Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Climate Crisis: Extremes and Extremists

Summer begins with an intense heat wave in parts of the western U.S.   Monday record-breaking heat in Phoenix, Arizona pushed the 115F mark.  Several deaths are already attributable to the heat.

Such temperatures are the beginning of a practical education in extreme heat.  Because at a certain point it is not just hotter.  It is extreme, with its particular and extreme consequences.  For example: "Health experts say even a difference of a few degrees outside can cause the body temperature to spike, potentially affecting the brain and other organs."

Update 6/23: Scientific American: "As many as 3,331 people annually could die from heat waves by 2080 in New York City alone if no steps are taken to adapt to warming temperatures and reduce emissions, a new study warns."

Extreme heat is quiet --it isn't as dramatically obvious as a tornado or a monsoon.  But as a Weather Channel feature titled You Will Never Guess What Kind of Weather is Deadliest says:"Violent winds from a hurricane or tornado, lightning from thunderstorms, and rising floodwaters come to mind. But the weather event that actually produces the greatest number of fatalities is heat."

Extreme heat also has consequences for the natural and human-made environment, including infrastructure.  In part of Arizona yesterday it was even too hot for airplanes to fly safely.

Despite the now routine warnings that come with news of extreme heat--including that due to the climate crisis, there's going to be more of it--extremists still deny the connection, and are therefore less likely to prepare for this onrushing future, personally and at any level of community.

How is this possible? To admit this is something other than some freak weather is to accept the reality of the climate crisis--which is to begin to accept the climate crisis future.  And to realize that there is a discouragingly noisy and contemptuous group that constitutionally and perhaps professionally, deny it and any efforts to address it, and do so with violence.

Even now, it is possible to avoid some of the most ominous signs of the climate crisis.  Maybe news about the increasingly alarming Arctic warming is just too far away.  Or the invisible carbon pollution, that scientists at the same Hawaii observatory that made the first carbon measurements in the 1950s saw spiking to the  level of 400 parts per million--a measurement since confirmed by every observatory in the world, including Antarctica.  This is the highest level in 400 million years, and is unlikely to fall below this level in the lifetime of anyone alive today, implying grave consequences.

Even global temperature rise--which not surprisingly broke records for the 13th straight month in May--are not obvious everywhere.  But the consequences are increasingly obvious, and the situation is so pronounced that scientists are no longer shy about linking effects like the recent European flooding to global heating as a cause.

Some of the tepid or inconstant response to the climate crisis is probably because it's a brand new danger, at least consciously.  Seeing its dimensions, its ramifications to consider when making decisions, requires big adjustments.

So maybe it isn't too surprising that Americans are once again moving in greater numbers to the South, looking for lower living costs and jobs, even though that's where heat and related factors are going to be pronounced.  And again they're moving to Florida, where its already inundated coasts and general low-lying relationship to sea level rise get added to heat and the predicted ferocity of hurricanes.

But a lot is stubborn denial--and denial by its nature is stubborn.  Some denial is healthy, and might even be courage, although in extreme heat, bravado can get you killed.  But a lot of denial is not healthy, and is something like cowardice.

Denial is a powerful habit, a protective mechanism against fear and the necessity of changing to confront dangers.  In his long professional life from the 1930s into the 21st century, American writer Arthur Miller concluded in his autobiography that nothing is more politically powerful and culturally pervasive than denial.

Extremists who huddle together in systematic denial may sooner or later need to confront phenomena like extreme heat, extreme storms, extreme fires, while they deny the causal relationship that could help prepare for dealing better with these effects, and help address the causes that might prevent even worse consequences in the farther future.

By now we know they are always with us, in however dwindling number, and like the extremists who with a straight face can vote against denying guns to terrorists, their residual power--and the power of denial--can still warp our world.

But those who know better and are young must take leadership in saving the future. In a different context recently, history filmmaker Ken Burns quoted Abraham Lincoln, but one part of the quote especially pertains to how we choose to address the climate crisis future: "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”

No comments: