers on yet another key issue.

This is my world and welcome to it

When climate change first was broached
as I vaguely recall,one of the predictions included a projection that we might have a return of the medieval mini-Ice Age, or even a full blown Ice Age, as a result of the changing patterns of air circulation and sea currents (such as a faltering Gulf Stream, for example). That may be why Buffalo's weather showed up this year in Washington, while Buffalo has a snow deficit.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but it does make sense: more moisture in the air equals more precipitation in certain areas, equals more snow packs equals longer-lasting snow packs equals sustained snow packs equals glaciers.... but not necessarily in the same areas as before. There might also be such things as turning former deserts into grassland savannahs, and turning current grasslands into deserts.

How does Senator Inhofe explain the lack of snow in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics? Has anybody asked the old gentleman?


The key issue...
...is the distinction between weather (a day-by-day phenomenon) and climate (a longer term phenomenon over years, even centuries).  Rachel Maddow had a nice discussion on this topic too.

The problem is that people observe day to day weather, but longer term global climate shifts are beyond their imagination.  And it's easier for too many people raised on the X Files or whatever to believe in conspiracy theories than in valid science.

I'd say that it would take a disaster to convince people to act on climate change, but even Hurricane Katrina only helped move the needle a little (thanks to Uncle Al's best efforts). If  losing half of New Orleans isn't enough to convince people of the urgency of the problem, what'll it take?  Do we have to lose Miami, Manhattan, Boston?  Either that or we need politicians willing to lead for the public good, polls be damned.

Either way, we have to keep fighting the flat earthers who are trying to frame the debate based on oil company-funded distortions.  


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