Monday, August 29, 2016

Ducking climate change

(Have sent a version of this to the editor)

An old high school friend, who is a practicing pathologist in India, visited with me in mid-August, just as the temperature started its sharp climb during the dog days of summer. I joked that she brought with her the Indian conditions. Talk about the weather soon morphed into discussing climate change.

My friend, like many hundreds of millions in India, is intensely familiar with the recent unusual meteorological happenings there. Last December, for instance, the city of Chennai--home to both our parents--received rainfall amounts that vastly exceeded all kinds of records and the city was flooded. (I addressed this in a column that was published on January 6, 2016.)

In late spring, more than a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population struggled with drought and water shortage. The conditions worsened in the summer, when the country recorded unbearably hot temperatures, and the heatwave turned out to be a killer as much as the heatwave of 2015 was. Then, when the monsoon arrived after all the heat and dust, it poured and flooded. In Kaziranga National Park in India’s northeast, more than twenty rhinos, which had been making quite a recovery after near extinction, were killed in the monsoon floods.

Most scientists and lay people alike in India are in agreement that these extreme weather episodes, year after year, are a result of climatic conditions that are getting weirder and not predictable as they might have been in the past.

Here in the US too, it is not a mere accident that record-setting rain fell in Louisiana, for instance. Only months before, we witnessed Houston deluged by rains. When records are being shattered in places across the world, across different parameters of heat, rain, drought, and cold, then surely these are not isolated events but a part of a larger story.

When it comes to that larger story of global climate change, it is not a case of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Instead, the cumulative effects of Vegas and everywhere else means that all of us anywhere on the planet are feeling the effects. The more extreme the resulting weather events, the more will be the destruction of life and property as well.

My friend and I got to talking about what can be done. “Look at all the lights here” she remarked. Homes were aglow in my neighborhood from the light inside and from the street lamps. Artificial light is so much in abundance in the US that we are worried about light pollution that prevents most Americans from sighting even our own home galaxy—the Milky Way. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is an abstract idea for many urban kids who rarely see get to see stars in the sky during their everyday lives.

It is quite a contrast in her country. "In India, a large population doesn’t even have electricity in their homes. Turning the lights off won’t help fight climate change" she said.

Developing countries like India have an immense problem to solve. When 300 million people in India lack basic electric light, leave alone air conditioners and refrigerators, the magnitude of the problem is easy to imagine. Even among those who are connected to the electricity grid, the power consumption per person is barely a fifth of the global average. The fulfillment of the dreams of the people will require a whole lot of energy. However, the use of coal and other carbon sources will further accelerate the climate weirding.

While India’s emissions are very low on a per-capita basis—about a tenth of US per capita emissions—it is already the third largest total emitter of carbon dioxide. As India’s economic engines rev up, if it follows the same fossil-fuel path that was traveled most recently by China, and by the developed countries including the US earlier on, then the explosive growth of carbon use will mean “game over”, and we might as well party like there will be no tomorrow.

Thus, as we move into the future, it is India—more than any other developed or developing country—that will practically determine our collective global fates with its decisions on clean and carbon-free energy sources.

It was an unbearably warm evening the day before my friend left. We walked up to the Willamette River and soaked our feet in the cool waters. About thirty young and old ducks floated and quacked all around us. Climate change could prevent future generations from enjoying such blissful nature. Here is to hoping that the natural world of tomorrow will be as good as, or even better than, the wonderful world that we inherited.


Ramesh said...

I am not at all certain that the floods in Chennai or the rains this monsoon are a clear reflection of climate change trends. It is easy to blame every natural calamity on weather as due to climate change. Climate change caused by global warming acts over the long term and not the very short term. Odd freakish weather happens all the time and their presence or absence is not a proof of man made global warming.

Chennai has seen floods like this every 15-20 years. I have myself seen twice before this one. Similarly unseasonal extreme cold weather is also not a proof that global warming is not happening (like some of the deniers observe).

Its the longer term trend that's the cause of great worry. That it is preventable, or at leased containable is the tragedy. And yes, India holds the key to the future. And after that Africa.

Sriram Khé said...

If you had ended your comment with a theme of "not certain" or something like correlation with causal relationship yet to be confirmed, you would have been on the safe side ... but, you ventured into more than that practically denying the link between these outsized weather events and climate change (the human-triggered one, that is)
Here is a recent report from the NOAA on the increasing frequency of once-in-500-years weather events ...
The Chennai rain/floods too were in that category of once in 500 years.
in Chennai worsened the impact of the rains. But, there is no denying that the 48 inches of rain November, the 19 inches of rain in one day in Neyveli, the 20 inches of rain in one day in Tambaram, ... are highly, highly, highly, unusual weather events. There is no way you have experienced those events in your life time in Tamil Nadu--because they have not happened in our life time

Of course, as I noted in that January column, the awful land use practices. One can only hope that Chennai and cities all around the world will at least get moving on mitigating measures that would help us adapt to the rapidly changing weather patterns that are related to global climate changes.

BTW, you didn't check the hyperlink to Kaziranga? I am so disappointed :( :(

Sriram Khé said...

crap ... I didn't realize that the mouse movement (laptop trackpad!) had messed up the text ... let's see if you (and any later commenters) are able to piece together the sentence pieces ;)

Sriram Khé said...

How about this:

"These are facts: Global warming is real, and almost entirely caused by human activities. Natural variability in temperature is minor compared with what we’re doing. This increase in temperature is causing the climate to change, in many ways that are not only predictable but actually observed. This in turn is causing other effects, like Arctic and Antarctic ice loss, sea level rise, coral bleaching, more extreme weather, and much, much more.
Again: Those are facts."

The extreme weather phenomena are very much part of this human-triggered climate change story.

"If we watch the trend, and not the wiggles, we see the impact of humanity on our planet. The temperature trend is actually quite clear now. And that trend is up.

As it will continue to be, unless we act. "

The complete essay here:

Mike Hoth said...

While I am in no way a climate change denier, I do continue to disagree with the certainty with which scientists claim humans are the majority cause of climate change. Part of that is Al Gore's fault for releasing a lie-filled documentary that got shoved in my face for 5 years. Seriously, I had three professors require me to watch it and take notes.

While the causality is a point I'd argue, there is no doubt in my mind that we are accelerating the change, worsening its effect, or doing both those things. Our emissions are not benign and they are not "too few to affect anything" as some claim. Our energy policy needs to change, and it needs to change soon. Nobody is going to fix China, India or Africa if the United States can't get its own act together.

IP-MD said...

Mike, you are right to be skeptical about the claims made by climate scientists. They have a poor track record of predictions related to global temperatures or other parameters.

The lessons to be learned from history are that major disruptions in climate can occur quite suddenly during our lifetimes. But these are usually the result of a catastrophic natural event, such as the eruption of a volcano. For example, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused global temperatures to fall by 1.2 C the next year. Similarly, the eruption of Tambora in 1815 was followed in 1816 by the "Year Without a Summer". But the earth has many built-in negative feedback mechanisms such that in all such cases, temperatures return to normal within a few years.

Sriram Khé said...

Yep, unless the US walks the necessary walk, the rest of the (non-European) world will shrug this off. But then before we walk the walk, we have to begin to talk the needed talk :(

Nope, the track record is not "poor" at all. We need to tease out the trend from the variation. This one minute video does a classic job of that:

"the earth has many built-in negative feedback mechanisms" is incorrect. A volcanic eruption or an earthquake is not any built-in negative feedback mechanism that is tied to climate change. There is zero relationship. Those seismic activities are completely different.
Of course, a huge volcanic eruption like the one that you describe can/will have phenomenal impacts on global temperatures, with the emissions simply blocking out the sun for a long time. But, surely you are not wishing for such eruptions, right? Those are terrible not merely for humans but also for everything that makes up life as we know it on earth. Wishing for such a volcanic activity to take care of climate change? What next? A wish that a giant meteorite should crash into earth and take care of our climate issues? Seriously?

IP-MD said...

No, the point is that a large-scale volcanic eruption has a higher probability of occurring in the next 50-100 years than a comparable large-scale disruption in climate due to "global warming".

Earth's temperatures have been much higher in the past. They have also been much lower. We are currently in a "warm" interglacial period between ice ages. These are pretty much accepted facts.

Sriram Khé said...

The accepted fact is that, yes, in the past several hundred thousand years, CO2 levels correlated with the glacial cycles. There was that "feedback" mechanism.
However, natural causes do not account for the recent climate changes. This is where the GHG emissions since the Industrial Revolution is a huge factor. And the accelerated growth of China, fueled by carbon, has speeded up the level of greenhouse effect.
If beyond this, you wish to argue that we do not have any scientific evidence/consensus, then that will be merely relaying the arguments from a minor but politically loud denialist camp.

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