A Worrisome Birthday for a Warming World

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 06, 2010, issue of September 17, 2010.
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If I seem a little anxious lately, it’s because I’m having trouble picking out a birthday gift. I get caught every year around this time, first thinking about the upcoming New Year observance and the perennial thrill of hearing the call of the shofar, and then remembering the words that follow it: Hayom harat olam — This is the birthday of the world.

I mean, what do you get for a planet that’s turning 5,771?

A tie? Mother Earth doesn’t wear them. A subscription to National Geographic? She hardly needs one. The new Beatles boxed CD set? She’s too old. Sinatra, maybe.

I was thinking about a cuddly white bear, but I hear they’re becoming extinct.

All kidding aside, the fact is that Earth has had a really rotten year, and not only because of polar bears dying. The past five months alone have seen history-making waves of rain and floods in China, Chile, New England, Tennessee, Arkansas and even Oklahoma, formerly known as the Dust Bowl. Not to mention Pakistan, drowning under some of the worst flooding in its history, with thousands dead and millions of lives ruined.

Then there’s Russia. It had the worst heat wave in its history this summer, with crippling drought and underground wildfires spreading to the supposedly frozen steppes of Siberia. Apparently the heat has wiped out one-quarter of the wheat crop in one of the world’s main breadbaskets, likely raising wheat prices 50% worldwide. Record-breaking heat waves also hit Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Taipei. Kuwait had its hottest single day ever. So did Saudi Arabia, Chad, Niger, Myanmar and Finland. Topping it all, poor Pakistan experienced the hottest temperature in the recorded history of Asia on May 26 (128.3 Fahrenheit). The average temperature worldwide over six months, from January to June, was the warmest ever. We’re talking serious heat.

And let’s not forget the iceberg four times the size of Manhattan that split this summer from a glacier in Greenland and is now floating south, toward a titanic collision with either the coast of Canada or some unsuspecting luxury liner on the Atlantic.

You remember the old joke about how everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it? Well, the joke is on us: We’re doing something about it. We’re making it worse.

You’ve probably noticed that the wild weather has kicked up considerable chatter about global warming among scientists, journalists, business leaders and environmental activists. Not so much, though, among politicians. Yet they’re the ones whose job it is to do something to stop it. They’re caught between the scientists and activists, who say we need to burn less oil and coal so that we release less carbon into the air, and businesses that don’t want to turn off their machines.

This stuff wasn’t supposed to happen yet. Five or 10 years ago experts were warning that Earth’s climate might start changing in dangerous ways by the middle of the century if we didn’t take action. As change started coming at us in waves — killer heat wave in Europe, stormier hurricanes in the Caribbean — they wagged their fingers and said their science couldn’t connect any one storm to a global process. The activists, lacking such compunctions, pushed harder, and business pushed back, polarizing the debate and making scientists even more reticent. Now, with the weather getting crazy on us, the scientists are starting to get agitated.

Scientists are realizing now how much they didn’t know. For one thing, they underestimated feedback — the way a change here speeds up changes over there. Take the Arctic ice cap. As it shrinks, there’s less shiny ice reflecting heat back into the sky, and more dark ocean absorbing heat. As the oceans and the air warm up, seawater evaporates faster, which means heavier rains. But warming also changes patterns of airflow. Rain that’s supposed to fall in Russia comes down in, say, Pakistan.

On the other hand, more moisture in the air also means heavier snows in winter. So while the scientists watch their calculations get scarier and more complex, the public sees giant blizzards in February and starts to suspect that it’s all bunk. It doesn’t help when we learn that activists have been, at times, um, “refining” their language to make their message sexier. And of course, activists versus businesspeople means Democrats versus Republicans. Which means the issue stalls in the Senate and nothing gets fixed.

Here’s one more thought for the holiday season: Polarization of climate attitudes becomes another item in the basket of issues separating Democrats and Republicans. One day you look up to find our political map crudely divided between Climate-Gay Marriage-Human Rights-Palestine and Morality-Fiscal Discipline-Defense-Israel. The next thing you know, organizations that used to be famously liberal are touting domestic drilling as a way to cut our Arab oil imports, and liberals who used to know better are quietly grumbling about a Certain Lobby that cares more about a Certain Country than about the planet. Then Jews by the thousand wonder why they don’t feel like going to synagogue this year.

I think I’ll go with the necktie. It captures the gallows mood.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com

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