Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

The Perfect Storm

As the heat returns to western NY over the next week or so, I offer up some not – so – cool facts:

  • For the United States, 2012 has so far been the warmest on record (going back to 1895).
  • More than 22,000 daily record high temperatures have been set since January, affecting 28 states and 100 cities.
  • Through June, more than half the country has been enduring some level of meterological “drought “.  Maine is the only state that isn’t at least “abnormally dry”.  Crops all over the country are literally “feeling the heat”.
  • Wildfires have eaten through over 2.5 million acres of dried up forests and grasslands.

And it’s only July.  The worst part of hurricane season is still over a month away, but we’ve already had millions of people left without power because of unusual weather.  Chances are, there are more surprises to come.  Things could very well get worse before they get better.

So are we looking at “global warming”?  Climate change that is influenced primarily by human activity (carbon emissions)?  Was Al Gore (and all of his charts) right?  Is “crazy weather” going to become the norm?

In a word, probably.  Nothing, after all, is certain when it comes to predicting the weather.  But climatologists have come up with a number of models that seem to be doing a pretty good job of assessing the likelihood of different kinds of weather.

Last year, for example, Texas experienced a record heat wave caused, in part, by a La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific.  La Nina patterns, in case you’ve forgotten, cool the waters of the central Pacific which, among other things, tends to make the southern U. S. warmer and drier.  By looking at La Nina events in previous years – when carbon levels in the atmosphere weren’t as high – and comparing them with more recent events, they were able to conclude that “global warming” has made the chance for such a heat wave about 20 times greater than it was previously.  They don’t say that Texas will experience a heat wave each and every time that a La Nina occurs, but they do say that the chances of it happening are significantly greater with higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere.  This isn’t nutty left-wing ideology – it’s science and math.  And it works.  Not terribly good news for Texas.

Actually, not terribly good news for anybody.  We’re all affected.  Everybody.  The whole freakin’ world.  Which brings me to what I think makes this a nearly perfect storm – apathy and disbelief.  I’m not sure about public sentiment in other countries, but I do know that nearly half of all Americans tend to believe that “climate change” is not real.  It’s not even in the top 10 of “major issues” here in the U. S.  And a fair percentage of those who believe it might be real think that its impact is somewhere off in the future.  It’s something our grandchildren will have to deal with.  But not us.  Life can just go on as it is.  No problem.

Part of me wishes that that were true.  It’s kind of like one of those syfy movies where an asteroid the size of New Jersey has put the earth in its crosshairs.  Impact in 17 days.  Nothing will survive, not even bacteria.  Hell, if you were one of the scientists who’d predicted a catastrophe as awful as that, I’m assuming that you’d be happy to learn that you’d made a mistake.  Miscalculated.  The damn thing’s going to miss.  Oops.

So I personally would love it if I found out that this was all a big “miscalculation”.  Put as much CO2 in the atmosphere as you want – it won’t mean diddly.  All of the polar ice will come back, temperatures will cool, droughts will end, and thunderstorms that cover 3 or 4 states at once will be as rare as asteroids colliding with earth.

But if it’s really “real”……………

The heat waves will get worse.  Droughts will get worse in some places and flooding will get worse in others.  Crops will continue to suffer in some areas, driving food prices higher.  We’ll stop calling very large storms “the storm of the century” because they won’t be.  They’ll just be one more bad storm, like the one last week or last month or last year.

And so on and so on.


11 Responses to “The Perfect Storm”

  1. Markus Spring

    Paul, wishful thinking that this just wouldn’t happen is prevalent almost everywhere. I mean, the consequences are so dire and the smokin’ gun still missing that it’s much more convenient to ignore it.

    Some governments do take it seriously, as the EU Commission (in parts) does. But it isn’t taken as seriously as necessary. The sad fact is that the later we start to change the more expensive it will become. But whom do I tell – the ones who know don’t need my words, and those who would need to listen prefer to deny. Perfect storm, definitely.

    The image matches the topic very well, and, my goodness, how much do I prefer this to the “Pilbara Storm” image recently featured on Luminous Landscape

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Markus. Yes, I saw the “Pilbara Storm” image on LL. I didn’t much care for it, either. In a word, overprocessed.

      I honestly think that when people and animals start dying off in large numbers (thousands or even millions) because of weather related events, people will start to take notice. Just use the term “mathematical model” and most people’s eyes glaze over. It’s an abstraction. But start showing pictures of major catastrophes month after month and they’ll (slowly) start to understand. We just have to hope that it isn’t too late. Or maybe it already is………..

  2. John - Visual Notebook

    It’s unfortunate that a large segment of the population have been duped into thinking global warming is a hoax, especially here in the U.S. We’re supposed to be “enlightened, progressive” in our thinking but certain elements have tried very hard, and largely successfully, into dumbing down America to the point where it’s unlikely we’ll pull our collective heads out of the sand in time to stop what’s coming – that being a type of critical mass for the climate (think Venus). Once we pass the point of no return there’s, well, no return. Politisizing climate change is just the latest of dumb things we’ve done in this country.

    Here’s the bottom line: Nature doesn’t care. Politisize and deny all you want, but nature goes it’s merry way and does not stop. Ever.

    Excellent image and toning, by the way.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, John. I agree with you – somewhere there’s a “tipping point”. As you say, a “critical mass”. What we’re seeing now, I think, is just the overture to a much larger symphony. One that we might not like very much.

      It’s funny, but the thing I remember most clearly about this “controversey” occurred during one of the Republican primary debates. The moderator asked the candidates (9 of them, I think) to raise their hands if they thought Climate Change was a hoax. All 9 raised their hands. This was shortly after they all said that evolution wasn’t “true”. And these are the people who want to be the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. Are they really that dumb? Or is it just about the money? Or maybe both………..

  3. Cedric

    I’ll stay out of the climate change debate because I sincerely don’t know who to believe (though I err on the side of caution and do what I can where I can to reduce my so-called carbon footprint). What I will do however is chime in to say that this photo is brilliant. A perfect image.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Cedric. I certainly respect your thoughts, but as a statistician, I think the “debate” is over. Even though I admit that there is some measurable (but small) probability that the climate change data is wrong or has been misinterpreted, I think that the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. So far, the models created by climatologists have been very good at predicting much of what we’re seeing now. If those models continue to hold, things will get worse.

      The only question that cannot be answered absolutely at this point is whether or not the change is “manmade”. But again, the evidence is very strong. It’s hard to come up with any kind of reasonable alternative. Saying that this is just another of nature’s “cycles” is at best wishful thinking and at worst suicidal.

      • Cedric

        Paul, I do not deny that climate change is happening, it’s quite plain for anyone to see but I am simply not smart enough to fully understand everything that I read about the cause. I’m not talking about what the media presents us with, that is easy enough to understand. What I don’t understand are the studies, the findings, the raw data. Having said that, I am willing to accept that we have caused it and/or accelerated the process (as humans we have a history of screwing up a lot of things) but I also sense that we don’t know everything about anything. For all we know there could be factors we are not aware of (as remote as that possibility might be). As I said in my previous comment however I act, to the best of my ability and within the limited understanding I have of the matter, to reduce my own impact. And I think that most people try and do the same but I fear that our lifestyles make it near impossible to make a difference. For example we are told (at least in Australia) that cars are among the worst offenders but I have read findings that shows manufacturing of packaging to be far, far worse, by factors of 10 or more. Are these findings true? I have no way of knowing but what if they are? Is the media not telling us this because packaging manufacturing is a multi-billion industry? Too many dollars at stake? My friends who are championing the climate change cause and who diligently ride their bicycles to work every day are also the ones who buy the latest gadget everytime one comes out, with all the fancy but useless packaging, regardless of whether they need it or whether their old gadget still functions. I can tell you that they either refuse to believe that packaging is an issue or they choose to ignore it. Are they right? I don’t know.

        The trouble I have is simply this, how do I, me, who is trying to do the best I can for my family while turning lights off, using public transport, supporting local organic farmers, using green energy whenever possible, recycling what I can while consuming as little as possible, how do I know what data is correct? How do I know what source to trust? How do I know who has an agenda and who hasn’t? How do I form an educated opinion other than one based on some gut-feel that has probably been influenced by attention-grabbing-media-types who may be more interested in making a dollar than in saving the planet? Is anything I am doing making a difference? How do I make a real difference? I sincerely do not know the answers to any of these questions (and I have many more that I will not bore you with).

        You see Paul, this is why I prefer not to partake in these conversations. I feel somewhat of an ignoramus. But I will finish with two things. First, you may be right and it may be too late for us and this planet but I have no way of knowing this for sure and I can’t help but be optimistic for the long term. I know optimism is utterly useless in any real sense but that’s how I feel. Secondly, when you think about it, the whole debate, who caused what etc… it should no longer matter, after all it seems to me that polluting less, recycling more, using renewable energy, consuming in moderation, planning responsibly for the future… all those things we are told to do to prevent climate change, shouldn’t we be doing it just because it quite simply makes sense?

  4. Paul Maxim

    Thanks, Cedric, for your very thoughtful comment. In my opinion, all of your points are exactly the kinds of things that should be under discussion right now. Especially by the people who hold the reins of power. If, as you suggest in your last paragraph, we did “all those things we are told to do to prevent climate change”, the result could be economically catastrophic. Nothing is free in this global environment. Doing what “makes sense” might get the polar ice back, but we all might be unemployed as well. It’s no secret that oil and gas production creates a lot of money and a lot of jobs. It’s been reported recently that oil and gas might be the very things that are keeping the U. S. out of a much deeper recession right now. If the demand for oil and gas dropped significantly – if we all decided to ride bicycles – the economy here would wind up in the toilet. It’s one of those deals where you can’t have it both ways.

    Leadership, obviously, is required. Someone has to figure out how to get from here to there. Or, put another way, someone has to figure out how the folks making all that money in fossil fuels can keep making money doing something else. People like the Koch brothers, for example. Those two aren’t going to drop their current financial interests to “save the planet”. No one has ever accused them of being the “good guys”. If we retain the status quo, if they just keep donating money to politicians to gain favors for themselves, nothing will happen. Nothing positive, anyway.

    And that means that I agree that we, as individuals, really have no idea what we should be doing. I certainly don’t believe that I can detectably impact the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. And I can’t compete with the billionaires who get to make a lot of the decisions about how things work. Like you, I do what I think I can. Which in the grand scheme of things isn’t much. I will say this, though. I ain’t going to give up driving. Not as long as the guy down the street is mowing his tiny 1/4 acre lot with a huge tractor that burns more gas than a lot of cars.

    So I don’t know the answer, either. This whole nasty thing requires some serious cultural shifts. The only question in my mind is whether or not that will happen. It’s interesting that in your second to last paragraph you display a very healthy sense of cynicism about vested interests and “agendas”. I have the same mindset. But then in your final paragraph you mention a “longterm optimism”. On that point we are different, I think. I wish I were more optimistic, but I’m not. Like the Titanic, we’re on a collision course. And like the Titanic, we simply haven’t the means (or the desire) to turn away.

    • oneowner

      Interesting topic and conversation, Paul. I thing the data clearly shows a warming trend, but even if it’s only partially based on the carbon released into the atmosphere, there is still something each individual can do. It may not make a measurable difference but collectively (by that I mean everyone) it could make a difference. No one is asking anyone to give up driving, but chances are everyone could be more efficient in their daily lives. I like Cedric’s optimism because optimists can accomplish a lot. A cynical attitude is counterproductive. Even if you believe in Global Warming but are not presently affected by it, you great, great, great, great grandchildren will eventually be affected. The future generations will be more affected by global matters than past generations and that should make us more conscious of the decisions we make today.

      • Paul Maxim

        You may be right about the “collective” effort, Ken, but someone’s going to have to come up with some actual evidence. Right now, there ain’t much. Heck, every day I walk around Webster (where life is supposedly worth living) and see countless numbers of lawns getting watered during the day with the sun out. I suppose these twits think that that’s no big deal – after all, we’ve got a monstrous fresh-water lake right next door. We can use all the water we want!

        Well, not really. It takes a fair amount of energy to turn that water into drinking water (which also happens to be the stuff we dump on the grass). And actually, Webster doesn’t get its water from the lake. If these folks lived in southern Nevada and were dumping water on their grass during daylight hours (not that too many people have grass out there), they’d probably get fined. By the “water police”. It’s just a stupid thing to do. Even here in NY. The water mostly evaporates or runs into a storm drain. It’s flat-ass wasteful and burns energy. Do you honestly think that they’re going to stop doing it? For the “collective good”?

        “Optimists can accomplish a lot”? Really? Again, show me some evidence. In case you’ve forgotten, it was the “optimists” who thought that Kodak was going to be just fine. And it was the “optimists” who thought that 3M in Rochester was going to make it back in 1996. You and I both know how that turned out. And it’s the “optimists” today who think that humanity (or God) is too smart and / or too benevolent to let anything really bad happen to our planet. Someone will come along and save the day. They always have, right? The “optimist” always believes that the good guy on the white horse is going to be here. Soon. But as Cedric said, “optimism is utterly useless in any real sense”. Or maybe you missed that part.

        No, it’s the “cynic” who usually makes the real contribution. It’s the “cynic” who will finally say, “Fuck it. Nobody else is going to do anything that matters here so I’d better get my ass in gear and get something done. Now”.

        Actually, there’s a parallel of sorts in the arts, too, isn’t there? How many great artists and writers have we had over the centuries that you could describe as “optimists”? Was Picasso an optimist? Or Hemingway? Or Beethoven? Nope. But it didn’t stop them from actually “doing” things. Creative things.

        Of course, optimists do things, too. They write marvelous little books that tell you how to make your life better in 10 easy steps. Amazingly, people buy them…………

  5. Cedric Canard

    The thing about optimism is that it’s nothing more than a feeling much like cynicism. And both are useless without some action backing them up. I know a lot of cynics who do nothing but complain and the problem there is that they are too pessimistic about the future to do anything else. On the other hand, the cynics you’re talking about Paul are usually the ones who have some sense of optimism about the future. That is where optimism can be helpful, when it’s combined with a healthy dose of cynicism.

    The other problem that needs to be considered is that many of the important issues that face us today are extremely complex to understand and understanding something is of course totally relative. Understanding how the Internet works is easy for some but for many people it may as well be magic. The issues around the environment are similarly complex and to add to the complexity it is such an emotive topic that there is a lot of seemingly contradictory evidence being presented (I still remember when scientists decided to stop referring to the issue as “global warming” because temperatures were shown to have dropped over the last decade and moved to the term “climate change”. One professor I talked to at the time, a staunch cynic, said that the move was probably just to ensure that these scientists didn’t lose their research grants. If that’s true than “climate change” is a great name because the climate hasn’t stopped changing since the last ice age and probably never will so research grants are secure for decades.) Anyway, in light of this it’s not surprising to find people acting like everything is fine because the “head-in-the-sand”, “everything-will-be-ok-if-I-ignore-it-long-enough” attitude is a fairly natural response in someone who feels totally impotent to do anything. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that everyone has a responsibility to get educated about the matters that affect us, I am not condoning the apathy that we see all around us but I do have some sympathy. What is deadly obvious to one person may just be confusing to another. A friend bought a Prius a couple of years ago thinking that he was doing the right thing until he read a report showing that the Prius had a larger carbon footprint than a Ford Focus due to the costly (in terms of carbon) manufacturing of the batteries. Was the report factual? I don’t know and neither did my friend. He was just left feeling like there was really not much point in trying to make a difference.

    Going back to the question of optimism, as we have agreed it is mostly useless on its own. I will also grant that it can be dangerous since it can be manipulated by some to give people a false sense of security and ensure that apathy reigns thereby removing any pressure on governments and large corporations to change the status quo. But I would suggest that only someone with optimism (even if it’s just a hint of it) can truly grasp what is at stake. Awareness about the environmental issues is higher today than it has ever been. In Australia, these issues are used as a basis for learning in almost all school subjects (sciences, languages, history, geography etc) and I feel that kids today understand the mess they are inheriting and with their exceptional creativity and confidence they are the best hope we have. Will it be enough? Will it be on time? I don’t know but as I said before I can only continue to do what I’ve been doing. Plus I have some confidence in our youth and having read much history I also know that we humans like to think we have all the facts when in reality we only have what we are able to comprehend (once upon a time the “facts” were quite conclusive that the earth was the centre of the universe at least until an optimistic cynic started to think outside the box). Life offers lots of opportunities and throws an equal number of spanners into the works and sometimes the opportunities are disguised as spanners and vice-versa so trying to predict what the future holds is a shot in the dark.

    Oh, and those touchy-feely-new-agey-feel-good books… I’m with you, I steer clear of them.


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