Climate Story of the Year:
Extreme weather is the gamechanger
by Joe Romm
♦ America's deadly ‘new normal’: 25 weather disasters in 2 years
This year brought staggering weather extremes, record loss of Arctic ice and a growing body of scientific analysis linking the two. Those extremes, plus Superstorm Sandy, raised public concern about the immediate threat posed by climate change, providing a palpable debunking of the mistaken belief that climate change will impact only future generations or people in faraway lands.
The superstorm — which scientists explained was made far more destructive by manmade climate change – hit the media where it lives and may have been a game changer for many of them, as Bloomberg Businessweek's cover suggests.
Sandy may have also reset the politics of climate change. The official nomination today of climate hawk John Kerry for Secretary of State is a hopeful sign that President Obama will (finally) raise the salience of this most preventable of existential threats to modern human civilization.
A year-end wrap up from Associated Press shows that 2012 should not have been a surprise to anyone who has been listening to climate scientists:
In 2012 many of the warnings scientists have made about global warming went from dry studies in scientific journals to real-life video played before our eyes: Record melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. U.S. cities baking at 95 degrees or hotter. Widespread drought. Flooding. Storm surge inundating swaths of New York City.
All of that was predicted years ago by climate scientists and all of that happened in 2012. Indeed, 2012 showed that the record-smashing weather extremes of 2011 weren’t a fluke, they were a pattern. America’s heartland lurched from one extreme to the other without stopping at “normal.” Historic flooding in 2011 gave way to devastating drought in 2012. U.S. National Weather Service acting director Laura Furgione states:
The normal has changed, I guess. The normal is extreme.
As meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters puts it in his 2012 summing up:
It was another year of incredible weather extremes unparalleled in American history during 2012. Eleven billion-dollar weather disasters hit the U.S., a figure exceeded only by the fourteen such disasters during the equally insane weather year of 2011.
Even without including the 2012 disasters, Munich Re, a top reinsurer, found for the first time a “climate-change footprint” in the rapid rise of North American extreme weather catastrophes:
“Climate-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flooding, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild-fire dynamics in parts of North America.”
Many top climatologists agree. Dr. Kevin Trenberth explains:
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be…
♦ Systemic Change
A growing number of climatologists are warning that we have undergone a systemic change. According to climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf of Germany's celebrated Potsdam Institute:
These are clearly not freak events but systemic changes. With all the extremes that, really, every year in the last 10 years have struck different parts of the globe, more and more people absolutely realize that climate change is here and already hitting us.
A growing body of scientific research links this systemic change to global warming, in particular to the enormous loss of Arctic ice, far more rapidly than any climate model had predicted. Human activity is utterly reshaping the Arctic as this remarkable figure makes clear. The sea ice is melting much, much faster than even the best climate models had projected. The reason is most likely unmodeled amplifying feedbacks. And much more change is yet to come. The NOAA warns that climate change is drivinf the Arctic into a new state with rapid ice-loss and permafrost warming. The two most worrisome highlights are that record high permafrost temperatures occurred below the tundra of northernmost Alaska, and that the duration of melting was the longest observed yet on the Greenland ice sheet.
If — or apparently when — the Greenland ice sheet disintegrates, sea levels will rise 20 feet. The process is accelerating to a critical “tipping point”. The tundra is a frozen locker of carbon whose defrosting will further accelerate warming. Carbon feedback from thawing permafrost will likely add 0.4°F – 1.5°F to total global warming this century.
More and more cryoscientists are warning of a death spiral, with “a near ice-free Arctic in summer”. Such a dramatic change to the northern hemisphere would inevitably have an even more extreme impact on our weather — and on all of humanity.
Indeed, in 2011, the climate story of the year was that warming-driven drought and extreme weather have emerged as a key threat to global food security. Oxfam warned last year that corn or maize would see a 177% rise in price by 2030 due to climate change and other factors. Further modeling this year of the impact of warming-driven extreme weather shocks leads Oxfam to conclude corn prices could increase a staggering 500% by 2030.
So perhaps the climate story of the year is that Homo sapiens (aka the slowly boiling brainless frog?) let another year go by without serious action to reverse carbon pollution trends, moving us ever closer to irreversible tipping points that would cause widespread harm to hundreds of millions if not billions. When will the madness stop?