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Op-ed column: We have a climate crisis

Freak storm, heat wave show global warming is real, action is needed

Sunday, July 22, 2012
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Forest Byrd/For The Sunday Gazette
Forest Byrd/For The Sunday Gazette

Last fall, I was at a benefit event for local victims of Hurricane Irene. In a strange twist of fate, it happened to be the night of a “freak” October blizzard, burying our town, Averill Park, in snow just days before Halloween. As our cozy hamlet congregated in the firehouse, one of the speakers opened with a joke: “So how about that global warming, huh?” The crowd laughed. Because, really — how could there be global warming if there’s a blizzard? It was lost on everyone that having to rebuild post-tropical-storm-deluge isn’t something that generally happens in upstate New York.

To many, the hurricane, the “freak” snowstorm, the warm winter and this brutally hot summer don’t mean a thing. First, something happens that appears to contradict global warming — like a blizzard — and that’s proof to the climate-change-denier that the science is bunk. Point out that one weather event doesn’t disprove anything, and they turn it around: Suddenly, the mounting evidence of our warming trend becomes just a mountain of isolated events.

Summing up the evidence

Oh, and by the way, that mounting evidence? This should sum it up: This year so far, the U.S. has broken seven times as many hot weather records as cold ones. For the last few years, it’s been a 2-to-1 ratio. There’s no universal agreement among scientists on climate change, of course — it’s just 99 percent of them that agree: Climate change is real, and we are causing it.

No, the oceans are not going to turn New York into Atlantis. But if climate change continues unabated, Earth is going to reach a tipping point, which means our beloved Northeastern climate will be history. Beyond the invasive species and the transformation of our forests, we should expect the continued spread of Lyme disease and West Nile Virus as New York’s flora and fauna shift with the temperature — a little more mundane than Lady Liberty up to her waist in the ocean, but disastrous nonetheless.

More disturbing: As surface temperature rises and evaporation happens faster, global precipitation will increase too. “Freak” storms won’t be so “freak” anymore — explaining how it’s possible to have a snowstorm in a world “allegedly” heating up. And if the sea rises a foot in the next 50 years — the “lowball” estimate — we’ll be even more vulnerable to these storms. Whereas Hurricane Irene was just weak enough for New York City to escape major flooding, if the ocean starts out 12 inches higher, we’ll see Katrina-like catastrophes beyond the Gulf Coast.

Government inaction

Now, the politics: Climate change has only gotten worse over the last 15 years, yet relatively little has been done about it, thanks to the government.

Yes, we need to conserve energy individually. And yes, Al Gore has a carbon footprint of his own. That’s not the problem. The problem is that our government refuses to lead by effectively incentivizing our business engine to go green when it comes to energy, cars, homes and other products that — while perhaps not immediately profitable — are vital to avoid slipping into a dystopian future of climate catastrophe.

We actually live in a time when government is doing relatively little to solve our problems. For the country that went to the moon, that built the atom bomb, and mobilized against the Axis, it’s disappointing that we’re willfully sitting on our hands because of a debate settled years ago. I guess our fear of seeming socialist is getting us again.

For what it’s worth: The military, not exactly a bastion of Marxism, already officially preparing for a future of climate change, doesn’t seem to have time for this nonsense.

So let’s say we agree with both the scientists and the military, and government decides to lead the way. Won’t preparing for catastrophe cost a lot?

It will, at first, but that’s OK. We can create an entire new green industry by revamping our energy production and usage before the task grows too challenging.

On the scary side: If this continues, not only are we going to have to hold more benefits (or raise taxes) to deal with cleanup, but we’ll also have to pay for getting used to the new normal. The state Energy Research and Development Authority predicts several major economic problems in the future: With more seawater in the lower Hudson, water contamination and waste management issues are expected to multiply. And upstate, our agriculture — for instance, dairy farms, maple syrup producers and apple orchards — will suffer as New York gets hotter. And, of course, there are the added costs of extreme weather preparation and recovery.

I know people don’t like when government “picks winners and losers,” but that’s not something that we can avoid. We all lose if government doesn’t support green industry — big time. Worse, our grandkids will have to explain to their grandkids why we ignored virtually all scientists and they now live in a world where New York has the climate of Atlanta, and Atlanta that of Mexico City.

Political will

It strikes me as unbelievable that still only six in 10 Americans believe global warming is actually taking place — which is exactly the problem. Government needs to act where business doesn’t find it profitable to do so. But in order to do that, we need the political will.

So when it gets to be winter again — even if we get a crazy storm or two — please don’t forget the heat wave of 2012, or 2011 and so forth. One hurricane or hot week doesn’t make for global warming. It’s the thousands of records, the hundreds of extreme weather events, and the general trend that we’re heading toward an irreversible brink, where the next generation will be fated to simply clean up after this one.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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