EDITORIAL: Read Climate Change Assessment

MAYBE, POSSIBLY, IF WE’RE REALLY LUCKY spring will stick around this time so we can complain about how hot it is. But what if we don’t get the chance? There once was a year when summer never arrived.

It happened in 1816 after a huge volcanic eruption in what’s now Indonesia released a plume of particles that eventually cooled much of the U.S. and Europe. Contemporary reports and recent books chronicle this disaster. One modern author mentions temperatures below freezing in June in the Hudson Valley and major disruptions to the food supply that cold summer two centuries ago. Then the cloud dissipated and it was back to normal. Will our era’s climate change have such a happy ending?

The federal government’s latest Climate Change Assessment released this week presents the latest data on climate science. It says we’re seeing the impacts of a warmer atmosphere and oceans sooner than previously anticipated and it lays out the risks the arise from these changes. There’s a section on the Northeast that lists how the climate for the whole region will likely get warmer whether or not humans continue to pump emissions into the atmosphere, although it will be a lot hotter here in Columbia County if emissions of greenhouse gasses aren’t curbed soon.

Some folks still laugh at that. Look at your thermometer, they were saying over the winter. Check your heating bill. It’s getting colder, they said. They may be right, but it wasn’t funny.

There’s one sentence in the Climate Change Assessment for the Northeast that gets to this point of colder versus warmer. It says that while this region is likely to see fewer and less intense “cold air outbreaks” over this century it also says, “some research suggests that loss of Arctic sea ice could indirectly reduce this trend by modifying the jet stream and mid-latitude weather patterns.” In other words, it might get chillier here while most everywhere else grows hotter.

That sounds like the daily weather reports from the Albany TV stations, where meteorologists wave their arms at maps showing a thick, diagonal line that separates us from warmer air close by to our south. All winter we saw that thick line, the jet stream, as it bulged southward. It was still hanging on as of the middle of this week.

The phenomenon has to do with something called Arctic amplification. A footnote tells you that it’s possible to measure how a warming Arctic slows down the speed at which the weather changes in the Northeast. It can just as  easily strand us in colder temperatures as warmer ones.

The temperature doesn’t have to vary much up or down from what we’re used to in order to have a big impact on agriculture, tourism and our wallets. One of the observations scientists have made is that the plants best suited to a changing climate are weeds. And warmer temperatures appear to improve the ability of weeds to resist the most commonly used herbicide. Weeds don’t conjure up the kind of dramatic images associated with super cell tornadoes or raging floodwaters, but the prospect of not being able to grow an adequate food supply because it’s too hot or too cold is no joke.

The county has a draft Hazard Mitigation Plan intended to identify resources and mitigation goals in the event of natural disasters like a major storm. It’s posted on the county website, www.columbiacountyny.com. It identifies key players like town supervisors, profiles municipalities and lists projects that would strengthen local infrastructure. The premise of the document is, logically, that we have to prepare responses to specific events and their immediate consequences.

By contrast the Climate Change Assessment puts the expected increase in the number and severity of storms, droughts, heat waves, etc. as well as their foreseeable and unforeseen consequences in a larger context. They’re all aspects of a decades-long struggle we face as communities, a nation and a species trying to adapt to very different living conditions.

Don’t let all this data trap you into believing you have to halt climate change by yourself. You can’t and should be glad nobody has such power. This is an exciting time. We are gaining extraordinary amounts of new knowledge about how our world works. Learn all you can. Ignore the critics who spew disinformation paid for by people who profit from climate change denial. The new federal assessment confirms that climate change caused by us humans is already happening. We can respond, but only if we know what we’re doing.


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