by Joe Shea
March 19, 2012
ISRAEL, IRAN AND 'MORAL EQUIVALENCE'
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The outbreak of another round of powerful and deadly tornadoes last week in the Midwest and South was unusual in one respect - you don't normally see storms like that in the first week of March.
But it has been a milder than normal winter in much of the nation, so that the conditions that spawn tornadoes and other severe weather were in place earlier than usual.
It looks like 2012 is picking up where 2011 left off. From extreme drought, heat waves and floods, to unprecedented tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms, there were a record 14 weather and climate disasters in 2011 that each caused $1 billion or more in damages, according to the National Weather Service.
As Dr. Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and founder of the weather site Weather Underground, put it last year, what we are seeing "is either a fluke, the start of a new trend, or an early warning symptom that the climate is growing unstable and is transitioning to a new, higher energy state with the potential to create unprecedented weather and climate events."
Going by my observations in Vermont, I would take Masters' third option - we are entering an age of climate instability.
In Vermont, 2011 was marked by heavy snowstorms, followed by a rainier-than-normal spring that caused flooding in the Champlain Valley, followed by flash flooding in May that caused lots of damage in central Vermont, followed by Tropical Storm Irene in August.
Irene, which was one of the most destructive storms in Vermont history, was not necessarily the biggest or most powerful storm the state had ever seen.
But, in the view of author and environmental activist Bill McKibben, Vermont had the misfortune of being at the receiving end of what became a catastrophic weather event of the type that climate scientists have been warning us about.
"What's interesting about that storm is that it fits precisely with what the climatologists have been telling us to expect," he told the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee in January. "It was not an unbelievably powerful wind storm as it swept up the East Coast, but over the waters of New York and New Jersey it encountered record surface temperatures. This allowed it to soak up enormous amounts of moisture."
Those enormous amounts of moisture - between 8 and 11 inches of rain in a matter of few hours - came down on Vermont when Irene arrived last Aug. 28. That rain was falling over a state that had already received more rain than usual, and had no place for additional water to go. The result was widespread flooding that killed six people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, told lawmakers that storms such as Irene are a direct result of a planet that has grown steadily warmer. Warmer air temperatures mean that more water evaporates in drier areas and then is deposited in wetter areas such as New England in record-breaking amounts, he pointed out.
McKibben has been leading protests against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from northwest Canada to the Texas coast, a project that climatologists say has the potential to quickly and permanently raise the planet's temperatures to uninhabitable levels.
While he acknowledged that the effects of climate change don't recognize national borders and state boundaries, he made it clear that every state can make a difference.
"Vermont, obviously, by itself cannot make this happen," said McKibben. "By the same token, that argument is true for every single jurisdiction considering this stuff as well. Everyone has the excuse that by myself this will not make a huge difference. If everyone takes this excuse, then nothing will happen. If some places are wise enough to take a leadership position, not only will they be setting themselves up more wisely for the century now dawning, they'll also at least be running the possibility of providing the example to others."
McKibben urged Vermont lawmakers to do what their counterparts in Washington refuse to do - take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help prevent even more catastrophic storms from hitting Vermont - and he was quite blunt about what is needed. "Make as rapid a transition as possible off of fossil fuel and on to something else," he said. "There is no Plan B."
Vermont is trying to do its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is up against powerful forces - namely the fossil fuel industry - that wish to maintain the status quo. But McKibben is right: There is no Plan B.
We're about to reach the point where it is too late to deal with slowing down the rate of climate change, when the focus will have to shift to coming up with ways to cope with the effects of a drastically changed climate. The only question is whether we can do it in time - before our increasingly extreme weather gets more extreme.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.