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And Now for the Weather…

This Blog covers a wide range of topics but rarely delves into climate change or anything remotely associated with global warming. However, as I review a wide range of economic, social, cultural, and political literature in between issues, it is amazing how much is now driven by changing weather patterns. In my view, it is not essential that we understand all causative factors and certainly, I am not in a position to assign blame, but I do find it increasingly wise to know what’s going on. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped the folks in Oklahoma this week who have been devastated by serial Category IV and V tornados.

In pursuit of the best possible information, I typically turn to a non-political, unaffiliated ‘think tank’ such as the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), which, in my view, is one of the best at reporting data and leaving interpretation to the reader. Perhaps most important to readers, the EPI has identified eco-economy indicators – twelve trends that are tracked to measure progress in building a sustainable economy. While I won’t share all of those trends in this limited space, some recent information from the EPI’s Janet Larsen is worth noting and considering, especially if you devote time to long-range planning. Again, there is little interpretation here. There is value in knowing what is happening and using that information as a foundation for discussion.

A review of recorded data shows that the world has warmed by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since the Industrial Revolution, with most of the rise in temperature coming since the 1970s. Such rapid warming is unprecedented over at least 20,000 years. The average global temperature in 2012 was 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it among the 10 warmest years ever recorded, all of which, according to NASA data dating back to 1880, have occurred in the last 14 years. July 2012 was the hottest month ever in the continental United States, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Overall, 2012 was the hottest year in U.S. history, topping the twentieth-century average by more than 3 degrees.

Records for the winter of 2011-2012 clearly show that snow coverage across the lower 48 states was the third lowest on record, and for many areas, summer-like weather arrived in March. Close to 15,000 new high-temperature records were set. 2012 was the warmest spring in U.S. history, setting the stage for further high temperatures and even more drought, which at one point covered nearly two thirds of the country. Purdue University economist Chris Hurt estimates the cost of the drought could exceed $75 billion. Unfortunately, with drought now predicted for 2013, particularly in the Great Plains, the odds of a second year of harvest shortfalls are increasing.

From a global perspective, 2012 was quite warm in Canada, where last summer was the warmest on record. For Russia it was the second warmest, just behind summer 2010. Crops suffered in both years, contributing to rising food prices. In France, an unusually late and sudden heat wave toward the end of August broke the high-temperature records set during the 2003 heat wave that killed nearly 15,000 people nationwide.

In northeastern Brazil, the first half of 2012 was extraordinarily dry. More than 1,100 towns were affected in the worst drought in 50 years, in drastic contrast to August 2012, which brought extreme rain and flooding to central and northern Argentina, with rainfall in some places double previous records, based on statistics kept since 1875.

Most are growing to understand that drought is only one by-product of climate change. The other catastrophic weather event of 2012 demonstrated the other extreme: Superstorm Sandy, which brought more than a foot of rainfall to parts of the mid-Atlantic region. The data indicate that Sandy’s unusual coastal trajectory was due to changes in atmospheric circulation caused by the loss of sea ice in the rapidly warming Arctic. Close to 100 people died in New York and New Jersey and more than a half-million homes were damaged or destroyed. Blizzards blanketed parts of Appalachia with the most snow ever recorded for a U.S. storm in October.

It is now clear that, as the Arctic’s reflective ice cover shrinks, more heat is absorbed, resulting in a smaller temperature differential between the North Pole and higher latitudes. This can cause the jet stream to slow down, stalling typical weather patterns and leading to prolonged extreme events. Regional warming is also accelerating ice melt in Greenland, which contains enough water to raise global sea level by 23 feet.  In late May 2012, southern Greenland reached 76.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In mid-July, 97 percent of its surface area was melting.

Climate change tends to bring more high temperature records than low ones, but it can also bring extreme cold. In late January to mid-February 2012, parts of central Europe did not get above freezing for 20 days straight, twice as long as the February norm. Then at the close of 2012, a dip in the polar jet stream returned frigid weather to Russia, northern and eastern China, and northern Europe. Just a few months after Russia’s second warmest summer, December temperatures plunged to the lowest level in the records kept since 1938. In Moscow the mercury dropped to –22 degrees Fahrenheit; in eastern Siberia, it was –76.

In 2010-2011, Australia had its wettest two-year period in over a century, which came on the heels of a decade-long epic drought. But 2012 began cool and wet then turned dry and very hot. The heat wave was unusually long and widespread, with high-temperature records set in every state.

 As my friend Everett noted recently, “For those skeptics who refuse to believe that we humans are causing climate change, see the Guardian’s recent (May 15) article referencing the comprehensive study of all of the peer-reviewed scholarly studies of climate change over the past 20 years.  The score:  97.1% conclude that climate change is anthropogenic (human caused); 0.7% said it is not anthropogenic; 2.2% are not sure.  That means that of all serious scientific studies, there are 139 that conclude climate change is anthropogenic for every 1 that does not.  I’ll go with the 139.”  In this case, ‘comprehensive study’ means a review of the work of 29,000 scientists on 11,994 papers…not a sample easily ignored (although many will continue to dispute reality).

Without attributing causation, tracking hard data has allowed scientists to create models that predict that increasing global temperatures will produce heat waves, larger, more frequent and more violent storms, more floods and deeper cooling in some areas. The essential question pertains to how climate will impact economic vitality, cultural stability and geo-political harmony. How will the climate impact agriculture?  Where will displaced populations go? What will the health effects be? How should business, government and citizens prepare? If, as the data indicate, the planet has entered a prolonged period of severe climate change, planning and preparation is more critical than ever and denial is no longer prudent. What is your city and county doing? Is scenario planning being done? If not, why not?

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith 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 government 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 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  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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