Climate and weather: Is this the new normal?

SugarBeach_splash_pad_jet_arrangement_P1050781

Feeling hot this summer and need to cool off? It’s not just you. By Glogger [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Over the past week or so, I saw headline after headline reporting on extremes: heat waves in the Arctic, in England, in Japan. Wildfires in California and across Europe, including the Arctic circle. Drought in Australia. Extreme summer weather conditions around the world have suddenly become high-profile news, and none of it is encouraging.

 

It made me wonder: is this just a blip in the news cycle this month, or have we finally reached a point where we are no longer going to ignore the data, instead confronting how we will deal with the current global increase in temperature that has been predicted for decades? And then… the ongoing questions: Is this our new normal? Will it get worse? How will individuals and communities cope with local changes in temperature, rainfall, storms, sea level changes, wildfires, or other local climate features? How will my children’s generation be affected over the next 50 years? Will my habitat in the middle of North America become a climate refuge for people fleeing other parts of the country or the world, or will it, too, be permanently changed into an unrecognizable landscape (on a human time scale, not a geologic one)? How will Earth’s other species be impacted?

Greenhouse effect

Basics of how atmospheric gases are changing our climate. Image credit: NASA

I’m not a climate scientist, an ecologist, a physician, or an environmental consultant, so I don’t have the answers to my own questions. But I teach biology courses to college students, so I have followed the story and taught the basics of this topic for over a decade. It has always seemed clear to me that acknowledging that change is happening (global temperatures could rise about 2°C or more) and understanding why (exploding and unprecedented global human population growth has released lots of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere) will help us creatively limit the temperature increase and adapt our societies to the consequences. Reducing our carbon emissions and appreciating our tenuous relationship with Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, natural resources, and biodiversity can help us build a sustainable future.

But not if the Earth is on fire, both literally and figuratively.

If wildfires decimate landscapes and human communities and disrupt ecosystems beyond hope of short-term recovery; if the polar ice caps melt and change the ocean and the reflectivity of Earth’s surface; if the oceans become too acidic, too warm, or too deep to support biodiversity and coastal human communities; if human settlement and agriculture destabilize tropical forests to the point that terrestrial biodiversity and climate-generating forces are irrevocably lost; if droughts and violent storms remove all hope of stable agriculture and human housing; if extreme temperatures exceed the limits of human physiology and derail plant and animal communities we rely on for food, shelter, and household goods; if our local, regional, national, and world leaders don’t work together to create policy for supporting sustainable solutions…. then we will be facing a global environmental struggle that was predicted, but that we did not act on in time. The Earth will keep on spinning, and life will evolve in a changing climate. There will be winners and probably many losers. The big questions remain: are these problems avoidable, and will our own species prove adaptable to the changes?

Now for some good news—people around the world are starting to respond. New technologies to reduce our demand on burning fossil fuels (which releases stored carbon to the atmosphere faster than it can be locked back up in reserves) are becoming more feasible and popular in concept. The United Nations Paris Climate Agreement offers strategies for international cooperation to meet new goals for sustainability. (Notably—and regrettably, in my opinion—under its current political structure, the United States has retreated from its former leadership role in this area and vowed last year to exit the Paris Climate Agreement.) Most powerfully, we have more anecdotes from people and communities caught in the crossfire of changing conditions. These very human stories grab our attention in the way raw data never can and—-I hope—are starting to break through the collective consciousness to reach people as a wake-up call to awareness and action. In reporting these stories, some news agencies are even self-assessing how they want to cover climate and local weather events. The old standard of “presenting both sides of an argument” surrounding climate change in some contexts was a disservice to the field, sowing unreasonable doubt about consensus data. Hopefully, we can now raise concern, but also instill support for positive changes we can make to minimize the fallout from all that data brought to life around the world.

Some people greet news about climate change with a shrug, or flat-out denial. I can’t fix that. As a biologist, an educator, and a parent, however, I care a great deal about how this story will play out, and I can continue to spread the word about the problem and advocate for changes that make sense. It’s easy to feel discouraged, worried, or downright scared—especially if a wildfire is licking at your back door, or the ocean’s tides are encroaching on your home and streets. Overall, I still feel optimistic that we can make a difference and create a new, bright chapter in the story of human’s existence on Earth. As a new school year approaches, and many of us are gearing up for new adventures in learning, I hope the global community continues to watch, listen, and learn more about climate change—and then act positively for a sustainable future for all of us.

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My own photo (©2018) of a pond at sunset during a refreshing break from summer’s heat. Caring about the environment benefits more than just our own species.

 

I can’t possibly list every resource related to climate change, but here are a few additional recent news articles, as well as links to general information.

Thanks for reading!

 

More recent news (in addition to the links in the text above)

• “The Refugees That the World Barely Pays Attention To” Tim McDonald, NPR Goats and Soda, June 20, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/06/20/621782275/the-refugees-that-the-world-barely-pays-attention-to

• “Why Air Conditioning Is a Life-Saver—And a Danger.” Justin Worland, TIME, July 19, 2018. http://time.com/5342768/air-conditioning-heat-waves-climate-change/

• “Britain, Can We—Really—Talk About This Weather We’re Having?” Adam Corner, New York Times, July 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/opinion/britain-heatwave-climate-change.html

• “Record-Breaking Heat and Fires are Worsened by Climate Change, Scientists Say.” CBS News. July 28, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/record-breaking-heat-and-fires-are-worsened-by-climate-change-scientists-say/

• “The Carr Fire Is a Terrifying Glimpse into California’s Future.” Sacramento Bee Editorial Board. July 28, 2018. http://amp.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article215669280.html

• “Ocean Acidification Is Having Major Impact on Marine Life.” Science Daily. July 28, 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180728083507.htm

• “When the Weather Is Extreme, Is Climate Change To Blame?” Laurel Wamsley, NPR, July 29, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/29/633203732/when-the-weather-is-extreme-is-climate-change-to-blame

• “Why U.S. Lawmakers Failed to Act on Climate Change Decades Ago” PBS NewsHour, July 29, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-u-s-lawmakers-failed-to-act-on-climate-change-decades-ago

Some general resources

• On global temperature changes: “Global temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2017.” NASA Climate Change. Jan. 2018:

 

• General guide to climate change from the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco, California: http://www.exploratorium.edu/climate/index.html

• U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Change Overview: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/climate-information/climate-change-and-variability

• On the economics of climate change: “Climate Change Overview” World Bank, June 21, 2018. http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climatechange/overview

• For mountains of data and policy considerations: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): http://www.ipcc.ch/index.htm

 

One thought on “Climate and weather: Is this the new normal?

  1. Pingback: When plants make headlines | Mulled Science

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