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Truth and Consequences

There is both humor and idiocy in the constant Internet joust dedicated to global warming. I recently received a forwarded article from the Wall Street Journal (No Need to Panic about Global Warming, Opinion, January 27), claiming, “There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.” Okay…but the notion of ‘decarbonizing’ is merely one among many suggestions pertaining to issues related to climate change. The sender’s intent, it seems, was to reinforce that there are countervailing positions advocating a more natural acceptance of a warming planet where, among other things, plants would flourish in a greater concentration of CO2. Further, the intent implied in the transmittal email appeared to be a counter-position to those advocating preemptive action before the tipping point is reached (most data indicates that point has been passed).

My response to this article and to the sender was that there once again is very little data in the Wall Street article, and, even though it is signed by many illuminaries, even a cursory review would suggest that this posse is not revealing any new information or solutions. We already know that the earth has experienced many climate evolutions over millions of years and that fluctuating CO2, warm and cold spells had various causes – everything from mega volcanoes to coal burning during the early stages of the industrial revolution (continuing today in many countries). I once again suggested that a review of the data was in order. While merely reviewing verified data may not explain causation or provide a linear path to specific remedies, it does allow the reviewer to verify what is occurring.

According to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), an independent non-political, non-affiliated group, the global average temperature in 2011 was 58.14 degrees Fahrenheit. According to NASA scientists, this was the ninth warmest year in 132 years of recordkeeping, despite the more recent cooling influence of the La Niña atmospheric and oceanic circulation pattern. Records clearly demonstrate that, since the 1970s, each subsequent decade has gotten hotter and 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century.

According to the EPI, “In the continental United States, summer 2011 was the second warmest in history. Nearly three times more weather stations hit record highs than lows in 2011, in keeping with a trend of increasing heat extremes. Whereas in the middle of the 20th century there were close to the same number of record highs and lows — as would be expected absent a strong warming trend — in the 1990s highs began outpacing lows. In the first decade of this century, there were twice as many record highs as record lows.”

“Worldwide, seven countries set all-time temperature highs in 2011: Armenia, China, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Kuwait experienced the year’s highest temperature, with thermometers reaching 127.9 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth during the month of August. Even more threatening than daytime highs are extra hot nighttime minimum temperatures, which do not allow respite from daytime heat. The world’s hottest 24-hour minimum ever –107 degrees Fahrenheit — was recorded in Oman in June 2011. “

“Even the Arctic had a notably warm year, with the 2011 temperature a record 4 degrees Fahrenheit above the mean for the period 1951–1980. Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost U.S. city, spent a record-breaking 86 consecutive days at or above freezing, well above the previous record of 68 days set in 2009.  The data clearly shows that, over the last 50 years temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than twice as fast as the global average, melting ice and thawing permafrost. Arctic sea ice has been shrinking more rapidly, falling to its lowest volume and second lowest area on record during the 2011 summer season. With the summertime ice loss outpacing wintertime recovery, Arctic sea ice has thinned, making it increasingly vulnerable to further melting. Scientists expect a completely ice-free summertime Arctic before 2030.”

My interest, as noted in my book, Planning the Future, is rooted in the question, ‘So What?’ While the 16 signers of the Wall Street Journal article caution against panic (I concur), they focus only on CO2 and nothing else. I advocate knowing truth through data. Show me a picture of a glacier taken in 1970 and another taken today. If it is ¼ its previous size, I conclude that something (warmth, perhaps?) is causing the glacier to melt. I am also interested in the probability that a warmer climate will impact communities throughout the U.S. and globally. Everything distills down into ‘If-Then’ scenarios. IF it’s getting warmer, what might happen? According to compiled data by the EPI…

“Worldwide, 2011 was the second wettest year on record over land. (The record was set in 2010, which also tied 2005 as the warmest overall.) Heavier deluges are expected on a warmer planet; each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius increases the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold by about 7 percent. Higher temperatures also can fuel stronger storms. As is expected on a hotter planet, while some parts of the globe were overwhelmed by rain in 2011, others were distinguished by dryness. A severe drought in the Horn of Africa that began in 2010 devolved into a crisis situation in 2011, characterized by crop failure, exorbitant food prices, and widespread malnutrition. Exacerbated by chronic political instability and a belated humanitarian response, the death toll may have exceeded 50,000 people.

“In North America, a drought that began in late 2010 and worsened over 2011 led hundreds of farmers from northern Mexico to march to that nation’s capital in January 2012 to draw the government’s attention to their suffering. Nearly 2.2 million acres of farmland and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost due to the dryness — the worst in Mexico’s 70+ years of data collecting.”

Scorching heat, drought, and wildfires across the U.S. Southern Plains and Southwest caused farm, ranch, and forestry damages that exceeded $10 billion in 2011. Wichita Falls, Texas, experienced 100 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit — far more than the previous record of 79 days set in 1980. Oklahoma and Texas had the hottest summers of any states in history, breaking by a wide margin the record set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes that the likelihood of such extreme heat waves ‘was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.’ Texas also had its lowest rainfall on record. Invigorated by the heat and drought, wildfires burned across an estimated 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) in the state.”

While many factors produced by 7 billion people and their competing economies have led to global warming, what truly matters is impact. Those who quibble over whose data are best or who said what in an email are missing the point and wasting time. Facts are facts. The truth is that the planet is warming and consequences are beginning to mount. We shouldn’t panic. But we also should not waste time diddling around with senseless debate about word usage, causation, affiliation, or policy origin. It’s warm, it’s getting warmer, and we are reaping the consequences.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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