Pay Attention to Climate Change

December, 2018

Climate change is a scientific fact. It’s not something you “believe” in, like ghosts. If you deny the theory of gravity, you’ll still fall to earth if you jump from an airplane. That’s how it is with climate change. Just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s going to change your life, if it hasn’t already. 

            What to tell the nay-sayers? Those who believe current brutal winters with record low temperatures cannot be a sign of global warming? Tell them there’s a difference between weather on one hand and climate on the other. Climate is a long-term trend. You can’t prove climate change by one warm winter or disprove it by a cold day. You have to look at long-term trends, and what we are seeing now is really clear. It’s about averages.

            Remember 2012? We had a heat wave in the U.S. that cost us $35 billion in crops. The average temperature that year was a couple degrees above normal. Can you imagine when it’s 7 degrees? Ten degrees? In 30 years—by 2050—the average temperature is predicted to rise by at least seven degrees. By the end of the century it will be an entirely different world. Best to prepare for it as best you can.

Two New Reports

In September, a report issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written by 91 scientists (many of whom are Nobel Prize winners), stated we have 12 years to radically reduce our use of fossil fuels before climate change starts to effect entire civilizations, including human, animal, and plant kingdoms. If left unchecked, as it is now, what we perceive as a slight rise in average temperature, humidity, and precipitation will have profound impacts on agriculture and forestry, among other things, costing the economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and killing thousands of Americans. Many consequences of climate change will last for millennia, and some (such as the extinction of plant and animal species) will be permanent.

            Another recent report, the National Climate Assessment issued by the United States—including 13 federal agencies and 300 scientists—is the most comprehensive climate change report to date, representing decades of research; a huge achievement for American science. By law, a National Climate Assessment like this must be published every four years. Issued the day after Thanksgiving, 2018, the massive report begins with this blunt assessment. “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid.”

The report tells this story, laying simple fact on simple fact. “Since 1901, the United States has warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves now arrive earlier in the year and abate later than they did in the 1960s. Mountain snowpack in the West has shrunk dramatically in the past half century. Sixteen of the warmest 17 years on record have occurred since 2000.”

This trend “can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.” It warns that if humans wish to avoid 3.6 degrees of warming, they must dramatically cut this kind of pollution by 2040. On the other hand, if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, then the Earth could warm by as much as 9 degrees by 2100. That will not only change eco-systems, it will change human civilizations. 

The report warns, repeatedly and directly, that climate change could soon imperil the American way of life, transforming every region of the country, imposing frustrating costs on the economy, and harming the health of virtually every citizen. 

At this point, such an idea might be common wisdom—but this does not make it any less shocking, or less correct. For centuries, humans have lived near the ocean, assuming that the sea will not often move from its fixed locationThey have planted wheat at its time, and corn at its time, assuming that the harvest will not often falterThey have delighted in December snow, and looked forward to springtime blossoms, assuming that the seasons will not shift from their course. Now, the sea is lifting above its shore, the harvest is faltering, and the seasons arrive and depart in disorder.

Changes in the U.S.

The new federal report presents a dire scenario for each region of the country, describing the local upheavals wrought by a global transformation. Across the Southeast, massive wildfires—like those seen in California—could soon become a regular occurrence, smothering Atlanta and other cities in toxic smog. In New England and the mid-Atlantic, oceanfront barrier islands could erode and narrow. And in the Midwest, plunging yields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice.

If carbon pollution continues to rise, a huge swath of the Atlantic coast—from North Carolina to Maine—will see sea-level rise of five feet by 2100. New Orleans, Houston, and the Gulf Coast could also face five feet of rising seas. Even Los Angeles and San Francisco could see the Pacific Ocean rise by three feet. Even if humanity were to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, the report forecasts that New Orleans could still see five feet of sea-level rise by 2100.

Andrew Light, one of the authors of the report, said that although the report cannot make policy recommendations, it might be read as an endorsement of the Paris Agreement on climate change.“If the United States were to try and achieve the targets in the Paris Agreement, then things will be bad, but we can manage,” he said. “But if we don’t meet them, then we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of lives every year that are at risk because of climate change. And hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Specifically, the report is grim for the Midwest and its industries over the next 100 years. Trends toward a warmer, wetter, and more humid climate will continue to negatively impact agriculture, manufacturing, ecosystems, and everyday life.

            The number of frost-free days in Iowa is predicted to grow by ten over the next 30 years; by mid-century the number of frost-free days will grow by 20, and possibly grow by a whole month at the end of the 21st century. This means Iowa will have a climate more like Arkansas and northern Texas—warmer winters, hot simmering summers, more desert-like conditions.

It’s not that we care about a one-degree increase in global temperature in the abstract. We care about water, we care about food, we care about the economy—and every single one of those is affected by climate change.

Sources: “A Grave Climate Warning, Buried on Black Friday,” by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, Nov. 23, 2018.

 “The Three Most Chilling Conclusions from the Climate Report,” by Rachel Gutman, The Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2018.

“How to Understand the UN’s Dire New Climate Report,” by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic. October 9, 2018.

Five Radical Steps

October, 2018

Scared by the new report on climate change? Issued this month by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (composed of 91 scientists from around the world), the massive study reports we have just 12 years to limit civilization-altering catastrophe. Believe it! We’re already seeing the effects of global warming in an increase in wildfires, flooding, drought, massive hurricanes, food shortages, rapid ice melt in the arctic.

It’s really hard to be optimistic when you read the panel’s dire predictions--destruction of whole eco-systems, the disappearance of some island nations, unpredictable changes to weather patterns, millions of climate refugees. The report offers a best case scenario, laying out humanity’s last best hope for managing climate change. But it does so against a backdrop of generational failure.

Burning carbon is the problem. It causes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to build up in the atmosphere, warming the planet. According to the World Resources Institute, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation and residential buildings. Next are chemicals (mostly plastics) and methane from agriculture, mostly meat (which alone is responsible for 30% of carbon emissions).

It’s clear that federal and state governments aren’t going to do much about all this. It’s up to cities and individuals, like you and me. Here's what you can do to help:

    • Eat less meat (especially beef), or none at all.

    • Swap your car or plane ride for a bus or train. Bike. Walk.

    • Make energy efficiency a priority. First, change every lightbulb to LED. Then upgrade to more efficient appliances. Retrofit your house to be as energy efficient as possible. If you can’t add more insulation or seal another crack or hole, consider installing a smart thermostat.

         Change your life. A good article by Lloyd Alter in lays out a five-step  philosophy we should all incorporate into our daily lives, starting today. The five steps are: Radical simplicity. Radical efficiency. Radical frugality. Radical decarbonization. And, lastly, but immensely important: Vote. 

Step 1: Radical Simplicity. How much do you really need? Think about it. Since the 1950s America’s economy has been based on consumerism. But we’ve gone too far. Our landfills are overflowing; 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport, and consume is trash within six months (Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff”). That should make you stop and think.

Start a program of radical simplicity today. Scale back. Buy only what you need. Use only simple, appropriate technology. Remember, the pace of nature is medium to slow. Embrace mindfulness. Declutter your surroundings. Edit your wardrobe. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Step 2:Radical Efficiency. First, change every lightbulb to LED. That’s easy. Then upgrade to more efficient appliances. Retrofit your house to be as energy efficient as possible. If you can’t add more insulation or seal another crack or hole, consider installing a smart thermostat.

         Be wary of what passes for “smart technology.” Most “smart home” devices are complicated, break down, don’t get support, or people don’t know how to use them. Keep it simple. 

Step 3: Radical Frugality. It’s a no-brainer. Buy less stuff. Use it up-Wear it out-Make do. Almost everything you buy has embodied carbon. Even buying something made with recycled aluminum increases demand for virgin aluminum, and plastics are basically solid fossil fuels. Consumption may keep the economy spinning, but there is a huge price in carbon. Ultimately, environmentalism stems from acts of doing less: less consumption, fewer carbon emissions, less wastefulness, less carelessness.   

Step 4: Radical Decarbonization—Electrify Everything. We have to cut back on our use of fossil fuels to the point that the oil and gas companies are forced to leave it in the ground because there is so little demand. According to, that means getting our homes off gas, switching to induction ranges for cooking, mini heat pumps for heating and cooling. Switch to walking, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, transit, electric cars.

      In our buildings, we have to use less concrete and more wood. We have to fix and renovate instead of building new. We have to stop using foamed plastic insulations and get rid of PVC.

Step 5:VOTE! In the end this is the only thing that will save us. It’s up to you and me to turn this around. Vote for people who care about climate change and are willing to fight for change. 

Sources: “How to understand the U.N.’s dire new climate report,” by Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic, October 9, 2018.

“Climate catastrophe seen just 12 years away,” by Justin Worland, Time Magazine, Oct. 22, 2018, page 12.

“Five radical steps you can take to combat climate change,” by Lloyd Alter;, October 10, 2018.

How Climate Change Is Challenging American Health Care

Experts say mounting environmental pressures will make people sicker, and that the health-care system will play a major role in averting disaster.

By Vann R. Newkirk II, for The Atlantic

December 6, 2018

  Climate change can seem almost too big to fathom. Reports such as the recent National Climate Assessment and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent release have made waves by portraying the dire threats of a warming world, making the case that the fundamental fabric of humanity will be degraded without immediate action. But the scenarios—the biblical floods and droughts, the mass migrations of dispossessed people, the creeping seas and the retreating glaciers—have a way of short-circuiting the brain. It’s almost easier to despair or to will oneself into ignorance than to begin to grapple with the future. What are human lives when measured against the coming tempest?

Efforts to assess the exact human costs of climate change, however, have provided new tools for understanding the ways in which those lives will be impacted. A major report published November 28 in the public-health journal The Lancet provides predictions of how climate change is degrading human health, and how it will alter health-care systems in the future. The findings are reliably grim. But in focusing on the health-care implications and the potential damage done to people and their descendants, the report provides a firm backing to the call to climate action. The experts behind the report hope to marry the urgency of climate science with the muscle of America’s most successful and most trusted policy experiment—its public-health system.

Excerpt from The Atlantic, Dec. 6, 2018.

Read More:

Current Reading

“Portrait of a Planet on the Verge of Climate Catastrophe?” by Robin McKie. The Guardian, Dec. 2, 2018.

“We Are Not Prepared to Die: Ex-Maldives President Warns of Catastrophic Climate Change.” Democracy Now, December 14, 2018.

“The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules,” by Hiroko Tabuchi, Dec. 13, 2018. The New York Times.