The Disconnect on Global Warming

By Keith Kloor | May 25, 2011 8:57 am

I’ve been traveling, so I’ve only been keeping up with the news sporadically. But this front page NYT story from Monday, about Chicago (and other cities) preparing for climate change, deserves mention. It also highlights the parallel (but strikingly different) universes of the climate change debate. In her piece, Leslie Kaufman nicely displays the disconnect here:

“Cities adapt or they go away,” said Aaron N. Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment. “Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways. We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”

Across America and in Congress, the very existence of climate change continues to be challenged “” especially by conservatives. The skeptics are supported by constituents wary of science and concerned about the economic impacts of stronger regulation. Yet even as the debate rages on, city and state planners are beginning to prepare.

City and state planners, like U.S military planners, are taking climate science seriously. If this trend continues, persistent climate skeptics–the kind who are sneeringly dismissive of climate change concerns and antagonistic to climate science–are likely to find themselves increasingly marginalized.

It’ll probably take another few election cycles before the two parallel (climate) universes are more closely aligned.

  • Brian

    “It’ll probably take another few election cycles before the two parallel (climate) universes are more closely aligned.”

    What makes you think that? I don’t see it. The climate changes slowly over a long period of time, so even a continued steady upward trend will take at least two decades in my opinion for someone to really notice a significant change, and by that time, they’re 20 years older, with a slew of other physical changes so who knows if they will really notice or care?
     

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Brian,

    You make a good point. But my speculation about the political universe is not based on visible changes of climate change becoming more evident.

    It’s based on those facts on the ground taking place–in city and govt offices, where climate change is taken for granted and discussed as a reality (e.g., for purposes of adaptation). As that becomes more well known and accepted, then I think politicians who are dismissive of climate change will find it difficult to square their stance with the policies and measures being undertaken on local and regional levels.

  • Sashka

    City and state planners, like U.S military planners, are taking climate science seriously. If this trend continues, the union of garbage collectors will be called to witness stand.

  • Gaythia

    In the west, climate change issues are likely to play out first as water resource problems, as a warming climate increases already high evapotranspiration rates.
    But are we prepared to get serious?
    Pawnee National Grasslands, NE of my home, was created in the 1930′s when the Soil Conservation Service bought out failing farms.  These farms were originally created under the Homestead Act, in which each farm was only allowed only 160 acres, 1/4 of which had to be plowed.  An additional 160 acres could be had if 10 acres were planted with tree seedlings, 675 of which were supposed to be alive in 5 years.  This was all done with warped climate understanding promoted at the time, in which “plow and the rains will come” was presented as if it were reasonable advice.  More sensible, scientifically based assessments of arid western lands, such as that of John Wesley Powell, were discredited and ignored.  This philosophy was pushed by the railroad barons, (aided by a few unusually wet seasons) who wanted freight customers and had large blocks of land to sell, granted to them by the federal government for building the railroads westward.  The Dust Bowl was the result.
    But what are we now going to do with overbuilt housing in inhospitable places like Los Vegas, which gets only about 4 inches of rainfall a year now and has summertime temperatures of over 100F?  Are we prepared to buy out unfortunate “homesteaders” there and encourage them to relocate to some moister cooler place, Detroit, perhaps?  Or will we continue to bail out the banks and leave the residents to the foreclosure process without regard for long term prospects?
    Current trends are obviously not encouraging.

  • Sashka

    Over the last 150 the temps grew (for whatever reason) by 0.8 degree globally. Let’s guestimate (for lack of time for research) that US West warmed up up about as much. The population of the region over the same period of time probably quadrupled at least, more likely 10 times up. Which of the two factors is a bigger stress on water resources?

    Over the next 100 years, using the consensus guestimate, the temps will go up another 3 degrees and the population will probably double up at least. Which of the two factors will be a bigger stress on water resources?

  • kdk33

    “This was all done with warped climate understanding promoted at the time”

    An interesting observation.

  • Gaythia

    Population growth in the west is made possible by massive water projects, which, for example, allows me to live in the “Front Range”, eastern slope of the Rockies, but drink water that should be in the Colorado River basin.  It’s actually piped under Rocky Mountain National Park!  Early farmers in my immediate area couldn’t even use domestic wells (too alkaline) and relied on cisterns instead.  This obviously would have inhibited population growth here, if augmentation via various irrigation projects had not happened.
    John Wesley Powell, in his 1878 Report on the Arid Lands, advocated limited settlement with larger units than promoted by the  Homestead act, and irrigation only in the river basins. He also advocated governmental units based on watersheds.  He was forced out of his position as Director of the US Geological Survey due to the unpopularity of his positions on western development.  Science vs railroad barons works just about as well as science vs oil and coal lobbyists.
    Colorado’s square, continental divide straddling shape was intended to protect gold and silver mining for the Union, when created as a territory at the time of the Civil War.
    Powells state map proposal: http://bigthink.com/ideas/24964

  • Sashka

    That’s very nice but what about my questions?

  • Gaythia

    @8 My answer is that over the long haul, sustainability matters.  We can continue our current practices, for example, by watering alfalfa with circle irrigators until the Ogalala Aquifer runs dry.  We can buy some time for cities by drying up farmland.  We can run coal fired plants and ATV’s in the southwest, coat the Rockies snowpack with dust and hasten its melting and evaporation.
    We can warm the climate, which would tend to decrease the Rockies snowpack ability to serve as a water reservoir.  (Building more reservoirs has to be balanced with the fact that this also increases evaporation).
    The Anasazi offer a scary guideline as to how to crash land  arid lands civilization horrendously.  We can do that too!
    Or, alternatively  we can conserve water, and learn to live within our means.
    We could at least acknowledge that it the current situation exists because of governmental policies which subsidized certain special interests, and other policies, focused more on the public at large could be implemented instead.

  • Dean

    @4

    Over time, disaster fatigue combined with fiscal limitations are likely to decrease the country’s willingness to bail out people who chose to live in places with obvious risks. Such debate is always very public when folks live in fire-prone hills in Calif get burned out. If New Orleans gets flooded again, I wouldn’t expect nearly the same response.

    It’s different for disasters like the recent tornadoes because they are less predictable and huge expanses of land are subject to them. If droughts do in Las Vegas and Phoenix, lot’s of landowners are going to be high and dry.

    Not only will this affect the US domestically, but unfortunately I expect that the global response for countries will less resources will shrink as well.

    And following from @9, it’s not hard to point to some regions and suggest that agriculture there will not be happening in 50 years – the Imperial Valley, the Columbia Basin for example. Cities have much more political power and a lot of that water is going to be redirected to cities.

  • Tom C

    “Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways…”

    How can this statement be thrown around with impunity.  Can someone name one aspect of the climate that is chagning dramatically?

  • Gaythia

    @10 I believe that you need to rethink choice.  And rethink the ultimate public cost of lack of instituting appropriate regulation in the first place.
    I don’t think that just free choice was involved in initial decisions by African Americans to settle in New Oreleans 9th ward as opposed to the French Quarter for example.
    Similarly, much of Colorado’s best agricultural lands were taken up by wealthy investors, such as Greeley’s Union Colony, and Longmont’s Chicago-Colorado Colony.   These then recruited immigrant workers, (initially frequently Germans from Russia) some of whom later became farmers themselves.  I  don’t think that homesteaders chose the Pawnee Buttes area for a farm because they were too stupid to pick a river bottom, but rather they were taking their best shot at a good life from the choices available to them, aided and abetted by misleading propaganda.  When the Dust Bowl hit, it was to the public benefit to buy out the farmers and rehabilitate the land.  It would have been better  (and cheaper) to avoid plowing this land at all.
     

  • Jeff Norris

    the spate of defections from the GOP in recent years.
    Keith
    Apologies for being harsh.
    Is the concept of” spin” foreign to you and other Environmental reporters?   Why does anything that supports AGW prevent you from asking questions, being dubious, being wary, and not being gullible?  Have you considered that politicians may just be using Climate Change as a justification to gather support and financing for their actions (needed or not). Let’s take two examples from Ms. Kaufmans report.  Air conditioning and Swamp Oaks.
    After reading this 1994 article about the lack of AC’s in Chicago schools, why now is Climate Change suddenly used to promote the good idea of installing them?  Could it be that there is grant money connected to adaption; do politicians now think that by cloaking their actions with the word climate change it will be more acceptable than using it’s for our children.
    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-06-16/news/9406210005_1_chicago-public-schools-students-and-teachers-reading-class/1
    I won’t bore you with the arborist details of the swamp oak vs. white but don’t let the word swamp fool you.  If you look at the below links you will see that the White oak is found in much hotter climates, wetter climates  and is considered more tolerant to drought than the Swamp oak. So why the switch?  The white oak is getting hammered by various pests and diseases in the north, but the real reason is that the Swamp Oak is a faster grower and much hardier in an urban environment.  Look at it this way; if your city spends 10 mil on trees don’t you expect some shade from those trees and pretty darn quick.
    http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/quercus/alba.htm
    http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/quercus/bicolor.htm
    I am not against climate change adaption per se but the disingenuous promotion of it bugs the crap out of me. Like with the Military embrace a lot of this is just PR to justify common sense or a some ones political agenda.

  • Sashka

    I know that sustainability matters. I didn’t ask you about that. The question was, to rephrase it slightly, why are you trying to add climate to sustainability problem?

  • Dean

    @12

    I wasn’t commenting about fairness. But in most cases I expect that we will be talking about repeat disasters in the same place.

    @3

    Fortunately, nobody has to ask garbage collectors, they can ask the National Academy of Sciences. That’s what they were formed for – to advise the government on issues impacted by science. Or they could ask any other major science academy in the world since they all agree – if they want to take an average.

  • Tom Gray

    One good way  would be to not write op ed pieces that make implications about climate disasters that cannot be supported by the science

  • Sashka

    @ 12

    Of course it is easy to diagnose the wrong management decision in hindsight. It is much harder to have a foresight.

    @ 13

    We can discuss separately why academies want to jump on the bandwagon. My point above was, however, that we need to consult garbage collectors any less than generals or city planners.

  • Sashka

    Sorry, numbers shifted. In 17 I was referring to 15 not to 13.

  • jeffn

    @13- you hit the nail on the head. After presenting the “paving of alleys” at the top of the article as an adaptation to climate change, the story provides the real reason much lower down in the piece:
    “The city’s 13,000 concrete alleyways were originally built without drainage and are a nightmare every time it rains. Storm water pours off the hard surfaces and routinely floods basements and renders low-lying roads and underpasses unusable.”
    So. they needed to fix an expensive existing, well-known urban design flaw and by tagging the words “climate change” to the work order, the money suddenly appeared – along with a gullible writer from the NY Times to blow kisses at them. Nice work.
    And I love the idea of buying an air conditioning unit today for a temperature they expect in 50-60 years. ‘Cause I know lots of functional 50 year-old AC units. You too, right?

  • Dean

    “We can discuss separately why academies want to jump on the bandwagon. My point above was, however, that we need to consult garbage collectors any less than generals or city planners.”

    If people trusted the academies, I don’t think anybody would. We’re just looking for people whoa aren’t in on the conspiracy.

  • Sashka

    Conversely, since people don’t trust the academies, pointing to the opinions of garbage collectors will hardly help.

  • Jeff Norris

    Dean
    Is it possible that academics and many others may be looking at judgments thru an ideological lens?
    Dr. Pielke Jr notes a poll
    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2011/05/our-ideological-lenses.html
     According to an opinion poll taken last week, 57% of the French public and 70% who identify as supporters of the Socialist party believe that Dominque Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York was the result of a conspiracy to set him up
     Now I don’t read French and can not read the breakdown of numbers but the pollster stated “It is noteworthy that regardless of education level, the responses were similar,”

  • Dean

    @22 Jeff

    Dozens of academies in almost as many countries? No, I think think it is a realistic possibility that they are all similarly biased by ideology. A poll of the public on a short-term reaction to the arrest of somebody who was previously a respected figure to them _in their organization_ is hardly comparable to scientific academies evaluating a scientific subject that has been the subject of study for almost two centuries.

    I think it is far more likely that those who believe in such a situation are the ones looking at the issue through an ideological lens.

    Sashka is right though that if somebody thinks that the NAS and every other scientific academy has been corrupted by ideology, asking generals or city managers will do no good either.

  • Jeff Norris

    Dean(22)
    Thanks for the reply and I have to admit I can’t put much weight behind the poll other than the French are not immune to Conspiracy Theories either.  Still, if the dozens of proponent scientists who have actually studied the data are not driven by ideology are you willing to concede that the handful of   opponent or doubting Scientists are not also?  That they have reasonable and legitimate doubts regarding some if not all of the AGW theory.  Going a step farther, would you  also concede that supporters on both sides are more likely to be driven by their own bias or world view than by actually examining and understanding the Science?

  • Jack Hughes

    In my own city – Nelson in NZ – the council is taking the “climate orthodoxy” seriously.

    They are holding a series of meetings for townsfolk to discuss their plans for the next 40-50 years.

    These include the usual enviro talking points like ocean rise, peak  oil, etc, but they also want to talk about food supplies in the future and their concern about a widening gap between rich and poor in the  future.

    I think the council is going way beyond its remit: they should do a good job of collecting rubbish, building roads, cleaning parks and stop at that.

    In a parallel course of action the council is plowing ahead with a project to build a huge conference centre. This is in spite of a referendum that voted NO by 9:1.
    The only way the centre will make any money is by holding huge conventions for people travelling long distances and using big oil and big aero and using loads of water, generating rubbish etc etc . In fact doing the exact opposite of the “sustainability” project.

    The reality is that the council is OUT OF CONTROL. They do whatever makes them feel good.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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