Tuesday, August 07, 2012

This drought should make Americans wake up to climate adaptation

drought-stricken corn
The parched conditions are sowing thoughts of drought-resistant crops - but also forcing recognition of the reality of climate change in American minds.

The exceptional weather throughout North America in the last few months has been blamed on the jetstream being pushed northwards by an increasing area of high pressure. This is the same jetstream that has been pushed southwards on our side of the Atlantic, bringing an end to our declared drought and a thoroughly wet, so-called summer.

Behind this immediate cause, is the trend of global warming.

Last Wednesday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that 98 of the 102 counties that comprise the state of Illinois are a disaster area.

Across the country, a total of 218 counties were added to the disaster area designation, meaning that over half of all American counties are now officially disaster areas, most of them suffering from drought. 64% of the lower 48 states are affected.

The unprecedented progress of the drought can be seen in animated maps on this official US government drought monitoring website. They show 'exceptional drought conditions' moving in the last 12 weeks from southern states right up to the Great Lakes.

The effect on American crop yields is yet to be known, but food inflation and record high prices for grain have already been seen.

This is the second drought to hit North America in a decade. A dry spell which lasted for years between 2000 and 2004 was already the worst in 800 years. This one is the worst ever.

An analysis of climate data published this month in the journal Nature Geoscience establishes this, but, looking ahead, the ten researchers claim that by the end of this century those four years will seem wet compared to what is to come.

They say that North America is on the verge of a large hydro climate shift and invoke the word “mega-drought". This peer-reviewed article is supported by NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other institutions, and it adds that the four-year drought was exacerbated by global warming, which is causing the climate shift.

Is this having an effect on public opinion in America about climate change? After all, it's not hard to argue that it is American politicians that have been holding back global agreements on limiting greenhouse gas emissions for the last 10 years or more because, they have felt they don't have the mandate to do anything else.

According to a survey conducted in July by the University of Texas (link is to Bloomberg - I couldn't find the original statistics), 70% of Americans believe the climate is changing, compared to 65% in March, and only 15% say it isn’t. Party affiliation continues to divide public opinion, but today most Republicans, 53%, believe in climate change, as do 72% of independents and 87% of Democrats.

Mitt Romney’s states of swing

Where does Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, stand on climate change? It seems to depend on whom he's talking to. He doesn't like subsidies for wind farms and he doesn't believe in the United States taking unilateral action against climate change. (No one is asking it to, just sign up to Kyoto II.) He said last October: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”

But earlier, Romney has said he believes that human activity is a contributing factor. It seems that, like many of his other opinions, it changes with the wind.

The New York Times wrote in an article recently: “The Midwest is becoming a Dust Bowl, the Southwest and Rocky Mountains a tinder box. Lakes and rivers across the South are drying up. And a series of brutal heat waves, severe storms and prolonged power failures has punished residents of the Northeast, generating widespread concern that the region’s infrastructure is woefully unprepared for the strange weather that’s become our new norm."

Add to this the media interest in Prof Richard Muller, a former climate change sceptic who announced last week that he has been converted, not just to believing that climate change is happening but that human activity is responsible. He bases his change of heart on research conducted by a team of ten scientists, including Saul Perlmutter who won this year's Nobel Prize for physics for his research which showed that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing.

Ironically, the funding for the research came from the Koch brothers, those infamous billionaire industrialists exposed as major donors to lobbying organisations espousing climate change denial.

Prof Muller says in an opinion piece, called The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic, published at the end of last month, also in the New York Times, “Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."

These findings are stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There is nothing new here, but what is new is the context. In an interview for national public radio, Muller advocates as a solution: greater energy efficiency such as insulation, a switch from coal to natural gas including fracking, and persuading China to make the same switch.

The weirdest anomaly

I'm no meteorologist, but the weirdest anomaly that sticks out to me is visible in the three month official National Weather Service prediction for December-January-February 2012-13, which shows a temperature of 50oF in the northernmost part of the USA (Northern Alaska), while down in its opposite extreme, (southern Texas) it will be below freezing. Incidentally, this website predicts the hot spell will continue for a while yet, although the centre of the high pressure area is moving west.

Climate change increases the risk of anomalies, as this post on the Skeptical Science website explains. We have been seeing our share of extreme weather events in the UK too.

The extremes should be a wake-up call to American politicians. Whatever they may think about the cause, the conclusion must be that they need to think much more seriously about adaptation, whether it is through more drought-resistant strains of crops, or planting more vegetation in cities to reduce the 'heat island' effect.

And, over here, let me add my voice to the many others calling for Defra to reverse the cutbacks on flood defences. From here on, it can only get more extreme, not less.

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