Climate Change, not Global Warming

We have the tireless force for good Al Gore (oh, among others) to thank for the currency of the misnomer ‘Global Warming’. What we are more likey in the middle of is ‘Global Climate Systems Change’. The planet as a whole does seem to be warming up right now, and recent evidence suggests our activities are contributing to this, but so are other non-human factors.

But the emphasis on warming misses a larger point. Right now, we in the northeast are in the middle of an extraordinary run of warm weather – we’re all talking about global warming as it rains (simply unheard of) on the sixth of January in Maine. Who could doubt global warming when there is no ice on the ponds, the fresh-water ducks have not yet flown, the ground underfoot is muddy, and the magnolia’s all but in flower?

The people in Denver, that’s who, buried under the third snowstorm in the month. I don’t imagine they are talking about global warming out there much right now, but they are very much seeing what is really going on, which is global climate change.

The climatologists study ice cores, taken from the large ice sheets in Greenland and Antartica for instance, which reveal the year-by-year snowfall, including particulates and atmospheric gasses, for the last couple of hundred thousand years (Alley, The Two Mile Time Machine). Analysis of these cores reveals that the planet works under a stable climate for period of a few thousand years, then goes through a transitional period of wild, unpredictable weather, and then settles again into a new and didfferent system for a few thousand years, and then fluctuates wildly again.

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Now the factors that precipitate these sudden launches from stable into unstable are exactly the ones we see on the move now: release of greenhouse gasses, changes in the ozone. The climate system will tolerate some variation in these levels, while still maintaining the stable climate system. At some point, some critical factor crosses a threshold, and the whole climate system goes into flux – uncontrollable, huge, unpredictable.

So the factor can vary pretty widely and still the system will adjust. Once it stops adjusting, however, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

We have no knowledge of whether we have already crossed some threshold into one of these wild transitions, but we do know this: We are in year 11,892 of the current stable climate era. Never has there been, in the time we know about, such a long period of one stable climate system. So we are way overdue for a shift.

Some folks, in fact, think that our activities may have contributed to the longevity of the era, the burning of the crops and cutting of the trees keep the climate within a narrow band. Whether or not that is the case, you have lived your whole lifem with all its weather variations, whtin this Stable Climate Era. Of course, not only you but all your ancestors – Jefferson, Jesus, even Noah – lived within the Stable Climate Era. The entire agricultural revolution that led to all our cities, which in turn grew our cultures, and most notably our current industrial agricultural foodstuff-delivery system – all this happened within this oddly long Stable Climate Era.

The SCE began with the end of the last Ice Age nearly 12,000 years ago. At that time, there was a mile of ice piled on top of where I write now. No soil, no people, no trees. The unstable period between the Ice age stable climate system and our current climate system was only three years (other transitional periods are usually on the 50-150 year range). Of course, once it settled into the current pattern, it took a few thousand years for the ice to retreat and leave New England as the ledge-ribbed, bone-scraped, stone-walled – and now sodden mess that it is this January.

So at the time Baghdad (the city we Americans now bomb with contempt) was forming as a gathering place of nomads, among the first cities within the fertile crescent, we were just getting started into the stable climate era that would carry us through the development of cotton, wheat, chickpeas, grazing herds – all the staples that made civilization possible.

So, we’re long overdue for a transition to a new system, and we’re pushing a positive feedback loop on emissions that strain the boundaries of this Stable Climate Era, and the kicker is that we will be in the transitional time, with no turning back, by the time we know that to be the case. We may have already crossed the threshold, and we may be seeing the early signs of the wildly fluctuating era in the strange warmth in the northeast, and the continual dumping on Denver.

There’s no predicting what will take place from year to year in your area if this fluctuating transitional period takes hold, and no telling when it will stabilize again, or who will be in a desert or a rainforest when it is done. Egypt wasn’t always sandy.

One set of people who are beginning to sit up and take notice of this are the insurance companies, and especially the re-insurance companies who spread large risks around – they are very interested in trends, and they see the trend toward higher weather-related payouts – on the scale of billions. It could easily rise to trillions if current trends continue.

One other prediction is sure: the price of food will skyrocket. When our industrial agricultural system – developed, refined, and automated under the Stable Climate Era – meets this degree of change, the harvest will become unreliable and the price of everything will rise astronomically. As I said on this blog a few weeks ago, get off the grid and plant a garden, and hope that the fluctuating climate allows you a crop. Hungry people go to war.

I love the current crop of young folks, and I agree with them that we will muddle through somehow, that this is not the end of the world. It could presage a Great Winnowing, when many of us will die, to leave a hardier stock to face the Brave New World, or maybe all of the foregoing is too pessimistic, and we will continue to cope, or even thrive.

But I don’t think so. I don’t think my own (Western, USA) lifestyle is supportable for everyone on the planet to have. But I think everyone sees this lifestyle on TV and wants it, and therein lies the rub. Whatever the motivation, the consumption and waste continue, but so does the building knowledge. Which will win out? It’s fascinating.

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