Trends in global average surface temperature
Trends in global average surface temperature between 1993 and 2022 in degrees Fahrenheit per decade. Most of the planet is warming (yellow, orange, red). Only a few locations, most of them in Southern Hemisphere oceans, cooled over this time period. NOAA map, based on data from NOAA Centers for Environmental Information.

Dur­ing a swel­ter­ing sum­mer of 1988, the year glob­al warm­ing first briefly sur­faced as a nation­al con­cern, I escaped a fetid Dis­trict of Colum­bia for Three Capes on the Ore­gon Coast. After a long ear­ly morn­ing beach walk, as the family’s stan­dard poo­dle shook salt water and sand on me, I switched on the motel tele­vi­sion set and tuned in the Today Show to see what I had dodged.

Only two cor­ners of Amer­i­ca were enjoy­ing tem­per­a­tures under nine­ty degrees Fahren­heit — coastal areas in Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton plus the north­east cor­ner of Amer­i­ca in Maine. It was an epic heat wave. The coun­try and world were suf­fer­ing while we watched the sun break through a gen­tle mist.

What has fol­lowed? Thir­ty-five years of spo­radic response, resis­tance and denial. The cli­mate cri­sis is a tru­ly glob­al con­cern. It has inten­si­fied in equa­to­r­i­al regions, yes, but also impact­ed our liv­able region and extend­ed to both poles.

Heat domes have been felt in Mex­i­co, but also in north­ern Cana­da: twen­ty mil­lion acres of the Great White North have burned so far this year, blan­ket­ing cities on both sides of the bor­der with smoke. One fire in north­east British Colum­bia is larg­er in size than the province of Prince Edward Island.

Too Hot to Han­dle: How Cli­mate Change May Make Some Places Too Hot to Live,” reads an analy­sis from NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry. So far in July, the Earth has expe­ri­enced the three hottest days of aver­age tem­per­a­ture since record keep­ing began four decades ago. June ranks as the warmest month on record.

“The health dan­gers of extreme heat have sci­en­tists and med­ical experts increas­ing­ly con­cerned and for good rea­son: Heat stress is a lead­ing cause of weath­er-relat­ed deaths in the Unit­ed States each year,” said the NASA analysis.

The human caus­es of the Earth’s warm­ing, name­ly car­bon emis­sions into the atmos­phere, are no longer in dis­pute. Cli­mate dam­age is pro­duc­ing weath­er extremes, from atmos­pher­ic rivers com­ing off the Pacif­ic Ocean to the heat dome that enveloped the Pacif­ic North­west two years ago. The town of Lyt­ton, British Colum­bia in the Fras­er Canyon record­ed a tem­per­a­ture of 49.6 Cel­sius or 121.3 degrees Fahren­heit, Canada’s tem­per­a­ture record. A wild­fire swept through Lyt­ton, burn­ing nine­ty per­cent of the vil­lage and killing two people.

Cli­mate dam­age has hit home to places con­tribut­ing to it. A prime exam­ple, drought con­di­tions and heat impacts are hit­ting the bore­al forests of north­ern Cana­da. A flash fire in 2016 caused thou­sands to flee Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, the cen­ter of Canada’s oil pro­duc­tion, destroy­ing 2,400 homes and busi­ness­es. Por­tions of the “oil patch” had to be evac­u­at­ed again this year.

When I was walk­ing the dog at Cape Look­out, and George H.W. Bush was promis­ing to become “the envi­ron­men­tal pres­i­dent,” there was a clear win­dow for proac­tive response to the loom­ing cli­mate cri­sis. The win­dow is clos­ing fast. The pace of warm­ing has increased. Wit­ness not only drought in the Horn of Africa but the speed at which Earth’s atmos­phere broke a star­tling record of 400 parts per mil­lion of car­bon diox­ide. That hasn’t hap­pened for mil­lions of years.

Yearly surface temperature compared to the 20th-century average
Year­ly sur­face tem­per­a­ture com­pared to the 20th-cen­tu­ry aver­age from 1880–2022. Blue bars indi­cate cool­er-than-aver­age years; red bars show warmer-than-aver­age years. NOAA graph, based on data from the Nation­al Cen­ters for Envi­ron­men­tal Information.

If you want expla­na­tion for the delayed, spo­radic response, start with dis­con­nect and dys­func­tion in the “oth­er” Wash­ing­ton. The inland North­west, indeed the entire Moun­tain West, is suf­fer­ing pro­longed drought con­di­tions, with spring arriv­ing ear­li­er and the wild­fire sea­son last­ing longer.

We’ve expe­ri­enced con­fla­gra­tions, such as the 256,108-acre Carl­ton Com­plex Fire in north-cen­tral Wash­ing­ton, the largest sin­gle wild­fire in state history.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cathy McMor­ris Rodgers, Chair of the pow­er­ful House Ener­gy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, rep­re­sents East­ern Wash­ing­ton in Con­gress. She has vig­or­ous­ly pro­mot­ed a Repub­li­can-spon­sored “ener­gy” pack­age which extends incen­tives and sub­si­dies for the oil and gas indus­try, opens and reopens pub­lic lands to drilling and coal min­ing, and speeds up licens­ing of pow­er plants.

While colos­sal fires burn in her dis­trict, destroy­ing prop­er­ty and threat­en­ing lives, CMR uses social media to roast cli­mate activists as obstructionists.

Glob­al­ly, the cli­mate cri­sis is uproot­ing a new set of migrants – cli­mate refugees. UNHCR, the Unit­ed Nations refugee agency, has report­ed that an aver­age of 215 mil­lion peo­ple are dis­placed by such cli­mate ‑relat­ed con­di­tions as heat, ris­ing sea lev­els, har­vest-destroy­ing events as well as cli­mate extremes.

An exam­ple: two Cat­e­go­ry 4 hur­ri­canes hit Cen­tral Amer­i­ca in Novem­ber of 2020, send­ing refugees flee­ing north out of El Sal­vador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The Insti­tute for Eco­nom­ics and Peace, a think tank which pro­duces an annu­al glob­al ter­ror­ism and peace index, has fore­cast the world may see 1.2 bil­lion cli­mate refugees by mid-cen­tu­ry. The Pen­ta­gon has wise­ly begun to eval­u­ate cli­mate dam­age as a nation­al secu­ri­ty issue.

Once more, we are not immune.

Heat domes are com­mon­place over north-cen­tral Mex­i­co and the Sono­ran Desert of the South­west. They are, how­ev­er, intensifying.

Wit­ness the hun­dred-degree tem­per­a­tures and 120-degree heat index­es record­ed this month from Ari­zona to Louisiana. Heat domes have hit Cana­da and cen­tral Chi­na this spring, with one lodg­ing over the Mid­west at the start of summer.

As well, the phe­nom­e­non known as El Nino is warm­ing sur­face water, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Pacif­ic Ocean. Warmer sea water fuels and inten­si­fies trop­i­cal storms, wit­ness the refu­el­ing of hur­ri­canes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Of late, our nation­al weath­er maps have shown mil­lions fac­ing heat dan­gers while rains drench oth­er parts of the country.

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, the founder of the Cli­mate Real­i­ty Lead­er­ship Corps, warned of increas­ing­ly preva­lent “rain bombs” when train­ing cli­mate activists in Belle­vue six years ago. One dropped on New York this week­end.

Look­ing to the ends of the Earth, say the rapid­ly warm­ing Arc­tic, there is evi­dence that melt­ing per­mafrost and glac­i­ers are releas­ing big quan­ti­ties of a potent cli­mate-dam­ag­ing green­house gas – methane – into the atmosphere.

The lat­est evi­dence, a study of sev­en­ty-eight glac­i­ers on the Nor­we­gian islands of Sval­bard. In words of sci­en­tist Gabrielle Kle­ber of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, “Glac­i­ers are retreat­ing due to cli­mate warm­ing, and they are leav­ing these exposed fore­fields behind, which are encour­ag­ing methane gas to be released.”

The pun­ish­ing con­di­tions of hot, long-ago 1988 were char­ac­ter­ized by usu­al­ly jol­ly “Today” weath­er­man Willard Scott as a “wake-up call” on warm­ing. Alas, much of the coun­try slum­bered on or went back to sleep. Only a few regions, notably West Coast states, are under­tak­ing seri­ous pro­grams to reduce car­bon emissions.

The fos­sil fuels econ­o­my has deployed a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of weapons in defense of its pre­rog­a­tives. The Koch Indus­tries-based polit­i­cal net­work spends mil­lions on cam­paigns as well as front groups, includ­ing “Amer­i­cans For Prosperity.”

Such out­fits as the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil craft leg­is­la­tion to obstruct, rather than encour­age, tran­si­tion to a green econ­o­my. Tele­vi­sion adver­tis­ing warns of the threat to “ener­gy independence.”

The politi­cians of America’s right are con­jur­ing up oth­er dan­gers to the Repub­lic: trans­gen­der teenagers using school bath­rooms, pro­posed cur­tail­ment of gas stoves, “woke” his­to­ry taught in schools and threats to “par­ents’ rights.”

Since that beach walk at Cape Look­out, the face of glob­al warm­ing has sur­passed sci­en­tists’ pre­dic­tions, from the buildup of heat-trap­ping gas­es in the atmos­phere to the retreat of glac­i­ers and shrink­ing of the Arc­tic icepack.

In the sum­mer of ’88, bud­dies of mine prepped for a Mount Rainier climb with a prac­tice week­end in the Olympics on the Ander­son Glacier.

There is no more Ander­son Glac­i­er. It has melt­ed. What con­di­tions will we, or our descen­dants, wit­ness in anoth­er thir­ty-five years if we do not curb emissions?

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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