The sun has been shining on us much of the summer in a town an author once fictionalized as “Rain City,” but these environs and just about every place on earth are coming to face the gathering consequences of climate change and a warming planet.
“The world just sweltered through its hottest August on record,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week, citing 174 years of records. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps greenhouse gases, have jumped from 280 to 424 parts per million since the mid-1800s. Carbon dioxide levels are now more than 50 percent higher than they were before the onset of the Industrial Age.
NOAA just announced a new record of climate catastrophes. With nearly a quarter of the year left, the United States has already experienced 23 disasters costing at least $1 billion. Two recent events made for the record, the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina on Maui and Hurricane Idalia that took on strength in warm Gulf of Mexico waters and struck northern Florida.
In the face of mounting evidence, however, blowback has come from climate skeptics and outright deniers in science and politics. Even after the Gulf-fueled hurricane, the Sunshine State’s dour Gov. Ron DeSantis snapped that it is “time to stop politicizing the weather and stop politicizing natural disasters.” Fox News went into ecstasy.
Skeptics are of various stripes, but they seem united in the view that dangers of global warming are being exaggerated – often deliberately. They specialize in explaining that each climate catastrophe is not caused by climate change. Some go further into celebrating all the positive properties of carbon dioxide.
“There is no climate emergency,” said a statement from 1,609 members of the scientific community, released in late August by an outfit called the Global Science Intelligence Group. The statement added: “Scientists should openly address uncertainties and exaggerations in their predictions of global warming.”
No one has been more outspoken than John Clauser, a theoretical physicist who shared the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum technology. There is, in Clauser’s words, “no cause for panic and alarm,” and that the public has become worked up by “misguided science” that has “metastasized into massive shock journalistic pseudoscience.”
“There is no statistical evidence that global warming is intensifying hurricanes, floods, droughts and such like natural disasters, or making them more frequent,” Clauser argues. Familiar words in these parts. In his weather blog, UW atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass regularly declares that the latest climate event to hit here, whether atmospheric rivers or hundred-year fall storms, is not the result of climate change.
“Climate change plays only a small role, if any, in major wildfires such as the Maui fire,” Mass argued last week. He has lately taken after The Seattle Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey. Fairview Fannie has deployed “hype and exaggeration,” in his words, unnecessarily scaring people. He once targeted Craig Welch’s much-praised investigative series for the Times on ocean acidification.
Cliff has also sought to straighten me out, writing recently: “You are making a fundamental error in saying that we are in crisis. The truth is clear. The planet is slowly warming from increases in carbon dioxide. There is no crisis caused by it . . . The world will not become uninhabitable. And new energy sources (e.g. fusion) will solve most of the problem by mid-century.”
Climate skeptics also claim they are being silenced by climate scientists and activists. They claim, using innuendo and rarely producing evidence, that scientists are tailoring their findings on global warming to fit the fashions of the moment. They have particularly targeted the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The International Monetary Fund recently withdrew a speaking invitation to Clauser. Cliff Mass claimed to be the victim of bullying and persecution, within his own department, in the wake of his opposition to Initiative 131, the carbon-fee measure rejected by Washington voters.
About three years ago, as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd announced he would no longer invite guests who dispute global warming. Such was the scientific consensus and imminent danger, said Todd, that climate consequences could no longer be treated as he said/she said.
Skeptics have found a political home in the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. Ex-President Trump has called global warming “a hoax” even as one of his golf courses takes measures to hold back rising sea levels. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, ran outside the U.S. Capitol during a winter storm, bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor to make the “hoax” argument.
As chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Spokane Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., has emerged as a Rachel Carson-in-reverse. She has sponsored and managed GOP energy legislation that encourages drilling and mining on public lands, eases power plant permitting, and continues subsidies for Big Oil.
Last week, McMorris Rodgers was managing a bill by House Republicans that would squash California’s efforts to phase out gas-powered vehicles in the next decade. Times have changed. The California Air Resources Board was established by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, and as President the Gipper agreed to a federal freeze on emission levels of nitrogen oxide.
I’ve found climate skeptics to be a touchy lot. They complain of being picked on, constantly stretch credentials to get themselves taken seriously. If you knew what we know, you wouldn’t believe all those alarmists, they say condescendingly.
The observant lay person, looking in, becomes skeptical of the skeptics. If storms are not intensifying due to global warming, how is it that Hurricane Idalia ballooned from a Category 1 to Category 4 storm as it moved through record-warm water in the Gulf of Mexico? How do you explain away millions of acres of forests killed by the pine bark beetle, where warming winters have produced infestations?
Catastrophic forest and wildfires fires have become “the new normal” across North America. Sure, we’ve mismanaged forests, as Cliff Mass points out, but the fire season across our continent has grown by weeks due to warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. How, then, can you claim that climate change hasn’t played a major role?
Skeptics make their case using models and computer simulations, and by challenging reports from the IPCC. Many skeptics don’t leave the ivory tower and strike out to witness what’s going on in the world. Witnessing, in these parts, is to be done in the mountains. The evidence is that climate is a crisis now. Follow Psalm 121 and lift your eyes unto the hills.
“Glaciers were melting before we could have been the cause: We are just adding to it,” Cliff Mass wrote to me. Largely true, although the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers on Mt. Baker were robustly advancing during the 1960s, growth measured by UW engineering Prof. Art Harrison. However, the speed of the glaciers’ retreat in my lifetime, as CO2 has built up in the atmosphere, is phenomenal.
Above my stairwell at home is a picture of the glacier-clad summits of Mts. Hinman and Daniel, on the Cascade Crest in eastern King County. I took the photo 30 years ago from above the Robin Lakes. Since then, the ice atop Hinman has melted completely. Only the Lynch Glacier remains on Daniel, likely soon gone. A slide from backpack trip shows a healthy Anderson Glacier in Olympic National Park, where Seattle PI colleagues went to practice self-arrest in preparation for a Rainier climb. The Anderson Glacier and Lillian Glacier in the Olympics have disappeared. The U.S. Geological Survey started studying the remote, high elevation South Cascade Glacier in the 1950s. It has largely melted.
Glaciers are always pulling forward and back, but not at the damaging pace at which this is happening. There are damaging consequences for the planet. The two greatest rivers of China, the Yangtze and Yellow, rise from receding glaciers of the Himalayas. Ice from Canadian Rockies glaciers sustains summer flow in the Athabasca and Saskatchewan River systems.
Gary Paull is not a climate scientist, but a climate impacts witness. He is longtime trails and recreation director of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, someone I met in the 1970s as a UW student working for an Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Now retired, Paull has set out to regain summits he scaled way back then. Here is what he’s finding:
“Basically, if these current summers keep going the way they have been there will be no glaciers left in the Cascades except for the upper portion of the tallest peaks. Late summer stream flows are way down from what they used to be. Many new lakes have appeared as the ice tongues have retreated or disappeared altogether (Hinman and White Chuck). The glacier above our house on Whitehorse is now the smallest it has ever been.”
The Northwest depends on its glaciers. The melt sustains summer stream flows: If less glacier, less melt. We need the river flow for irrigation, hydroelectric power, salmon and fish habitat, as well as recreation. Rivers are life sustaining, the essential resource that provides the good life in this privileged corner of the planet.
Skeptics offer a variety of explanations for what is warming the planet and causing climate extremes. Two critics of IPCC, Stephen Koonin and Judith Curry, see causes for this summer’s record heat. One is the ocean warming of El Nino. Another is that an underwater volcanic explosion is to blame for increasing upper atmosphere water vapor, which acts as a greenhouse gas.
“Deaths from extreme weather events are down 90 percent in the last century,” Cliff Mass wrote me. He’s right on hurricane forecasting as one new factor in the decline. Residents along the Gulf Coast, for instance, opted to ride out Hurricane Camille in 1969, not realizing it would come ashore as a Category 5 with a 24-foot surge. The storm killed or drowned 296 people.
This month, however, we have seen a climate catastrophe, the storm off the Mediterranean which caused two dams to breach and killed 11,000 people in the Libran city of Derma. The dams, built in the 1970s, were faulty in design and poorly maintained in a country battered by civil war. But climate change comes into play, having made land “drier, harder and increasingly shorn of vegetation,” the New York Times reported. Water from a powerful storm poured down denuded hillsides and overpowered the dams.
Pope Francis is not a climate scientist but a student of injustice and suffering. The pontiff has focused on spreading desertification and drought in Africa, which has caused hundreds of thousands flee to toward Europe. Nearly 2,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year. “When we look, what do we see?” Francis asked last month. “Many are being devoured in conditions that make it impossible to survive.”
What is the end game for climate skeptics? They’re playing several games. Some sincerely argue that efforts to de-carbonize the economy are overly ambitions, setting goals that will cause more pain than gain. A mini-version of this argument is in play here, made by those promoting an initiative to repeal Washington’s new cap-and-trade law.
Big Oil is a big player. The industry knows that the market for electric cars will rise and that demand for other products of the carbon economy will slow. But it will profit and prosper if demand stays higher for decades longer than goals set by IPCC and the Biden Administration. Debate, doubt, and skepticism are instruments to these ends.
And the cost of delay? Impacts of climate change are intensifying everywhere. The impossible seems suddenly plausible. The atmosphere’s CO2 level topped 400 parts per million well ahead of predictions. An all-time high of 38.4 degrees Celsius (103 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded this summer at Fort Smith in Canada’s far north Northwest Territories, where the NWT’s only city, Yellowknife, had to be evacuated because of an advancing fire. .
The heart of Canada’s Glacier National Park is one of North America’s stunning places. I hiked up Mt. Abbott a few years back, looking out over ice of the Illecilewatt Neve to arrowhead-shaped 10,818-foot Mt. Sir Donald. A fast-flowing namesake river flows from the glacier. I had a recent exchange with a friend in his mid-20’s who lives in nearby Revelstoke. Keenan Simpson is not a climate scientist, but a world-class kayaker and student of rivers.
“I try not to think about it,” he wrote. “The Illecilewatt River, which flows from Glacier Park to Revelstoke, will run empty in the fall once the Illecilewatt Glacier melts.” Huh? The glacier is receding but flows out of an icefield in a region of peaks as high as 11,000 feet. But Keenan responded by holding to his prediction: “Yeah, no time soon, but I reckon before I croak, the Illecilewatt will melt.”
What type of world are we leaving my friend and those who come after? What price do we pay for uncertainty and delay? A famous phrase of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of “the urgency of now.”