by Elizabeth Kolbert
1 Last week, the Chinese government estimated that more than four million people were having trouble finding drinking water, owing to a drought along the Yangtze River. The French agricultural minister warned that an exceptionally hot, dry spring would reduce that country’s wheat harvest. And in Colombia more than two million acres of land have been submerged after almost a year of nearly continuous rain. “Over the past ten months, we have registered five or six times more rainfall than usual,” the director of Colombia’s meteorological agency, Ricardo Lozano, said.
2 For decades, climate scientists have predicted that, as global temperatures rose, the side effects would include deeper droughts, more intense flooding, and more ferocious storms. The details of these forecasts are immensely complicated, but the underlying science is pretty simple. Warm air can hold more moisture. This means that there is greater evaporation. It also means that there is more water, and hence more energy, available to the system.
3 What we are seeing now is these predictions being borne out. If no particular flood or drought or storm can be directly attributed to climate change – there’s always the possibility that any single event was just a random occurrence – the overall trend toward more extreme weather follows from the heating of the earth. As the cover of Newsweek declared last week, “weather panic” is the “new normal.” The larger problem is that this “new normal” won’t last. Each additional ton of carbon dioxide that’s spewed into the atmosphere contributes to further warming, thus increasing the risk of violent weather. The day after the President visited Joplin, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, in Paris, announced that, despite the economic slowdown, global CO2 emissions last year rose by a record amount, to almost thirty-one billion metric tons. “I am very worried,” Birol said. “This is the worst news on emissions.”
4 When Obama took office, he appointed some of the country’s most knowledgeable climate scientists to his Administration, and it seemed for a time as if he might take his responsibility to lead on this issue seriously. That hope has faded.
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