Environment in 2013: You can’t fool Mother Nature


There may not yet be the political will in Congress to pass significant climate change legislation. But we can be sure that any and all efforts to address this issue will continue to get strong support from Mother Nature.

Just as Hurricane Sandy helped convince millions that climate change was indeed real and already affecting us, weather and climate events in 2013 will reinforce that message. The resonance of the climate change deniers' message is receding, in large part due to declining receptiveness to anti-science claims. Millions are learning from their own experiences that predictions of climate-change-induced weather disasters are not some far-off futuristic unlikely event: they are coming true in the here-and-now.

We can't know for certain whether there will be another massive, unexpected hurricane, nor where any of the hurricanes to come this year will strike with greatest force. But we can be certain that this year and for many years to come, at least some hurricanes will be larger and more intense, and will hit ground in unexpected places. And we can be sure that storm surges will continue to start from higher and higher sea levels.

We can be sure that the intense droughts that have swept different parts of the globe, including more than half of the continental United States, along with major agricultural areas of Russia and Australia, will continue. Again, we don't know exactly where or exactly how intense they will be, but there is no doubt that droughts (and desertification) will spread.

Similarly with forest fires. They have grown more numerous and more intense for decades, and their upward trajectory shows no sign of slowing down. Some fires are now so intense that instead of requiring a few decades for the land to recover, it will take over a century.

Every study of the Greenland ice fields is concluding that they are melting at rates hitherto thought impossible, adding more fresh water to the oceans, slowing the Gulf Current and threatening a massive increase in sea levels. Arctic ice sheets are melting faster than predicted, and the "Northern Passage" is becoming a reality - and decreased ice means the darker, underlying water will absorb more heat from the sun, increasing even further the warming at the poles, which is much higher than at more temperate latitudes.

Global warming is, at the very least, contributing to excessively hot summers in different parts of Europe (from France in 2003 to Russia in 2010-11). This not only affects the weather, it also affects the water supply, the growing season, the cost of food worldwide, the spread of drought, increases in health disasters from smog to premature death, in addition to the direct effects on humans and on the demand for energy.

All these problems are going to get worse - the accumulated amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere guarantees that.

One big environmental battle this year will be a renewal of hostilities over the proposed U.S.-Canada Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama first postponed a decision until after last year's elections, then, when pressed by Republicans for an immediate decision, said "No" to the pipeline since there was insufficient time for the State Department to fully evaluate the proposal. Now there are continuing calls by Republicans, by some Democrats, and by some who buy the false claim of the company involved that it will create thousands of jobs. That claim is based on the most generous possible job-multiplier, not on actual jobs working on the pipeline, and based primarily on temporary construction jobs rather than any permanent jobs.

The pipeline is to transport shale oil from fields in Canada (this is why the State Department is involved) to the Gulf Coast, and will mainly be used to ship that oil elsewhere - in other words, it won't directly affect U.S. energy fuel availability nor price. Dr. James Hansen, prominent climate change scientist, has famously said that if the pipeline is built, it will be "game over for the environment." Bill McKibben's 350.org has coordinated many demonstrations last year against the pipeline, and continues to campaign against its construction.

This may result in another pitched battle between congressional Republicans and the White House. Environmentalists are nervous about the position the Obama administration will take, and are watching closely. The Republicans and other pipeline supporters claim that this is an energy-independence, job-creating project, and will continue to make fantastical claims about the supposed benefits. After suffering a public relations disaster following Hurricane Sandy, those who want us to ignore science in the name of short-term financial benefit (in which the benefits will accrue to very large energy companies and their investors, including U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice) persist in their efforts.

But the role of human action is to work to ensure that environmental conditions don't get so much worse that human life is threatened on a mass scale. A healthy humanity needs a healthy planet, and every step we take to heal the planet, or to keep it from getting hit harder, is a contribution to humanity's ability to survive and thrive.

This requires the combined efforts of the environmental movement, the labor movement, the peace movement (war and preparations for war are among the most environmentally destructive things that humans do), the civil rights movements, and youth, rightly worried about their future. Environmental issues are not just other issues we ought to do something about if we can get around to it. Environmental problems affect us all, and will continue to do so in 2013.

Photo: Flickr/Vietnam Student Astronomy Club