Hot Enough For You?

So far, the summer of 2012 has been a scorcher for most of the U.S., following hot on the heels of a much warmer than usual winter. 

Last week, as reported by the Washington Post, the National Climatic Data Center released its State of the Climate report for June, in which NCDC noted that not only were the last 12 months of U.S. temperatures the hottest in recorded history, the last 13 months in a row were all well above average.  The NCDC then calculated the chances of this series of above-average temperature outcomes happening randomly to be on the order of 1 out of 1.6 million.  (Subsequent analysis suggests that the true odds may be somewhat lower, but still extraordinarily slim.)

It’s thus very tempting to claim that the recent heat must be due to anthropogenic climate change, what some people term “man-made global warming”…and it may be so.  This article hints that the recent heat wave “is what climate change looks like.”

Of course, responsible journalists know that any small sample of weather results, even a whole year’s worth of data over an entire continent, can not possibly be conclusive.  This recent oped in the Los Angeles Times makes all the right caveats. 

The one data trend that’s most troubling to me is the ratio of record high temperatures to record low temperatures.  Logic dictates that this ratio, in a stable climate, should be approximately 1:1.  However, as reported here (by Fox News, no less!), the website Climate Central has been tracking the ratio at approximately 2:1 for the past several years, with about 7:1 for 2012 to date.

In the most extreme example I know, as reported here, the record high temperature for International Falls MN on March 19 was eclipsed this spring by that day’s low temperature.  (The prior day’s high temperature obliterated the previous record high by a ridiculous 22 degrees F.)

What are ya gonna do?  Well, adapt. 

It’s not a new thought:  I recall Bill Nitze making this case to me about eight years ago, recognizing that whatever response humans might make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was going to be insufficient to completely prevent significant climate changes from occurring.  Thus, we’d better prepare.

Nitze’s credentials as a thought-leader for the cleantech sector are unimpeachable, but the concept of focusing on adaptation rather than prevention was (and remains) to me somewhat of a surrenderist perspective. 

Now, as reported here by the Associated Press, we’re hearing some of the same things from Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)

Basically, Tillerson’s message is:  climate change is happening, human activity is probably causing it, but it’s not that big of a deal, fear-mongers are overblowing the issue, and humans can adapt sufficiently.  “It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

Gee, thanks, that’s reassuring:  coming from the same company that brought you the Exxon Valdez, the accident that couldn’t happen.

As an aside, adaptation-enabling or -related technologies will be difficult for the investor community to finance, simply because it’s unclear who the customers would be, and what pricing mechanisms would support them.

So, are we going to have to wait until climate change becomes unmanageable before we start managing it?  Because, if we do wait that long, we’ll be behind the curve by several decades. 

Tillerson’s comments became somewhat of a news item because ExxonMobil has historically tended to deny climate change as an issue, and the fingerprints (i.e., funding) of ExxonMobil have been found on many of the works by climate change skeptics.

In response to ExxonMobil’s kinda-sorta admission of climate change, the Financial Times ran its own oped:  adaptation is necessary, but it shouldn’t be sufficient, as the response to the situation we collectively face. 

Echoing the sort of calculus that was first and most famously pursued in the Stern report of 2006, FT argues that “the warmer the world gets, the more likely it is that [the costs of climate change] will outweigh the price tag for curbing emissions…The sooner the world gets to grips with it, the lower the eventual costs will be.”

In other words, FT (and the Stern report) suggest that simply relying on adaptation ex post will be more expensive than taking some ameliorating actions in advance.

Alas, there simply is not the political will to do anything in the near-term.  I recall a candid off-the-record conversation about a year ago with a recently-retired C-level executive from a major oil company who previewed Tillerson’s comments from last month, but with a harsher reality.  I don’t remember his exact words, but they were something like:  “Anthropogenic climate change is almost certainly happening, but there are too many vested interests at stake that want society NOT to do anything about it.  So, we’ll have to adapt.”

Maybe at some point there will be enough decision-makers and thought-leaders who will eventually feel that there’s enough evidence to do something proactive to mitigate man-made climate change.  However, aided by the fact that the playbook of climate deniers is ingenious at obfuscating public and political opinion, there is likely to always be a significant enough body of power for whom climate science is not sufficiently “settled”.  For these people, there will never be definitive proof of human-induced climate change, and thus never adequate justification for action.  They are likely to be blockers for a long time to come.

Without political action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and without a situation conducive to investment in adaptation, our society will likely be faced with increasing climatic pummeling by a world going madder. 

If it’s not hot enough for you now, just wait till next decade.

Absent an at-scale program with the potential for meaningful impact, my best idea for individual adaptation:  a cold beer in the shade, anyone?

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  1. […] its State of the Climate report for June, in which NCDC noted that not only were the last […] Cleantech Blog TAGS:  Enough This entry was posted on Monday, July 16th, 2012 at 4:08 pm and is filed […]

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