The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Racing Bad Weather

I don’t mean to brag, here, but I’m sitting on an island off the coast of Maine. The air is pleasantly cool, foggy with a light breeze. It’s nice.

Elsewhere, I know, things are not so nice. Much of the East and South of the country are way too hot, to the point of danger in some areas–as in the heat could kill you. Towns in Vermont were recently flooded with water and mud, with a bridge and some homes lost. Parts of California, too, have flooded recently, while other parts of that state continue to burn–and the floods don’t necessarily mean the drought is over, either.

This seems like a good time to remind everyone that climate change is still happening–and if we don’t like having years that set records for every possible type of bad weather all at the same time, we’d better do something about it.

At the moment, the most important climate fight in the United States is probably the fight to elect a President and a Congress who take climate issues seriously–in practice, that means Democrats. I’ve written before on the Presidential hopefuls from that party. Personally, I’m leaning towards Bernie Sanders, but Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley have impressive climate credentials as well. Could they be better? Yeah, they could–and they should get better. And maybe they will if they get enough public pressure. But the important thing is that they have shown themselves willing to act on the issue to at least some meaningful degree, whereas their Republican counterparts have done the opposite.  If we elect a Republican-dominated government this time around, we’re going to have to foment a serious revolution because our chance of making meaningful progress otherwise will be about zero.

And revolutions, I hear, are really hard.

This is why I get so upset when I read about people attacking Bernie Sanders from the left. To be clear, I have to personal allegiance to him yet, nor do I think America owes him any particular trust–he has to earn it just like other candidates do, and if he fails to do so then he’s not the right person for the job. But what bothers me is two-fold–that the attacks take the form of complaining that he’s not perfect and that none of these people are offering an alternative.

Of course he’s not perfect. He’s human–and, worse, he’s electable. Being President involves making deals, period. It involves working with other politicians who fighting for very different things, and many fight dirty. Anyone who expects the election of a single man or woman to any office, even our highest office, to fundamentally change anything is naive. At the same time, anyone who doesn’t recognize the distinction between a good president and a bad one is worse than naive–at the moment, the future of life on Earth may quite literally rest on that incremental difference.

For liberals to attack liberal candidates for not being liberal enough–without offering a competing candidate of their own–is unconscionable. It amounts to campaigning against the closest thing to your own side that you have. No one in the halls of political power is going to wake up one day and say “Jane Smith didn’t vote this year! She’s growing cynical! Well, we’d better fix everything, then.” No. If you’re not for something or someone, you cease to exist politically and the oil barons have a party because they have one less adversary to deal with.

Let me say this very, very, clearly; if we end up with some Kock-addled yahoo in the White House because too many people decided a socialist environmentalist from Vermont wasn’t liberal enough, I’m going to be pissed.

I recognize that not everybody likes Democrats, and that not everybody likes the particular Democrats who are running. That is fine. But if you can’t find a candidate you’re comfortable voting for, for Gods’ sakes, don’t boycott the election and don’t spend your time spewing negativity all over Facebook about how mainstream you think Bernie Sanders secretly is! Instead, find somebody else to vote for. Be heard. Write in your own name as a candidate, if you have to–or, if you’re not a native-born US citizen over the age of 35, write in my name, because I am those things. I haven’t a clue how to run a country, but since I honestly don’t think I’ll win, so I’m not worried about it.

Seriously, people, we have to win this one.

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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.

 

The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.