By Al Markowitz
I hate summer. The torpid heat we usually suffer through for months in our area takes a heavy toll on me. This has been a much cooler summer for us than usual, even a little chilly at times. I’m not complaining. Unfortunately, while we got a break this year the unusual weather is symptomatic of changes to the environment that bode ill. Places that normally have mild and even cool summers, like the Pacific Northwest, western Canada, northern Europe and parts of Siberia had much hotter summers than usual. A report from NASA’s Earth Observatory stated, “Records for high temperatures (mid-30s°C, mid-90s°F) were approached or broken in Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden in late July and early August. Searing temperatures also dried out forests and fueled wildfires in Siberia; in the U.S. states of Oregon, Washington, and California; in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Northwest Territories; and even in Sweden. At the same time, cool air moved from high northern latitudes into much of the U.S., setting record-low daytime and nighttime temperatures as far south as Florida and Georgia. Temperatures dropped to the winter-like levels in the mountains of Tennessee.”
Weather instability is more than just inconvenient or interesting. Severe droughts, extreme cold spells, intense storms and heavy flooding harm agriculture affecting food supplies and result in costly property damage. The warming of our planet also increases disease and blight.
The warming of the seas and of arctic tundra exacerbates the pattern by triggering methane release. Methane is about 30 times more potent a heat trapping greenhouse gas than CO2. NASA has reported the release of massive amount of methane from Arctic tundra which holds five to six times the carbon equivalent of what humans have burned in our entire existence. Deep beneath the Arctic Ocean and in other deep sea areas are methane hydrates, a mixture of frozen methane and ice. A March 2010 report in Science magazine indicated that these cumulatively contain the equivalent of 1,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon. Compare this total to the 240 gigatons of carbon humanity has emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. Researchers surveying the Arctic Ocean this year report plumes of methane rising in bubbles from the sea floor. Climatologist Jason Box, who closely followed the research expedition, responded to what he saw tweeting, “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.” He’s right. The last major release of oceanic methane was during the Permian Extinction which killed 99% of all life on the planet.
Recently formed, massive sinkhole-like methane blowholes in Siberia were discovered and reported this summer. This year we have has also seen a significant increase in the rate at which the Greenland ice sheet is melting. The Jakobshavn Glacier is descending into the ocean at a rate of 46 meters — or half a football field — each day. This adds to our problem of rising seas as does the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets which, according to Robert Bindschadler of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, alone could raise global sea levels 14 inches by the year 2100.
A new assessment by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called, The Synthesis Report, being a summation of previous reports over the last year, offers a stark assessment of the perilous future we face due to climate change unless serious steps to reduce our carbon footprint are implemented soon. The draft states that “Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions. Those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.”
The report goes on to warn that “Failure to adequately acknowledge and act on previous warnings has put the planet on a path where severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts of human-caused climate change will surely be felt in the decades to come” and that “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”
The good news here is that, while billions are still being spent by the oil industry and ALEC to promote skepticism and denial, public opinion is changing as people awaken and come to terms with the reality.
In a New York Times report entitled The Climate Swerve, Robert Jay Lifton writes, “Americans appear to be undergoing a significant psychological shift in our relation to global warming. I call this shift a climate “swerve,” borrowing the term used recently by the Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt to describe a major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly. Experience, economics and ethics are coalescing in new and important ways. The experiential part has to do with a drumbeat of climate-related disasters around the world, all actively reported by the news media: hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and wildfires, extreme heat waves and equally extreme cold, rising sea levels and floods. Even when people have doubts about the causal relationship of global warming to these episodes, they cannot help being psychologically affected. Of great importance is the growing recognition that the danger encompasses the entire earth and its inhabitants. We are all vulnerable. This sense of the climate threat is represented in public opinion polls and attitude studies. A recent Yale survey, for instance, concluded that American’s certainty that the earth is warming has increased over the past three years, and those who think global warming is not happening have become substantially less sure of their position.”
A recent article in the Virginian Pilot reports this new consciousness making itself evident in North Carolina due, in large part, the spill of coal ash into the Dan River and the knowledge that Duke Energy has similar potentially leaky coal ash ponds at 13 other sites across North Carolina. As the Pilot article makes clear, the rising public concern doesn’t end with coal ash. The article reports 100 people showing up at a county commissioners meeting to protest a planned chicken slaughterhouse proposed for Cedar Creek. The article goes on to state, “This mess is resonating with people — including many who in the past have shrugged away environmental issues. Coal ash has brought home the link between clean rivers and what comes out of our taps — and what it can cost to make it clean again after it’s been fouled. State government has spent years asking big businesses like Duke how they want to be regulated, but culture change is coming fast. The House and Senate almost went home without agreeing on a law to regulate coal ash dumps, until it dawned on lawmakers that they were really, really ticking off a lot of their constituents — people who may or may not vote for them in November. And so, they did an about-face and passed cleanup legislation. First state in the nation to do it, they said. And some legislative leaders are already acknowledging that they may need to come back and toughen it up. That sure wasn’t your daddy’s North Carolina at work.
There’s a lesson there for public officials: The sleeping giant is awake and won’t be dozing off anytime soon. Not, for sure, until regulators get tougher and state and local governments show a sense of stewardship over the land and water.”
We are seeing this here in Tidewater as well. Citizens are coming together to support efforts to clean up and protect the Chesapeake Bay. In Norfolk, residents are demanding that city leaders address the 90,000 pounds of toxic fugitive coal dust that are dumped on our city yearly and question our sinking city’s contribution to rising seas and climate change in hosting the largest coal export terminal in the country. As in North Carolina, and around the country and world, people are coming together in growing numbers to demand that public safety and environmental sanity take priority over corporate profits.
We, as a species, are at a juncture in history that will likely decide our fate. As we approach what scientists warn is the point of no return, there is literally no time like the present to act if we are to have any future at all. On September 21, the largest climate rally in history will take place in New York City. It will begin in Columbus Circle with a march to 11th Ave. World leaders are scheduled to be in New York for a U.N. Climate meeting at this time. People from the most diverse climate coalition ever will be there to send an overwhelming message to leaders across the planet that we need global climate action now. The larger the turnout, the more effective that voice will be. There will be other large demonstrations around the world as well.
In our area buses organized by the Sierra Club are going and you could be on one. To find out more go to http://vasierraclub.org/2014/07/lets-make-history or email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past generations of Americans have pulled together to face lesser challenges. In WWII, people grew “victory gardens,” made personal sacrifices and supported the war effort with volunteer labor. No other issue has been as important as the growing climate catastrophe. We have the ability to minimize the extent of climate change and to adapt to what we cannot change. The only thing stopping us is will power. The primary obstacle remains the myopic, greed-driven power of corporate influence over government but the united critical mass of active public influence is even greater. It will take more than a march, even a massive one, to overcome the power of corporate influence that is destroying our world. It will take the critical mass of our active resistance. Together, we will either make history or be lost to it.