The Climate Emergency We Worried About is Here - Our “Normal” Climate is Dead
For much of the past four decades, climate activists have been warning us that we’re approaching tipping points that will alter how Americans live - now we’re there
There’s a new study out about climate change — and our new climate normal — that is truly shocking and, for those of us concerned about future generations, alarming.
The lead researcher’s first name is Cassandra, no doubt an unintentional choice in the paper’s authors’ pecking order, but still.
For much of the past four decades, climate activists have been warning us that we’re approaching tipping points and thresholds that will alter how Americans live, cost us a fortune, and kill thousands of Americans every year.
Now we’re there. Our “normal” climate is dead; the weather has gone insane, and it is killing Americans and millions of people all around the globe.
This is how quickly it has hit us: when I published the first edition of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight in 1996 (it’s been updated twice since then) there was still a vigorous debate here in the United States — funded in large part by the fossil fuel industry and it’s allies in rightwing media — over whether climate change was even a real thing.
They knew that their product was poisoning our atmosphere, but they were making hundreds of billions of dollars. Nothing was more important to them than that money.
They and their bought-off politicians began to believe their own lies, or at least some did, and thought this wouldn’t happen until they were all dead anyway, even if it was true.
But then it happened. The climate emergency we were worried about has arrived. It is here, now.
“Sixfold Increase in Historical Northern Hemisphere Concurrent Large Heatwaves Driven by Warming and Changing Atmospheric Circulations” is the title of the shocking new study published a few months ago in The American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.
Looking at statistical information about major heatwaves — particularly ones that hit multiple continents at the same time — they found:
“Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area.”
In the 1980s the Northern Hemisphere averaged around 73 heatwaves during the summer months from May to September. By the 2010s that number had grown to 152 heatwaves per summer.
And those heat waves are also almost 20 percent hotter than they were than the year Reagan won the presidency (and denied climate change throughout his 8 fossil-fuel-funded years in office).
One of the most startling understandings of what’s happening has only become apparent in the past decade or so: that the Polar Jet Stream is acting weird and thus making our weather extremes more severe.
Over the course of multiple conversations with the world’s top climate scientists I’ve learned that the Polar Jet Stream — the fast-moving river of high-altitude (30,000+ feet) air that circulates around the North Pole — has slowed down, weakened, and is beginning to “drool” down over parts of North America, going as far south as Texas.
This was, in fact, what caused the severe winter weather that shut down Texas’ privatized power grid February-before-last, along with causing the “bomb cyclone” freezing storms hitting the Midwest and Northeast, and the three days of 116-degree weather we had here in the Pacific Northwest last summer.
Historically, the Polar Jet Stream was held in place — mostly in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere — by the temperature differential between the arctic and the middle latitudes, where most Americans (outside of northern Alaska) live.
The cold arctic air defined the northernmost margin of the Polar Jet Stream while the warmer middle latitude air defined its southernmost margin. While it pushed weather patterns across North America for much of my life, it rarely dipped below the Mason-Dixon line and, even when it did, generally just brought the hot/cold, or wet/drought weather behind it for only a day or two.
But the arctic has been warming at least three times faster than the middle latitudes where most of us live, which means the difference in temperature between the arctic air to the north of the Jet Stream and our air to its south has diminished.
The North Pole/Arctic, once a solid cap of ice where Santa Claus was supposed to live, is now an open sea every summer.
As that temperature differential has declined, so has the strength and velocity of the Jet Stream. Now, instead of whipping across the Northern Hemisphere, it often spills down as far south as Mexico and then stays in place for days at a time.
What would have been a one-day cold-snap or heat wave becomes multiple days, long enough to wreak billions in damage to a state’s residential and energy infrastructure.
What would have been a rainstorm lasting a few hours becomes an unrelenting downpour lasting for days, creating massive flooding.
The changes to the Jet Stream, combined with the warming of our oceans (whose temperatures also drive weather), have also caused what were once routine weather patterns to change.
Regions that were only dry during the summer are now experiencing drought year-round; parts of the country where flooding was occasional but rare are now regularly experiencing massive, days-long storms that tear up houses and flood entire regions.
Flights are bumpier and being cancelled with increasing frequency because of weather, as we’re just now sliding into this unknowable new era of severe weather weirding.
This is our new normal, and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars every year, all to preserve the profits of a fossil fuel industry that knew in the 1960s that their product was poisoning the world and would lead to this outcome.
But don’t think that just because this is the new normal that this “normal” will last. The last time our planet saw CO2 levels at their current 420 parts-per-million sea levels were 60 feet higher and trees were growing in Antarctica.
In other words, we’re on a path, not at a destination. The planet will catch up with all that CO2, and as it does our weather will continue to become more and more severe until we figure out a way to get CO2 levels back down to the 1950s count of just over 300 ppm.
Meanwhile, we’re pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere right now than at any time in human history, despite efforts among the world’s developed nations to reduce their carbon footprint.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a major kick-in-the-pants to Europe to get off their dependence on fossil fuels and go green, as have high oil and gas prices around the world.
Here in America, the Supreme Court (with 5 justices put on the bench by money from fossil-fuel billionaires) just kneecapped the Biden administration’s ability to regulate CO2 and promote green energy.
And, of course, Republicans deeply in the pocket of Big Oil, Gas, and Coal continue to deny climate change is even happening.
The ten top recipients of fossil fuel money in Congress so far this year are:
Manchin, Joe (D-WV) $724,270
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $396,284
Lankford, James (R-OK) $275,148
Pfluger, August (R-TX) $268,011
Kennedy, John (R-LA) $264,788
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $249,808
Sinema, Kyrsten (D-AZ) $230,160
Fletcher, Lizzie (D-TX) $191,765
Cuellar, Henry (D-TX) $191,450
Scott, Tim (R-SC) $181,291
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $181,263
Gonzales, Tony (R-TX) $174,461
Rubio, Marco (R-FL) $165,636
Amazing how little it costs to buy a member of Congress to keep your multi-billion-dollar-a-year profits flowing, isn’t it?
Here’s what opensecrets.org says are the top recipients through their careers:
Romney, Mitt (R-UT) $8,291,262
Cornyn, John (R-TX) $4,678,062
Cruz, Ted (R-TX) $4,138,421
McCain, John (R-AZ) $3,766,042
McConnell, Mitch (R-KY) $2,852,107
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $2,581,832
Obama, Barack (D) $2,361,861
Hutchison, Kay Bailey (R-TX) $2,332,021
Inhofe, James M (R-OK) $2,320,139
Pearce, Steve (R-NM) $2,236,714
Barton, Joe (R-TX) $2,211,987
Brady, Kevin (R-TX) $2,087,396
Gardner, Cory (R-CO) $2,048,152
Gramm, Phil (R-TX) $1,858,679
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $1,847,013
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $1,792,602
Americans are dying because these paid-off shills have either failed to act or actively blocked any meaningful change in our nation’s climate policy. They have blood on their hands, with more to come as every year brings more severe floods, storms, and drought.
We can no longer tolerate this criminal political malpractice.
If America is to reclaim its position as a leader and role model for the world and stop the disastrous new climate “normal” we’re now entering from becoming radically more severe, we must get our use of fossil fuels under control.
That means ostracizing elected officials in the pocket of the industry, rolling back Citizens United so Big Oil and Coal can’t continue to bribe members of Congress, and throwing significant subsidies into greening our energy and transportation systems.
PS. George and Leonardo DiCaprio and I put together a series of short videos on climate, along with Leila Conners and Earl Katz. This is my favorite, that Leo and I narrate, and Leila and I wrote. It’s only 10 minutes but has a bite: