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Monday, March 26, 2012

Take the blinders off!

In the wake of the astonishing record heat wave of recent days (see U.S. heat 'unprecedented,' 7,000 records set or tied, Reuters, March 23), the flow of what-me-worry reporting from the New York Times continued, with a lengthy article by Clifford Krauss and Eric Lipton on the new U.S. oil and natural gas drilling boom.

Krauss and Lipton tell the story of how increased oil & gas production from fracking and better auto efficiency due to rising fleet economy standards have combined to put U.S. oil imports on a downward trajectory after a long climb.  "[T]he domestic trends are unmistakable," they write. "Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency. The natural gas industry, which less than a decade ago feared running out of domestic gas, is suddenly dealing with a glut so vast that import facilities are applying for licenses to export gas to Europe and Asia."

Whoopee!  The only thing missing from this saga of new hydrocarbon wealth is its impact on global warming.  Climate change is mentioned just three times, briefly, and in a political context rather than a scientific one: while Candidate Obama "promoted policies to help combat global warming" in 2008, President Obama has "de-emphasized the challenges of climate change."

I know, I know, it's an energy story, but the question remains: how much longer before energy stories (not to mention weather stories) are viewed as incomplete unless they incorporate discussion of global warming?  It's been a long wait: in 1990, I wrote a letter to the Times complaining about a similar non-mention of climate in a story about the glowing market prospects for the coal industry.

Not that there aren't encouraging signs. Over at the Washington Post, which has been equally out to lunch on global warming, the editorial staff put together a strong screed on the subject today (Rising concern on climate change, March 24).  Said the Post sternly, "[T]he only energy debate America seems capable of having during this election year revolves around whom to blame for higher gas prices and who can bring them down again. Neither of those is the first, second or even 10th question we’d ask of America’s leaders on energy."

I agree, it's a problem.  But when the most respected news sources publish story after story about high gas prices and energy with barely a mention of the most important problem with which they are inextricably intertwined, what are political candidates supposed to do?

The blinders have to come off.  The tunnel vision has to stop.  And as hard as the media try to pass the buck, it has to start with them finding ways to ask the hard questions and change the national conversation.  (For an entirely different take, see Lessons from Obama's Keystone Cave-In by Jeff Goodell on Rolling Stone's Politics blog, March 23, in which he asks the burning question: Will Barack Obama go down in history as the President who cooked the planet?)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Connecting the dots: The Great March Heat Wave and ... climate

I had a brief conversation recently with a couple of friends, both committed, long-standing environmentalists. Both were hesitant to ascribe the extraordinary heat wave we are currently experiencing here in Vermont (and that is being felt as far west as the Dakotas) to global warming.

I told them there was no doubt in my mind about the connection.  For the record (as it were), here's why:

The temperatures have been extraordinary, far outside the realm of previous temperature ranges in our region.  Sunday's high here was 80 degrees F, breaking the old high record by 16 degrees.  Monday the temperature was 79, breaking the old record by 20 degrees.  Tuesday, 80, 13 degrees above the old record.  Wednesday 81, 10 degrees above the old record.  This is just a remarkable run of extreme temperatures. (Today, 84, 11 degrees above the old record--five straight days in which the previous high has been broken by double digits.)

The new high temperature records here and elsewhere across the U.S. dovetail with a pattern that has developed over the past four decades, in which the ratio of new highs to new lows is steadily increasing.  This pattern is detailed in two graphics, one from the blog Capital Climate and one from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) that have been reproduced in two excellent articles at another blog, Climate Progress (see March Madness: This may be an unprecedented event since modern U.S. weather records began in the late 19th Century, March 22, 2012, and Record highs far outpace record lows across U.S., Feb. 11, 2010).  The articles are well worth reading and highly recommended for the detail they provide, but here is a quick summary:

Article 1, from February 2010, includes the UCAR graphic, which shows the ratio of new high records to new low records across the U.S.  If the climate were not changing, one would expect the ratio to vary around 1:1.  Instead, what is actually happening is that the ratio is increasing, and some really wild excursions are taking place.  According to the UCAR graphic, the ratios (new highs to new lows) for recent decades look like this:

1950s: 1.09 to 1
1960s: 0.77 to 1
1970s: 0.78 to 1
1980s: 1.14 to 1
1990s: 1.36 to 1
2000s: 2.04 to 1

Article 2, the "March Madness" article from today, includes the Capital Climate graphic, with the monthly ratios for 2011 and 2012: 22 to 1 for August 2011, 22 to 1 for January 2012, and 35 to 1 to date for March 2012.  That makes three extraordinary heat waves in the past eight months.

I wish I could say the news is going to get better, but I don't think it is--to me (non-scientist), it looks like we are disturbing a previously stable system and the oscillations will get larger as long as we keep increasing the main input that is the source of the disturbance--the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The "March Madness" article also includes a brief video from The Weather Channel, featuring Senior Meteorologist Stu Ostro.  Ostro, formerly skeptical of the findings of climate science, has become a convert in recent years as the weather has increasingly diverged from what's been normal in the past. In Ostro's words, "Something ain't right--it's not business as usual." Indeed.