Consequences of climate damage have hit home this spring, from waters of the Atlantic Ocean to boreal forests of Alberta to the Mariana Islands of the Pacific Ocean. As our politicians fiddle with manufactured issues, the Earth burns.
Consider the events of the past three weeks.
On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released figures that ocean temperatures in May were the highest ever recorded. Of particular note, the Atlantic was seven degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than normal off the Cape Verde Islands, where tropical storms form.
NOAA announced its findings on the day that Cyclone Biparjoy – Biparjoy means “disaster” in the Bangla language – was making landfall in southern India. A total of 170,000 people in India and Pakistan were evacuated in advance of the storm.
A “super typhoon” in the Pacific, Typhoon Mawar, hit the Mariana Islands with 150 mile per hours in late May, its eye passing just north of Guam. Warming temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico raise the prospect of hurricanes that intensify as they approach the coasts of Florida and other Gulf states.
We are at the beginning of an American presidential campaign, in which three of the Republican candidates come from Florida. You would think the perils of a warming planet would be on their minds. Think again.
Governor Ron DeSantis is touting his “Don’t say gay!” ban on discussion of sexuality in public schools. Ex-President Donald Trump is vowing to bar transgender students from bathrooms of their choice.
Republican-run state legislatures bordering the Gulf of Mexico are racing to adopt legislation limiting gender reassignment surgery.
I read, on a regular basis, tweets from Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R‑Washington, the current chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She represents a district in Eastern Washington that has experienced record heat and endured forest and brush fires, one of which torched a town that she represents in Congress.
Yet, CMR (through her staff) is out there cheerleading for a bill – narrowly passed by the House – which sustains subsidies and tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, while opening (and reopening) public lands to oil drilling as well as coal mining. The legislation stands no chance of Senate passage, but Congress remains virtually paralyzed when it comes to reducing power plant emissions which are the largest contributor to pollution in the atmosphere.
The right wing controlled U.S. Supreme Court, for its part, has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from deploying the Clean Air Act to limit power plant pollution, and has slapped a narrow definition on wetlands that eviscerates application of the Clean Water Act.
The Inflation Reduction Act does represent a breakthrough on clean energy investment: The question is whether it does enough and soon enough. We see warm ocean waters getting warmer. What of the cold places on planet Earth?
First, start with this sobering assessment from NASA: “Ninety percent of global warming is occurring in the ocean(s), causing the waters’ internal heat to increase since modern records keeping began in 1955… The last ten years were the oceans’ warmest decade since at least the 1800s. The year 2022 was the ocean’s warmest recorded year and saw the highest global sea level.”
What does that mean? According to a new study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, optimum conditions for life on Earth are shifting north and south from the equator toward the poles.
It found that 600 million people have already found themselves in regions hit by extreme heat, food scarcity and higher death rates.
The potential outcome, should human-caused global warming go unchecked, is that three billion people will be outside optimum areas for sustaining life.
The Mediterranean Sea has already become a magnet for human migration – caused by wars, of course, but also drought and heat in Africa – witness the sinking off Greece last week of a fishing boat crammed with seven hundred refugees. The death toll will total in the hundreds.
Nor are northern reaches of the Earth faring well. Summer has yet to officially begin, but fires have already consumed 11.6 million acres of boreal forest and rangeland in the Canadian province of Alberta.
Large fires in the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have sent smoke over the eastern United States, giving cities such as Allentown, Pennsylvania, briefly the most polluted air on the planet.
Our livable corner of the planet is not exempt.
The fire season in the Pacific Northwest is growing, while fire danger now extends to the west, “wet” side of the mountains. Smoke from fires in British Columbia briefly gave Seattle the continent’s worst air twice in the past decade.
As well, further north, the Arctic is warming at a rate four times faster than the rest of the globe, which is extremely alarming. Recent evaluations say Arctic sea ice could disappear completely by the end of summer, as earl as the 2030’s. It has been shrinking at a rate of about 12.3 percent a year.
Starting in the hot summer of 1988, experts have predicted that climate damage will enter the public consciousness and move to the forefront of voter concerns. The rate of warming has increased, we are living with its consequences, yet there has yet to be an upsurge in public anger and demand for action.
We remain fixated on other things.
The political right has warned that climate mitigation means economic ruin. It has also manufactured issues: witness the bashing of transgender teenagers. As this is written, Texas is sweltering in record heat, with temperatures predicted to climb as high as 115 degrees. Yet, Texas Governor Gregg Abbot is hunting headlines by dispatching a busload of Central American refugees to Los Angeles.
In Cascadia, much has been accomplished in protecting wild places, creating national parks and monuments, and cleaning pollutants out waters once the color of tobacco spit due to pulp mill pollution. We are working at restoring salmon runs and assuring survival of our endangered southern resident orca whales.
Yet, climate damage threatens to sweep away our vaunted livability. As we enter the height of this year’s fire season, it is time to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire.