heatwave sunset; Astoria Park

heatwave sunset; Astoria Park by Global Je

Readers of my posts should know by now I have been moving away from using certain language when discussing climate change effects.  That language includes talking about effects in the far-off future and the uncertainty involved with climate projections (even though they do exist).  This transition has happened rapidly as I have read hundred of journal articles detailing the latest science assessments as well as seminal reports like the IPCC’s in 2007.  Generally speaking, the American public has no idea what is about to hit them.  A solid percentage think climate change is occurring and our species is now the dominant forcing mechanism.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is far too few Americans realize how quickly conditions are changing and what those changing conditions mean for their future.

An article came out today putting some pieces together that I want to comment on.  The article covers the topic of a new paper being published in Climatic Change Letters by a Standford group.  It deals with projections of summer conditions around the globe, using the current heat wave affecting a good portion of the country as context.  That’s not to say this heat wave can be directly and completely attributed to climate change, but that conditions are primed for heat waves like this to occur with climate change affecting baseline conditions.  Unsurprisingly, the group found (among other things) the following:

The Stanford study’s lead author, Noah Diffenbaugh, sought to determine when the current hottest temperatures would become “the new normal.” He says, “According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years.”

Read that again.  The coolest summers in 40 years will be hotter than anything we’ve experienced since the 1960s.  That projection is in line with the findings of numerous other studies: future decades are likelier to be hotter than preceding decades for a long time to come.  Folks across the East Coast and South are experiencing now what will be a typical summer soon.  And what we considered to be summer will have to be revised: the climate doesn’t care about arbitrary astronomical designations of seasons.  An increase in the number of days with 90F+ daily highs occurring in May and April will occur.  The number of days with 100F+ will also increase.  Of more worry is the number of nights with higher minimum temperatures than ever before.

What effects will these higher temperatures have?  Plenty.

[H]eat waves in 2003 killed an estimated 35,000 people in Europe. Last year, a record heat wave in Russia killed 700 people per day. As for agriculture, new research reveals that global warming has hindered crop yields. Higher temperatures cause dehydration and prevent pollination, resulting in a rise in food prices. Other studies suggest that warmer winters keep pests alive longer, allowing them to carry plant diseases, and greenhouse gases affect a plant’s structure, reducing its protection abilities.

Colorado knows all about the problems of warmer winters, as we’ve witnessed millions of acres of forest fall prey to pine beetles, whose offspring are surviving winters that no longer experience 30F below zero temperatures for extended periods.  And contrary to what science-haters say, plants have an optimal range of temperatures, CO2 concentrations, and other environmental conditions.  If they had paid attention to science in school, they might be able to deduce that they already live in their optimal range because of evolutionary processes.  The critical point is those ranges aren’t very large for most plants.  A small numeric change in one or more of those environmental conditions puts plants under tremendous strain.  It doesn’t take much to push them over the edge and get them to experience dramatically slower growth rates.  In short, more CO2 does not equal faster plant growth.

Another projection cited in the article is worthy of further discussion.

U.N. predictions suggest that there may be 50 million environmental refugees by 2020.

That is an interesting projection since:

This past year alone, natural disasters displaced 42 million people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The way I read those two sentences is the following: either 8 million more people need to be displaced to hit the U.N. prediction (which shouldn’t be difficult to do in 9 years’ time) or 50 million people need to be displaced in a single year (which shouldn’t be much more difficult than it was to displace 42 million people last year).  My point is that the U.N. needs to take a hard, honest look at the latest science and reissue their prediction, because it already seems out-of-date one decade early.

Scientists and government planners announced in May that heavy rains, deep snowfalls, monster floods and deadly droughts signal a “new normal” of extreme U.S. weather events influenced by climate change.

How many looming threats and even visible evidence are needed before serious action is taken to fight global warming?

We might want to start paying attention.  The following list contains weather disasters that have costs exceeding $1 Billion – just so far in 2011:

  1. 2011 Groundhog Day’s blizzard ($1- $4 billion)
  2. April 3 -5 Southeast U.S. severe weather outbreak ($2 billion)
  3. April 8 – 11 severe weather outbreak ($2.25 billion)
  4. April 25 – 28 super tornado outbreak ($3.5 – $6 billion)
  5. Mississippi River flood of 2011 ($9 billion)
  6. Texas drought ($1.2 billion)
  7. Joplin tornado ($1 – $3 billion)

That’s the fastest that 7 $1 Billion weather disasters have occurred after Jan. 1, in case you were wondering.  I wrote many times in the past couple of years that we couldn’t afford to continue ignoring climate change.  It’s far more expensive to keep burning fossil fuels and living inefficiently than it is to change our habits while we still have the luxury of time to do so.  Moving forward, we are now faced with the dual challenges of changing our habits while simultaneously reacting to the weather disasters we brought on ourselves.

Cross-posted at SquareState.