Many years ago, legendary musician and songwriter Bob Dylan rhapsodized, ‘You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.’ Today, as it relates to climate change, this little nugget depends as much on one’s politics as it does one’s basic understanding of science.
First, scientists say, we should differentiate between weather and climate. Weather, they suggest, is your mood today. Climate, on the other hand, is your total personality.
Despite the fact that 97 percent of scientists who study weather agree that climate change is real and a threat to humankind, the subject remains a political football in the country and, very likely, the world. What is inarguable, are signs of climate change all around, including right here in Colorado, that are very quantifiable.
Currently, the world is dealing with record and devastating heat, drought, floods, hurricanes and tropical storms, warming ocean water, rising ocean levels, melting ice caps, forest fires, the likes of which are almost unprecedented. No place on the planet is immune.
While Colorado has experienced record heat this summer---it was 107 degrees in Grand Junction in early July---it has been almost incidental by comparison. There are other places where scorching heat wasn’t supposed to happen but did. On consecutive June days this summer, Portland, Oregon, experienced anomalous, nearly unimaginable deadly heat, with temperatures hitting 108, 112 and 116 degrees. The Oregon city was actually hotter during that three-day period than Phoenix. And it wasn’t just the U.S. Earlier this month, on the island of Sicily, the mercury hit 119 degrees.
In Portland, the heat threatened the city’s power grid. Water supplies dropped, and air quality suffered. Heat related health issues sent scores to hospitals. Light rail tracks actually buckled and public services were compromised as first responders were overwhelmed with emergency calls. A number of deaths were attributed to the weather. Worse, say scientists, what occurred in Portland and so many other cities this summer may portend the future.
“When you have rapid change,” said Metro State Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professor Sam Ng, “it’s really hard to bend it back down to normal trends.” Rising temperatures, he said, are creating conditions he characterized as “dire.” Searing summer heat and, curiously, warmer, even temperate winter temperatures, said the MSUD professor, aren’t theoretical. “We see summer and winter temperatures shifting…this is one of the visuals we can see.”
Scientists who study this phenomenon warn that time is running out for addressing this global issue. But the voices of science, industry and politics charged with finding solutions are talking past each other. “I’m not a person that says we need to cut everything,” including fossil fuels, a prime culprit contributing to changing weather patterns, said Ng.
Weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, said the Metro State weather scientist, is easier said than done. “We need electricity,” he said, while conceding that much of it is produced with coal. “Until we get a large amount of energy from sun, wind or hydro,” coal will be a necessary component in our energy portfolio.
Record wildfires, often the result of extended drought, have hit Australia, South America---Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay---Russia, Algeria. California is now battling the second largest wildfire in its history. It actually might be easier to name the regions where wildfires haven’t burned.
Torrential rains, another byproduct of changing weather patterns, swept across Europe. Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey lost hundreds of lives and suffered catastrophic infrastructure damage due to flooding.
Here at home, while many politicians argue that changing weather is odd but not the threat scientists suggest, the Department of Defense has labeled climate change a national security threat. It is real, said the DoD, and will cost us in readiness and resources.
Colorado is already planning for the future and has drafted a plan for reducing greenhouse gases, said Angela Boag, Assistant Director for Climate, Forest, Health and Energy for the Department of Natural Resources. “The roadmap is our blueprint for reducing emissions,” she said. The state legislature is also playing a role in enacting the plan that calls for a “25 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2025, 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.” To meet the goals, said Boag, some agencies will be incentivized, in other cases it will be through regulatory measures.
While Washington politicians, including several in states where coastal flooding is the new norm, and who cloak themselves by claiming, “I’m not a scientist,” Colorado’s policy makers are taking a stand.
Drought, they say, is beyond politics. “Over the last few years, it has really impacted communities across Colorado,” said Boag. Drought has moved across the state swallowing entire regions. Currently, it is blanketing much of western Colorado. In the last twenty years, Boag said, drought has become unprecedented. “Climate change is really the most significant challenge of our time,” and it impacts all of us.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as much as 40 percent of the country west of the continental divide is in the throes of “exceptional drought,” the agency’s most dire drought level. The signs are everywhere. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir by volume will have only 40 percent of its capacity by year’s end. Earlier this month the federal government set precedent by ordering water cuts for the Colorado River Basin as a result of western drought. The Colorado supplies water and power to more than 40 million people.
Drought is so serious that eight U.S. states still resort to cloud seeding, shooting silver iodide into the clouds to induce rainfall. Colorado is not among them. But during a mid-1970’s drought, then Governor John Vanderhoof, ordered it done. The results were negligible. Boag said there are no plans in Colorado “to change actual weather.”
While politicians may fight over climate change or dance on the semantic head of a pin defining it, Colorado is taking it seriously.