Notes from a Warming World

Temperature Gauge

Icy Hot

Remember “Al Gore’s igloo” on the lawn of the US Capitol? Climate change denialists had a blast when much of the US and Europe got clobbered by exceptionally cold and snowy winters in 2009-10 and again in 2010-11. Well, it looks like the last laugh is on anti-science crowd once more.

The increase in blizzards may, in fact, be caused by the trend of warmer summers, a team of scientists concluded in a recently published study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Sounds counterintuitive? Here’s how it works: Rising summer temperatures in the Arctic means that the atmosphere can hold more moisture, and that leads to an increase in autumn snowfall in some high-latitude areas. This helps explain why the average snow cover in Eurasia has increased over the past two decades even as average global temperatures have risen. At the same time, the additional snow cover has triggered a kind of feedback loop by changing what’s called the Arctic Oscillation, the air pressure pattern that determines winter weather in the Northern Hemisphere. When the oscillation is in a negative phase, high-pressure cells push colder air toward the mid-latitudes, triggering colder temperatures and heavy snowstorms.

What’s the takeaway from all the meteorology? Perhaps we should forget the term “global warming.” Better to just call it “climate change,” or perhaps “climate chaos.”

Sunshade Won’t Cool

A second great hope of the denialist crowd was also punctured recently: A weaker sun over the next century will not counteract the greenhouse effect, much less usher us into a new ice age.

Our star experiences a kind of ebb and flow cycle of heightened and lessened activity. During the twentieth century, solar activity increased to a peak level and recent studies have suggested this zenith has reached, or is nearing, its end. The sun is now expected to enter a relative lull through about 2100.

photo of people sledding on an innertube in front of the US capitol Go figure: Hotter summers will make for more snow during the winter.

Some climate change deniers have floated the idea that the increase in global temperatures in recent decades was due to the sun’s fluctuations. After climatologists shot down that argument, a few in the denialist scene suggested that perhaps, at the very least, a solar dimming would reduce global temperatures. Not so fast, say scientists from Britain’s Meterological Office. They have found that a decrease in the sun’s output would lead to fall in global temperatures of only .08 degrees Celsius. But greenhouse gas emissions are expected to boost global temperatures by at least 2 degrees Celsius.

Since a weaker sun won’t save us, it looks like we’re on our own when it comes to finding a way to blunt the greenhouse effect.

So Long, Farewell

At least the Canadians waited until the party was over to spoil the fun. Last December – just days after the UN’s most recent climate change summit wrapped up in Durban, South Africa – Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that his country was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. The decision marked the first time that a participant in the Kyoto system has removed itself from the greenhouse gas reduction effort. George W. Bush “unsigned” the US from the treaty in 2001, but the US, unlike Canada, had never ratified the agreement.

Calling the treaty “radical and irresponsible, Kent said that complying with the terms of Kyoto would cost Canada thousands of jobs and $14 billion a year in penalties. He then went from exaggeration to mind-blowing hyperbole. Meeting Canada’s Kyoto commitments, Kent said, would require the equivalent of “removing every car, truck, ATV, tractor, ambulance, police car, and vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads.”

The government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be overreaching in more than just rhetoric. A month after Kent’s announcement, Daniel Turp, a professor of law at the University of Montreal and former member of Parliament, brought a lawsuit against the government challenging the withdrawal. Turp’s lawsuit charges that the Harper government violated national law by withdrawing from the treaty without first consulting Parliament.

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