BY Will Stahl
Last week two parallel news stories caught my attention. The more widely disseminated reported that 2014 was the warmest year globally since temperatures have been measured by instruments and recorded. In the United States, that means since 1880.
The other story was of Governor Walker and his new attorney general Brad Schimel joining a lawsuit against the EPA for new regulations mandating a reduction in carbon emissions. Walker’s rationale, expressed during his State of the State speech, was that these new regulations would cost too much and hurt Wisconsin manufacturers. On cue, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce stood up on its hind legs and bleated its agreement.
They took this action as the global warming denial hoax is slowly fading, as confirming evidence accumulates and cherry picking stray bits that seem contradictory is no longer credible. Just the other day the US Senate voted to accept the reality that the Earth’s climate is warming and it’s not a hoax, though they stopped short of acknowledging that human activities are responsible.
Even Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) co-sponsored the first bill, but on the second he said, “The hoax is that there are some people so arrogant to think they can change climate. Man cannot change climate.” Well, one step at a time.
Evidence that the Earth’s overall climate is warming has become an avalanche burying denialist arguments. The notion that the climate stopped warming in the nineties and is now cooling is simply flat-out untrue. Nine of the ten warmest years in recorded history have been since 2000, and the outlier is 1998. That year was so hot that deniers used it as the start point for a trend line that ends in 2012. Glanced at, such a chart makes it appear that not much warming has occurred since 1998, but a line drawn from 1990-2014 shows a steep increase.
It is true that global warming, as measured in surface temperatures, did not increase quite as much as some scientists had predicted, but careful measurement showed more heat than previously thought had accumulated in the deep oceans.
The temperature data usually cited are based on temperatures measured right at the surface of the land and sea. But the vast majority––over 90%––of the heat energy absorbed by the Earth is stored in the vast heat sink of the the oceans that cover about three-fourths of our planet.
As I’ve written before in these pages, the “warming” in global warming has not and will not cause the weather to heat uniformly around the world. Heat is the energy that drives our weather, specifically, that heat contained in the oceans. The more energy, the more powerful and chaotic the weather: heat waves, cold snaps, heavy snow, torrential rain and severe drought are all signatures of global warming.
You will hear denalists sneer that climate-change activists had to change “global warming” to “climate change” because most people weren’t seeing anything that looked like warming. This has been a point of discussion among the activist community since the constellation of phenomena that are the causes and effects of the Earth’s accumulating heat energy cannot be explained on a bumper sticker. Yes, the climate is changing, and yes, “warming” is driving that, and yes, humankind’s emitted greenhouse gases are the primary cause, but the relationship among them is complex and to a large degree unpredictable.
Wisconsin residents could be forgiven a level of skepticism about global warming while living through the winter of 2013-14. It was exceptionally cold here and very snowy. Two things about that:
One is that the eastern United States was the only piece of the inhabited Earth to experience colder-than-normal temperatures. California and Alaska had their warmest years ever, California blowing away its previous record year by about six degrees Fahrenheit. Anchorage, Alaska, had its first winter on record without a single day below zero. Siberia, Europe and Australia were all hotter than usual.
The other is that the sheer intensity of last winter’s weather seems to be linked to the changes in the oceans and the Arctic and their interacting effects on the jet stream. The much-discussed “polar vortex” is a normal circumpolar wind flow, allowed south by changes in the jet stream.
All of this has been occurring in the absence of any natural cause. No El Nino, normally a warmer, appeared this past year. The Sun is at solar minimum, sending us about the least amount of energy it ever does. The Earth on its axis has not wobbled to the position that should bring the greatest warmth.
How climate change will ultimately present in Wisconsin is a very open question. I have heard projections by a couple of UW climate scientists that by the end of this century, Wisconsin will have summers like present-day Arkansas and winters like Iowa. Models predict that our precipitation events would be big but erratic with dry periods between.
But we are a mid-continental region, our weather unmoderated by a nearby ocean, and though that means we will not have to deal with any rising sea-levels, mid-continental regions such as Siberia and the Midwest get hammered with weather from both ends, the poles and the tropics. The effect of revving up this already extreme weather with a continuing infusion of extra ocean heat cannot be accurately foreseen. We don’t have the temperature stabilizing effects of a seacoast, but we will feel the effects of changes in the oceans far away.
One more time, this is how it works: The sun radiates energy to the Earth, which is picked up by the atmosphere and the waters. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap the energy that would have earlier radiated back to space. Much of the heat retained by the atmosphere is absorbed into the heat sink of the ocean. The warmer ocean supplies more moisture to some weather systems and the extra energy drives wind to power all of them. Nothing mystical about it, all chemistry and physics. The mystery is in how this adrenalin charge of energy will affect the complex system that is our weather.
The effects are playing out all over the world. “Global warming” is not a religion or a cult or a hoax; it is what is happening. Most of the Senators know that, and if all those who knew it had voted to confirm the belief that human activity is affecting climate, the measure would have passed easily. Some simply knew their base voters would not have stood for a yes vote.
Those are the voters Scott Walker is relying on as he makes his legal move against the EPA. They are decent people who treasure their way of life or at least cannot imagine another. He is playing to their deep fears that a post-fossil fuel economy would be austere and closely supervised. He is, for all his talk of reform, the guardian of the status quo for those who believe him. Those who fund him expect just that.
When Walker says the new regulations will cost money and jobs, he is saying what conservatives have always said in these situations. The changes have never been as bad as predicted. In the sixteenth year of the twenty-first century, a real leader can’t act as if nothing matters but the amount of money fossil fuel-based corporations make. But Scott Walker wants to be president, and to have any chance he needs their money. And to get it he is going to have to keep approving of pipelines and mines and disapproving of regulations and laws that interfere with those developments. It’s worked for him so far.