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Climate Change May be Readying to Split the Heavens over the U.S. Southeast — So What Can We Do?

None of us are bystanders when it comes to climate change. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all caught up in the most pressing trouble of our age. Our great burning of fossil fuels is steadily turning the Earth’s climate into something terrible. Once we realize this, the imperative for action becomes as clear and keen as a razor’s edge.

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Only a few weeks after severe rains inundated Louisiana, another powerful atmospheric bomb may be leveling its sights toward a broad region of Florida and the US Southeast. Rainfall amounts in excess of one foot are expected over portions of Florida as a tropical depression is expected to strengthen into a tropical storm as it churns in from a record-hot Gulf of Mexico. Coastal portions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina may see 5-10 inches of rain over the coming few days. And long range forecasts indicate a possible tropical storm or weak hurricane threat to interests from the Outer Banks through New England by late this week.

The storm, fueled by unprecedented levels of ocean and atmospheric heat and moisture, has the potential to dump rains at rates capable of overwhelming local infrastructure. If this happens, vehicles and homes will once more be under the gun for severe and damaging flooding in a summer that has seen a seemingly endless litany of such events across the U.S. and around the world.

Florida Floods Inbound

(NOAA QPC forecast shows that parts of coastal Florida near Tampa could experience more than a foot of rainfall this week as a tropical depression moves in from the Gulf. Heavy rains are predicted to hammer most of Florida and the U.S. southeastern coastline. Such rainfall events are fueled by global warming which generates a heavier load of moisture held aloft in the Earth’s atmosphere, producing more extreme rainfall events.  Image source: NOAA.)

Behind the 8-Ball on Climate Change

Events like these increasingly drive home the point — whether we like it or not, we are now entering a new climate era. How dangerous and destructive that era will be still depends on our actions as individuals, communities, and nations.

Earlier this month, the IPCC issued two stark announcements. Though probably not a surprise to readers and researchers here, these statements will likely come as a shock to most of the climate-concerned world. The first statement indicated that the Paris 2 degrees Celsius target could not now be achieved without a rapid reduction of fossil-fuel burning to about zero combined with the application of a number of yet-to-be-developed negative carbon emissions technologies that would draw some of that massive, heat-trapping CO2 overburden out of the air. The second statement declared that given the likely difficulty of hitting the 2 C target, and considering the fact that 2016 will probably have already hit near 1.2 C above 1880s temperatures, the feasibility of keeping warming below Paris’ provisional 1.5 C target is now highly questionable.

In other words, even the fast-feedback biased Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity models show that the window for 1.5 C is probably closed and the 2 C window is slamming shut pretty fast. To this point, we should give a concerned nod to Hansen et al.’s shot-across-the-bow assessment of paleoclimate, where the 405 parts per million CO2 and 490 ppm CO2e currently in the Earth’s atmosphere hints that long-term warming from simply a maintained level of these greenhouse gasses is about 3-4 C (see How Sensitive is our Climate?).

Regardless of how climate sensitivity ultimately pans out, the world is in kind of a rough spot with some bad climate outcomes likely already locked in. Sadly, we are experiencing the first forays of these now, as the past week brings news of a freak lightning strike killing hundreds of Arctic-native reindeer in Norway, while three tropical cyclones formed simultaneously in the record-hot Atlantic. Tropical Depression 9 is expected to dump a foot or more of rainfall over parts of Florida just a couple of weeks after Louisiana experienced a flood disaster whose damages now rival that of Hurricane Andrew — resulting in a massive housing crisis with 86,000 people seeking federal aid.

Lake Mead New Record Lows

(Warming the Earth’s atmosphere increases both evaporation and precipitation intensity, resulting in more extreme floods and droughts. We see this in various record rain and drought events now ranging the world. At Lake Mead, Nevada — a key U.S. reservoir — water levels again hit new record lows this year, nearing the mandatory end-year rationing level of 1,075 feet. Image source: U.S. Lakes Online.)

At the same time, and on the other end of the hydrological scale from Louisiana (and possibly Florida), Lake Mead, Nevada, after suffering from a decades-long Colorado River drought, is edging closer to the mandatory rationing line where multiple states will see water supplies cut. Practically everywhere we look, from species migrating toward the poles, to ever-more-extreme weather, to the worst global coral-bleaching event on record, to the burning Amazon rainforest, to the thawing tundra, to diseases like Zika leaping out of the tropics, to algae blooms spreading dead zones into rivers, lakes, and oceans, we can see these climate impacts growing stronger and starker.

Meanwhile, near-future vulnerabilities are becoming clearer. In one example, the Department of Energy just issued a new report showing, as has been stated here on this blog many times, that our current centralized power infrastructure is very vulnerable to even relatively moderate levels of warming, related extreme weather, and sea level rise.

The trouble is getting locked in, but it becomes even worse if we continue to emit carbon, to burn fossil fuels. So given this harsh context — a context that should be a call to action for everyone living upon the warming Earth — there is now clear and present cause to both ask and answer the question, What can we do? How can we respond before climate chaos sets in and it becomes difficult or even impossible to act effectively?

Mobilization for Climate Action

Many years ago, I asked the same question of myself — what could I do?

Back in 2011, after having kept a close watch on the emerging threat that was climate change and after having read James Hansen’s seminal book, Storms of My Grandchildren, I decided that something had to be done. 350.org was holding a ‘stop the pipeline’ rally that November and I signed up to participate. I wanted to get arrested along with climate leader Bill McKibben, but I let myself be swayed by family concerns. So braver and more noble souls than I stood on that thin line. Nonetheless, I did my own small part. More importantly, I returned from the rally even more resolved and, in a few short months, I started this blog. My climate activism has continued ever since.

Stop the Pipeline

(350.org and NRDC’s spearhead effort to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline was ultimately successful due to broad and ardent climate activism. However, in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, a great number of other pipelines, wells, and coal mines will have to be blocked or halted. It’s a simple fact, really, that we need to choose between a livable future and continuing to burn dangerous fuels. And that’s the reason why political participation and activism is so very important at this time. Image source: On Earth.)

Another person I respect, my father-in-law, is a long-standing member of the Sierra Club. If you’re not familiar, the Sierra Club is a 126-year-old environmental organization that supports an active transition away from fossil fuels and is currently involved in various anti-fracking and coal plant shutdown actions. This summer, my father-in-law participated in county meetings in King George, Virginia in an effort to get fracking banned in that region. For some reason, fossil-fuel interests are keen to frack King George. Apparently, there’s a decent amount of tight oil in this part of Virginia. In any case, my father-in-law helped to get strong anti-fracking regulations put in place for the county — so strong that the fracking interests are now, like TransCanada, threatening to sue.

We Can Do This Together

My good friend Colorado Bob used to be an oil worker. He, like so many of us, was part of a system that generated the harms that are now coming. Bob is now one of the most outspoken advocates for climate awareness and action that I know. For years, he’s written and linked to internet articles on the subject of climate change. He’s an active voice on some of the most prominent climate forums, like Weather Underground and ClimateProgress to name just a couple. Bob’s out there every day doing something to raise awareness, to educate people, to get us all moving in the right direction. Many of the concerned people who frequent this blog like Greg, Wili, Cate, DT Lange, ThereAreSoManyThings, TheSecularJurist, Kevin, June, Mulga, Redsky, Leland Palmer, Spike, Bill h, mlparrish and so many more have done something similar.

NASA Modified poster

(Houston, we have a problem… NASA recently modified this World War II-era poster to illustrate the need for a global mobilization to prevent harm due to human-caused climate change. Join NASA and become a part of that necessary action today. Image source: NASA.)

There’s an active debate ongoing as to whether or not climate scientists should become political advocates for climate action. Underlying this debate is a notion that climate change is somehow an issue with sides — that there’s some kind of legit, moral, non-biased middle ground a scientifically informed person can take. The truth is that climate change simply will continue to happen and worsen if we keep burning fossil fuels, and that non-bias in this case can swiftly tip into immorality. Once it is realized that climate change will result in mass migration, mass destruction of wealth and property, and a high risk of mass loss of human and animal life, it becomes abundantly clear that something must be done. These facts render the issue of climate neutrality in the sciences a moot point. Even those intending to remain non-biased will inevitably draw fire, as simply reporting facts on the issue, as Michael Mann found during the 2000s, has made scientists a target of fossil-fuel monetary and political interests seeking to obscure these facts from the public eye — a simple truth that scientists like James Hansen realized long ago. In his case, activism was not just morally courageous, it was practical and scientific. Something terrible was happening, would continue to happen if we didn’t do something about it. Hansen’s point on this was amazingly clear:

Only in the last few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency – our planet really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is out of their control… [emphasis added]

As out-of-control as that future threatens to become, the bravery and resolve of some of this nation’s children in the face of that threat is, quite frankly, astonishing. If you think you’re too young to act, just take a look at Our Children’s Trust. In this case, a group of preteens and teenagers are taking on the federal government over climate change. They’re claiming that the government isn’t living up to its sacred pledge to protect their health and welfare. If these kids have the intestinal fortitude to go at the Feds with all legal guns blazing, to set aside huge chunks of their lives to take on an issue that is so important to everyone, then there’s no excuse for us adults.

Every Life Matters

Back when I was writing about Hurricane Sandy slamming into the U.S. northeast, my wife was involved in the sheltering of animals displaced by the disaster, as part of the response effort in the region. She and many others spent days housed in the gymnasium at a local community college, taking cold showers and eating rations provided by local disaster agencies, putting themselves at risk walking dogs as a powerful ice storm followed the devastating coastal low. Their compassion for the voiceless, the innocent and the helpless are a part of what we will need to effectively deal with climate change. Part of our challenge will be to help the living creatures and forests of our world survive the rapid warming and the climate disruptions that result. We must open our hearts to the plight of the innocent, the poor, and the voiceless, and not turn our eyes away in callous denial of harm done.

Fish Lizard Island

(When it comes to facing climate change, every life matters. From fish, to coral reefs, to forests, to polar bears, to companion animals, to human beings, confronting climate change is ultimately an effort to save lives. Great Barrier Reef image source: The Guardian.)

Have my father-in-law, Colorado Bob, McKibben, Hansen, Mann, Our Children’s Trust, my wife and tens of thousands of other advocates, scientists, and everyday people won the war on climate change? Heck no. We see the results of our present failings with increasing extremity each and every day. But the point is that our actions have mattered and, more importantly, have become a part of a potential for heroism on a mass scale, a global effort to shift energy and climate policy and to help those that suffer due to the changes. All of us have the opportunity now to become a part of what will probably be the biggest life-saving effort ever undertaken by our race.

A Call to Act

Big or small, all our actions have an impact and we can all do something through the simple impetus of deciding to do the right thing. We can join 350.org and the Sierra Club, we can vote for candidates who promise strong action on climate change, we can speak out in support of the science, we can cut the lion’s share of meat out of our diets, we can install solar panels on homes and businesses, we can ride bikes, and support electric vehicles. We can raise awareness among our families, friends and neighbors. We can plant gardens and help to rejuvenate the carbon-capturing soil. We can join community, state, national and international aid and response networks to help people and animals harmed or displaced by climate change. We can defend the IPCC and other scientific agencies from politically-motivated attacks by fossil-fuel special interests. We can all become part of the action supporting positive responses and blocking the use of destructive fuels like oil, gas and coal.

What we ultimately choose to do first is not as important as the simple decision to begin to do something. The important thing is to act, to act now, and to resolve to do more each day. To become a part of a necessary growing effort. To stand up and make the moral decision to become a soldier in a global mobilization, not only to fight for the lives of our children and grandchildren, but for all the poor and innocent creatures of this Earth — human or otherwise — who are now so vulnerable to a rising disaster of fossil-fuel burning’s making.

So please join with me in lifting our voices in this call to act, swiftly, with purpose, and now.

Links:

IPCC — Two degree climate target not possible without ‘negative emissions’

IPCC Special Report to Scruitinize Feasibility of 1.5 C Climate Goal

How Sensitive is Our Climate?

Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level Rise, and Atmospheric CO2

Lightning Kills 323 Reindeer in Norway

NOAA

350.org

Sierra Club

The Guardian

Our Children’s Trust

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

NASA

Weather Underground

ClimateProgress

King George Moves to Protect Water Supply From Fracking

On Earth

Storms of My Grandchildren

Our Grid is Incredibly Vulnerable to Climate Change

Bill McKibben

NRDC

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

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