Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Warming Wednesday: hot times ahead

We had a warm, sunny day today, the first in weeks. It's been a brutally foggy, windy, cold spring in San Francisco. To check my impressions, I just looked at the National Weather Service data for the last month. It's true: since May 5, every day the temperature has registered at or (mostly) below normal for the date. Not by a huge amount, but the pattern is strong.

But Stanford University scientists insist this is not what's ahead for the area.

... the Stanford team concluded that many tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America could see "the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat" in the next two decades. Middle latitudes of Europe, China and North America – including the United States – are likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years, the researchers found.

"According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years."

My emphasis. The Stanford researchers didn't home in on California, but a recent Newsweek cover story did.

Picture California a few decades from now, a place so hot and arid the state’s trademark orange and lemon trees have been replaced with olive trees that can handle the new climate. Alternating floods and droughts have made it impossible for the reservoirs to capture enough drinking water. The picturesque Highway 1, sections of which are already periodically being washed out by storm surges and mudslides, will have to be rerouted inland, possibly through a mountain.

These aren’t scenes from another deadly-weather thriller like The Day After Tomorrow. They’re all changes that California officials believe they need to brace for within the next decade or two.

All these scientific projections raise the political question: can our institutions deal with threats of this unprecedented sort or are we doomed to suffer them with minimal mitigation and adaptation because our political arrangements fail us?

On the political front, the news inspires more chills than our recent weather. Writing in the The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert makes as unequivocal a condemnation of the administration as I can imagine.

When Obama took office, he appointed some of the country’s most knowledgeable climate scientists to his Administration, and it seemed for a time as if he might take his responsibility to lead on this issue seriously. That hope has faded. The President sat on the sidelines in 2009 and 2010 while congressional leaders tried to put together majorities in favor of climate legislation. Since the midterm elections, Obama has barely mentioned climate change, and just about every decision that his Administration has made on energy and the environment has been wrong.

Again my emphasis. And the other guys are worse, most of the Republican presidential hopefuls claiming to question the science of climate change.

This is the great challenge to our democracy in this time.