Thursday, April 20, 2017

Climate Crisis Fast and Slow

A river doesn't run through it anymore
In all those radio and TV intros, among Superman's stated powers was the ability to "change the course of mighty rivers" which actually seems of a different order to the next one, "bends steel in his bare hands."

It wasn't Superman however that changed the course of a river in the Yukon of Canada.  It was the climate crisis.  But it did so with super speed.

Observers continue to express surprise at the speed with which glaciers are melting, sometimes right before their eyes.  A glacier melting produces a lot of water, and this time it was enough in the right place to actually change the flow of a river from north to south, from the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

It is, noted the NY Times story, " [a] process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016."

Such a change--which is likely to be permanent--is beyond what Superman usually saw:

"Changes in the flow of rivers can have enormous consequences for the landscape and ecosystems of the affected areas, as well as water supplies. When the shift abruptly reduced water levels in Kluane Lake, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported, it left docks for lakeside vacation cabins — which can be reached only by water — high and dry.

The riverbed of the Slims River basin, now nearly dry, experienced frequent and extensive afternoon dust storms through the spring and summer of last year, the paper stated."

Physical changes, often permanent, directly caused by the effects of climate change, pop up increasingly around the world, though so far not in New York City or Washington where they might possibly be considered news.  Some, like failures in the permafrost that sinks Alaskan villages, or overflooding of small islands, make areas where people lived into areas where they don't.

Such physical impacts will continue, and are very likely to get bigger and more consequential.  There are similar effects in which climate crisis plays a part, as in the cycle of drought and drown that California is experiencing.  For us here on the North Coast, our route to the south on the only "major" highway (which in most parts of the country wouldn't really qualify as such)  is cut off completely by a rock slide onto 101, likely due to the effects of months of rain after years of drought.

The climate crisis also has a hand in another poor year for salmon, leading to the virtual cancellation of the salmon fishing season.  Many fewer young salmon are attributable to a hotter Pacific as well as warmer rivers with less flow in the drought years.

All of this is the steady background, relatively slow though accelerating results of the climate crisis.  More sudden are the consequences of global heating-powered storms, floods, heat waves, changes in atmospheric temps and flows that send frigid air to unfamiliar places.  These "natural disasters" already cost more in lives and money than terrorism or anything else.

Then there are the changes in when the seasons start, as well as the generally higher temperatures, all of which inevitably change animal lifecycles (including disease-bearing insects) and migration patterns.  Major disease problems at some point are all but inevitable.

All of this is well known, and much too ignored.  Especially since what is required, and what will increasingly be required to deal with these effects, are systems and people with the training and equipment to confront each emergency as it arises.  In any given year, these could be many, and several could be simultaneous.

These resources need to be ready and in place before bad things happen.  These resources are almost always maintained by governments, especially the federal government.

So at a time when the country should be building up these resources, the current regime is dismantling them.  Getting rid of skilled people with experience, knowledge and historical memory is fast and easy to do, and may look good on somebody's bottom line this year.  These include EPA and NASA experts as well as emergency and public health people. But once gone, when they are needed over the inexorable years they cannot be conjured up with a tweet and a prayer.

If it's true that the regime is getting pressure from interesting sources not to bail out of the Paris agreement on climate change, and if speculation is correct that they won't bail out completely, that's good but not enough.

First of all, the momentum by the federal government that jump-started clean energy as well as other direct efforts to confront the causes of global warming is slowing and in some cases reversing.

But also, the ability to confront the effects of the climate crisis as they occur is being destroyed.  When we should be building up these resources, the regime is tearing them down, or more accurately, to vary the metaphor, tearing them out by the roots.

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