A need for al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sources

The Covington News - - Opinion -

Ex­cuse me, folks, but the weather is try­ing to tell us some­thing. Lis­ten care­fully, and you can al­most hear a parched, raspy voice whis­per­ing, “What part of ‘hottest month ever’ do you peo­ple not un­der­stand?”

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, July was in­deed the hottest month in the con­tigu­ous United States since record-keep­ing be­gan more than a cen­tury ago. That dis­tinc­tion was pre­vi­ously held by July 1936, which came at the height of the Dust Bowl calamity that dev­as­tated the Amer­i­can heart­land.

The av­er­age tem­per­a­ture last month was 77.6 de­grees — a full 3.3 de­grees warmer than the 20th-cen­tury norm for July. This fol­lows the warm­est 12-month pe­riod ever recorded in the U.S., and it con­tin­ues a long-term trend that is ob­vi­ous to all ex­cept those who stub­bornly close their eyes: of the 10 hottest years on record, nine have oc­curred since 2000.

James E. Hansen, who heads NASA’s God­dard In­sti­tute for Space Stud­ies, summed it up in a piece he wrote for The Wash­ing­ton Post last week: “The fu­ture is now. And it is hot.”

Hansen wrote that when he tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress in 1988 and painted a “grim pic­ture” of the con­se­quences of cli­mate change, he was ac­tu­ally be­ing too op­ti­mistic. His pro­jec­tions of how rapidly tem­per­a­tures would rise were ac­cu­rate, he wrote, but he “failed to fully ex­plore how quickly that av­er­age rise would drive an in­crease in ex­treme weather.”

Yes, sci­en­tists are fi­nally as­sert­ing a di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween long-term cli­mate trends and short-term weather events. This was al­ways a con­ve­nient dodge for cli­mate change de­niers. There might be a warm­ing trend over decades or cen­turies, they would say, but no spe­cific heat wave, hur­ri­cane or hail­storm could defini­tively be at­trib­uted to cli­mate change.

“To the con­trary, our anal­y­sis shows that, for the ex­treme hot weather of the re­cent past, there is vir­tu­ally no ex­pla­na­tion other than cli­mate change,” Hansen wrote. “The deadly Euro­pean heat wave of 2003, the fiery Rus­sian heat wave of 2010 and cat­a­strophic droughts in Texas and Ok­la­homa last year can each be at­trib­uted to cli­mate change.”

Hansen went on, “The odds that nat­u­ral vari­abil­ity cre­ated these ex­tremes are mi­nus­cule, van­ish­ingly small. To count on those odds would be like quit­ting your job and play­ing the lottery ev­ery morn­ing to pay the bills.”

If you won the lottery yes­ter­day, feel free to stop read­ing. If you didn’t, stick with me a bit longer.

The other es­cape hatch for de­niers is the ques­tion of why the Earth’s at­mos­phere is warm­ing. Yes, there may be cli­mate change, this ar­gu­ment goes, but we know there have been Ice Ages in the past and other big tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tions. What we’re wit­ness­ing is due to nat­u­ral pro­cesses — per­haps some long-term cy­cle we are too fee­ble to com­pre­hend. You can’t prove that hu­man ac­tiv­ity, specif­i­cally the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els, is to blame.

A Gallup poll last year found that this view — es­sen­tially, “You can’t pin it on our SUVs” — has been gain­ing trac­tion in this coun­try, even as it has be­come dis­cred­ited else­where. Be­tween 2007 and 2010, the per­cent­age of U.S. adults who be­lieved hu­man ac­tiv­ity con­trib­uted to warm­ing de­clined from 60 per­cent to 48 per­cent.

I wrote a col­umn last fall when Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley physi­cist Richard Muller, one of the lead­ing skep­tics on cli­mate change, re­versed field and an­nounced that his own care­ful re­search in­di­cated the at­mos­phere is, in­deed, warm­ing rapidly. Last week, Muller an­nounced in The New York Times that “I’m now go­ing a step fur­ther: Hu­mans are al­most en­tirely the cause.”

Muller, who heads the Berke­ley Earth Sur­face Tem­per­a­ture project, wrote that he and his team tried cor­re­lat­ing the ob­served warm­ing with phe­nom­ena such as so­lar ac­tiv­ity and vol­canic erup­tions. “By far the best match was to the record of at­mo­spheric car­bon diox­ide,” he wrote.

The amount of heat-trap­ping car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere is ris­ing be­cause of hu­man ac­tiv­ity — the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els. The more we burn, Muller wrote, the faster the at­mos­phere will warm.

And the cra­zier weather will get.

We can’t do any­thing about the green­house gases we’ve al­ready spewed into the at­mos­phere, but we can min­i­mize the dam­age we do in the fu­ture. We can launch a se­ri­ous ini­tia­tive to de­velop and de­ploy al­ter­na­tive sources of en­ergy. We can de­cide what kind of en­vi­ron­ment we leave to our grand­chil­dren.

I’d like to hear Pres­i­dent Obama and Mitt Rom­ney talk about the fu­ture of the planet. What about you?

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Eu­gene Robin­son is a Pulitzer Prize win­ning colum­nist and writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post. He can be reached at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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