May 2011, Week 4


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Wed, 25 May 2011 23:19:44 -0400
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A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!

By Bill McKibben
Published: May 23

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections.
When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots
from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow
related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in
Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of
weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most
active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that
doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated,
unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try
to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning
across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at
this point this year than any wildfires have in previous
years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New
Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is
worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if
they’re somehow connected. 

If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder
about whether this year’s record snowfalls and rainfalls
across the Midwest — resulting in record flooding along
the Mississippi — could somehow be related. And then you
might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming,
and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting
for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we
will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since
warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.

It’s far smarter to repeat to yourself the comforting
mantra that no single weather event can ever be directly
tied to climate change. There have been tornadoes before,
and floods — that’s the important thing. Just be careful
to make sure you don’t let yourself wonder why all these
record-breaking events are happening in such proximity —
that is, why there have been unprecedented megafloods in
Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year. Why
it’s just now that the Arctic has melted for the first
time in thousands of years. No, better to focus on the
immediate casualties, watch the videotape from the store
cameras as the shelves are blown over. Look at the news
anchorman standing in his waders in the rising river as
the water approaches his chest.

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the
Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year
drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests
across the western part of this continent have been
obliterated by a beetle in the past decade — well, you
might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should
President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of
Wyoming to new coal mining? Should Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton sign a permit this summer allowing a huge
new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta?
You might also have to ask yourself: Do we have a bigger
problem than $4-a-gallon gasoline?

Better to join with the U.S. House of Representatives,
which voted 240 to 184 this spring to defeat a resolution
saying simply that “climate change is occurring, is caused
largely by human activities, and poses significant risks
for public health and welfare.” Propose your own physics;
ignore physics altogether. Just don’t start asking
yourself whether there might be some relation among last
year’s failed grain harvest from the Russian heat wave,
and Queensland’s failed grain harvest from its record
flood, and France’s and Germany’s current drought-related
crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in
Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn
planted in their sodden fields. Surely the record food
prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything

It’s very important to stay calm. If you got upset about
any of this, you might forget how important it is not to
disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies.
If worst ever did come to worst, it’s reassuring to
remember what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the
Environmental Protection Agency in a recent filing: that
there’s no need to worry because “populations can
acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral,
physiological, and technological adaptations.” I’m pretty
sure that’s what residents are telling themselves in
Joplin today.

Bill McKibben is founder of the global climate campaign
350.org and a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College
in Vermont.


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