During a sweltering summer of 1988, the year global warming first briefly surfaced as a national concern, I escaped a fetid Washington, D.C., for Three Capes on the Oregon Coast, Following a long early morning beach walk, as the family’s standard poodle shook salt water and sand on me, I switched on the motel TV and tuned in the “Today Show” to gloat.
Only two corners of America were enjoying temperatures under 90 degrees Fahrenheit, coastal areas in Oregon and Washington plus the northeast corner of America in Maine. The country and world were suffering while we watched the sun break through a gentle mist.
What has followed? Thirty-five years of sporadic response, resistance, and denial. The climate crisis has extended to and impacted all corners of the planet. It has intensified in equatorial regions, but also impacted our livable region and extended to both poles. Heat domes have been felt in Mexico, but also in northern Canada: 20 million acres of the Great White North have burned so far this year, blanketing cities on both sides of the border with smoke. One fire in northeast British Columbia is larger in size than the province of Prince Edward Island.
“Too Hot to Handle: How Climate Change May Make Some Places Too Hot to Live,” reads an analysis from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So far in July, the Earth has experienced the three hottest days of average temperature since record keeping began four decades ago. June ranks as the warmest month on record.
“The health dangers of extreme heat have scientists and medical experts increasingly concerned and for good reason: Heat stress is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States each year,” said the NASA analysis.
The human causes of the Earth’s warming, namely carbon emissions into the atmosphere, are no longer in dispute. Climate change is producing weather extremes, from atmospheric rivers coming off the Pacific Ocean to the heat dome that enveloped the Pacific Northwest two years ago. The town of Lytton, British Columbia in the Fraser Canyon recorded a temperature of 112 degrees Fahrenheit, Canada’s temperature record. A wildfire swept through Lytton, burning 90 percent of the village and killing two people.
Climate change has hit home to places that are helping to cause it. A prime example: Drought conditions and heat impacts are hitting the boreal forests of northern Canada. A flash fire in 2016 caused thousands to flee Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of Canada’s oil production, destroying 2,400 homes and businesses. Portions of the “oil patch” had to be evacuated again this year.
When I was walking the dog at Cape Lookout, and George H.W. Bush was promising to become “the environmental president,” there was a clear window for pro-active response to the looming climate crisis. The window is closing fast. The pace of warming has increased — witness not only drought in the Horn of Africa but the speed at which Earth’s atmosphere broke a startling record of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That hasn’t happened for millions of years.
If you want explanation for the delayed, sporadic response, start with disconnect and dysfunction in the “other” Washington. The inland Northwest, indeed the entire Mountain West, is suffering prolonged drought conditions, with spring arriving earlier and the wildfire season lasting longer. We’ve experienced conflagrations such as the 256,108-acre Carlton Complex Fire in north-central Washington, the largest single wildfire in state history.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, represents Eastern Washington in Congress. She has vigorously promoted a GOP-sponsored energy package which extends incentives and subsidies for the oil and gas industry, opens and reopens public lands to drilling and coal mining, and speeds up licensing of power plants. While fires burn in her district, CMR uses social media to roast climate activists as obstructionists.
Globally, the climate crisis is uprooting a new set of migrants – climate refugees. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has reported that an average of 215 million people are displaced by such climate-related conditions as heat, rising sea levels, harvest-destroying events, as well as climate extremes. An example, two Category-4 hurricanes hit Central America in November of 2020, sending refugees fleeing north out of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank which produces an annual global terrorism and peace index, has forecast the world may see 1.2 billion climate refugees by mid-century. The Pentagon has wisely begun to evaluate climate as a national security issue.
Once more, we are not immune. Heat domes are commonplace over north-central Mexico and the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest. They are intensifying, witness the hundred- degree temperatures and 120-degree heat indexes recorded this month from Arizona to Louisiana. But heat domes have hit Canada and central China this spring, with one lodging over the Midwest at the start of summer.
As well, the phenomenon known as El Nino is warming surface water, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. Warmer sea water fuels and intensifies tropical storms, an example being the refueling of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Of late, our national weather maps have shown millions facing heat dangers while rains drench other parts of the country. Ex-Vice President Al Gore spoke of “rain bombs” when training climate activists in Bellevue six years ago. They dropped on upstate New York this past weekend.
Looking to the ends of the Earth, such as the rapidly warming Arctic, there is evidence that melting permafrost and glaciers are releasing a potent greenhouse gas – methane – into the atmosphere. The latest evidence, a study of 78 glaciers on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. In words of scientist Gabrielle Kleber of the University of Cambridge, “Glaciers are retreating due to climate warming, and they are leaving these exposed forefields behind, which are encouraging methane gas to be released.”
The punishing conditions of hot, long-ago 1988 were characterized by usually jolly “Today” weatherman Willard Scott as a “wake-up call” on warming. Alas, much of the country slumbered on or went back to sleep. A wakeup has come, but so far only a few regions, notably West Coast states, are undertaking meaningful programs to reduce carbon emissions. We are acting here but feeling impacts from inaction elsewhere.
The carbon economy has deployed a multiplicity of weapons in defense of its prerogatives. The Koch Industries-based political network spends millions on campaigns as well as front groups. Such outfits as the American Legislative Exchange Council craft legislation to obstruct, rather than encourage, transition to a green economy. Television advertising warns of the threat to “energy independence.” The politicians of America’s right are conjuring up other dangers to the Republic: transgender teenagers using school bathrooms, proposed curtailment of gas stoves, “woke” history taught in schools and threats to “parents’ rights.”
Since my beach walk at Cape Lookout, the face of global warming has surpassed scientists’ predictions, from the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere to the retreat of glaciers and shrinking of the Arctic Icepack.
In the summer of ’88, buddies of mine prepped for a Mt. Rainier climb with a practice weekend in the Olympics on the Anderson Glacier. There is no more Anderson Glacier. It has melted. What conditions will we, and our descendants, witness in another 35 years if we do not curb carbon emissions?
A version of this article first appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s Cascadia Advocate.