Weather of the Future

For January 2013 one of my book groups is reading The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen. This very readable 2010 book makes sense of complicated scientific models and predictions. And it’s scary! The year 2012 was the hottest year on record, with the average temperature in the lower 48 states more than 3 degrees above the average recorded for the entire 20th-century. Further evidence of weather extremities is documented in this article in the New York Times. I have been concerned about the environmental and political challenges my children and grandchildren will face, but the days of reckoning with our abuse of the environment may already be here.

The new Perot Museum in Dallas, which my grandson and I visited recently, has a compelling graph of population growth that spells out the demand on Earth’s resources.  Six ways individuals can help were graphically displayed:  landscape with native grasses; recycle electronics; adjust thermostats for two degrees warmer in summer and two degrees cooler in winter; switch from paper or plastic to cloth shopping bags; drive less, carpool, walk and bike more; say “no” to paper, the bulk of landfill, by using fewer kitchen paper products and going on-line to pay bills and stop junk mail. Each action would reduce carbon emissions if widely adopted. I have already changed some of my bad habits, but will individual actions be enough?

In September 2011 I wrote the following reply to a high school friend who had expressed doubt about human beings causing global warming:

Ever since about 1750, when the Industrial Revolution began, we have been burning coal and oil to power factories and trains. Adding automobiles and planes in the 20th century increased the use of fossil fuels enormously. There was an invisible effect that no one noticed at first: carbon dioxide, a product of combustion, was accumulating in the atmosphere. As the world population has tripled in the last 100 years and consumed more food (rice farming and cattle belching send tons of methane to the upper atmosphere each day), a blanket of greenhouse gases has formed that makes our globe measurably warmer.

There have been cycles of cooling and warming in the past, but scientists studying the rapid rise in global temperatures during our lifetime say that natural variability cannot account for what is happening now. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change is a reliable source for these facts: A researcher at Caltech, Nate Lewis, says “the composition of the earth’s atmosphere has been relatively unchanged for twenty million years, but in the last hundred years we have begun to dramatically transform it and change the heat balance between the earth and the sun in ways that could profoundly affect every plant, animal and human on this planet.”

So far the average temperature has risen “only” 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1750, but that rise “has been accompanied by a significant increase in the incidence of floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires” according to Sigma Xi, a scientific research society in their 2007 report, “Confronting Climate Change,” We have certainly seen evidence of this effect in 2011. Since we can’t stop CO2 emissions cold, if they continue to grow, reports Sigma Xi, “the cumulative warming by 2100 will be between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial conditions.” That much warming could trigger sea level rises, droughts and floods on a biblical scale.

One of the best books I’ve found to help me understand what’s going on is Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I think you would enjoy reading it. Let’s keep this conversation going—it’s important! I thank you for challenging me to learn more.




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