“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
— Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Aug. 3, 2021.
This spring’s Liberty Bell High School graduates are in the first cohort of young homo sapiens in history to get a genuinely long-term weather forecast.
Regrettably, it promises 30 years of ruinous climate.
They will endure it for at least three decades regardless of what we do, or don’t do, about climate change. They will be halfway through their lives before they might see a taming of killer climate.
And then what? Will they endure ever-hotter temperatures beyond 2050?
That does depend on what we do today. They will see climate taming only if we make immediate changes in how we power up.
“We’re now just fighting for a livable Earth,” says University of Washington fire research ecologist Susan Pritchard of Winthrop, the mother of one of those Liberty Bell graduates. “We desperately need to change course.”
“It will get worse forever” if we don’t eliminate fossil fuels, adds part-time Winthrop resident Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.
Humanity’s sentence to 30 years of increasingly costly, intolerable climate is irrevocable, according to the latest “red alert for humanity” report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses and reports findings of international research on climate change.
In the Methow, we can expect 30 years of more-frequent, hotter heat domes than the one that reached 114 degrees F on my deck at the end of June; more-frequent, intense wildfires, more toxic smoke. Less water in our rivers. Less retention of the mountain snowpack that sustains our hydro-powered lives.
The Washington Post, dubbing Winthrop “a cautionary tale,” kindly came to town to tell the world of our woes as Winthrop’s air quality registered as the worst in the nation, perhaps the world.
It did not dwell on a major reason for our smoky troubles: a century of federal wildfire suppression that unnaturally stockpiled fuels in our watershed. But the Post did remind us that Okanogan County has had the most days of compromised air of any county in this state over the last decade. This time we essentially got six weeks’ worth.
The Earth has grown an average of 1.9 degrees F hotter since pre-industrial times, according to “current best estimates,” the UN report says. The signatory nations to the 2015 Paris climate agreement say they hope to keep the increase from going beyond 2.7 F , though that agreement set a less stringent formal goal: prevent warm-up from surpassing 3.6 F.
However, we may reach the 2.7 F increase as early as the end of this decade, the panel warned. Above that, some low-lying island nations expect to drown.
The damaging greenhouse gas emissions we’ve already released will play themselves out in three more decades. Then, if we’ve done the politically hard, expensive things, we may be able to stabilize the climate at a livable temperature, the report says.
If we do less than required to save ourselves from worst-case scenarios, temperatures late in this century may reach as high as a catastrophic 11 degrees F above pre-industrial levels, it warns.
Hereabouts we’ll continue to struggle with baked-in vexations, notably poisonous smoke from wildfire.
“We don’t do proactive [fire] management,” argues Pritchard, “and that makes me so angry.” The firebreak work that closed Highway 20, for example, should have been done before the fire, she argues.
“It does not take a fire ecologist to know that Highway 20 was going to burn next,” she says. “We could have done it under milder conditions with less smoke.” Instead, she adds, “We wait until the middle of summer, hoping and praying it will turn out OK.”
“Smoke and wildfires don’t have to be this bad,” she contends. By not doing prescribed burning to reduce dangerous fuel loads, Pritchard says, “We’re taking the highest-risk option.”
While we stew under heat domes and smoke, it’s not hot enough for some Congressional Republicans, though they finally do concede that humans helped bollox up Earth’s climate machinery.
Yet they cling to their fossil-fueled campaign donations, arguing that the effects of lost jobs in a shuttered Oil Patch would be more economically damaging than the incomprehensible magnitude of costs of unchecked global warming.
So spend billions on climate damage adaptations such as sea walls, they cry, but not a penny replacing the fossil fuels that cause such costly fixes.
“It’s a different stage of denial and delay,” says Snover, who also directs the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. She stresses that adaptation to climate change and elimination of fossil fuels are both necessary, “two sides of the same coin.”
“Unfortunately we have to adapt because we’ve set changes in motion and we see the impacts unfurling all around us,” says Snover.
The report doesn’t suggest a doomsday temperature at which all is lost. This leaves the door wide open for outraged common sense and human ingenuity to prevail.
“I thought we’d deal with it before things got this bad,” admits Snover. “We are on a path toward a future that I don’t think any of us wants to live in,“ she adds. “But that future isn’t written yet.”
Last week, meanwhile, NASA and NOAA announced that between 2005 and 2019, something “unprecedented” happened on Earth. The amount of heat trapped on it doubled.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.