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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center has announced that 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States.
The average temperature in the landmass bounded by Canada, Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, during 2012, was 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is one degree warmer than the previous maximum yearly average set in 1998. The average for the 20th century was 52.1 degrees Fahrenheit, and the scatter of the yearly data points about that century mean lies within the band defined by 50 and 54 degrees.
2012 was also the 15th driest year recorded for the US. In July of 2012, drought extended over 61% of the nation. The land area scorched by wildfires in the West was the third highest on record. NOAA also estimates that there were 11 extreme weather and climate events in the US during 2012 that caused losses of more than one billion dollars each.
During 2012, Alaska was cooler and wetter than its long term average, while Hawaii continued to experience drought.
The United States only extends over of a small portion of the Earth, so its average temperature need not coincide with the global average in any given year. 2012 is expected to be the eighth hottest year recorded, globally.
The American public’s awareness of 2012’s record temperature status, as well as recent memories of the year’s drought (Great Plains), heat waves (Northeast), wildfires (Southwest) and natural disasters caused by extreme weather (Hurricane Isaac and Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy) will all focus more attention on the reality of climate change, and spur questions about a national response to that reality. As global warming continues, the US can expect more droughts, heat waves, wildfires and tropical storms like those of 2012 and even of greater intensity.
We may be seeing a preview of the American summer of 2013, in Australia right now, which is experiencing a wide-ranging bushfire catastrophe that is occurring during an austral summer of unprecedented high temperatures. At least 141 bushfires rage in the state of New South Wales (in which the cities of Sydney and Canberra lie). In the island state of Tasmania, just south of the southeast coast of continental Australia, bushfires have raged for five days, displacing thousands of Tasmanians from their homes.
Since we can anticipate that extreme weather and climate events are likely to increase in both frequency and magnitude, as global warming increases (which is now inevitable with or without a concerted response by humanity), we can also anticipate that such ferocious natural events will create political conflicts within nations. Sixty-seven Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the initial $9.7B appropriation for Hurricane Sandy disaster relief for the states of New Jersey and New York (and the rest of the $60.4B appropriation comes up for a vote on January 15). It is quite likely that numerous of the districts these naysayers represent received federal funds for some form of assistance after one of the previous natural disasters of 2012: floods, wildfires, drought, tornadoes and tropical storms; and if not in 2012 certainly in earlier years.
As the national population grows, and the density and cost of development and infrastructure increase, our natural disasters will become increasingly expensive. If the natural outbursts that cause such losses of life and property increase in both frequency and severity, then the rapidly increasing costs of relief and recovery could strain the already weak bonds of national solidarity between different regional populations: “why should we pay for the disaster relief of other people, who don’t live where we live nor share our way of life?,” and “reducing the national debt is more important than allowing it to increase to pay for disasters not in my district.”
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Charles Dudley Warner (1897).
It may be that the time to “do something about it” is now here (even past due), and that such action as a positive and cooperative national effort (in each of many nations) would be a far better use of our political energies than to dissipate them in an interminable sequence of enervating factional squabbles driven by narrow self-interest and the evasion of civic responsibility.
Our great psychological barrier to facing the problem of climate change is that we know it is a reflection of our technological use, misuse and waste of mined energy, which we can call industrialization; and that our many national forms of industrialization are each reflections cast in hardware, processes, systems and bureaucracies of our dominating ideologies of economic development; and these ideologies, finally, are rooted in that stratum of irrationality in human consciousness called tribalism.
The problem may be beyond the capacity of humanity to respond. It is certainly beyond the reach of any haphazard confluence of individual efforts of environmental volunteerism, as poignantly described by Lynn Lau in her essay “Why This Ecowarrior Is Retiring“. “Schmingus” commented on Lynn Lau’s surrender this way:
“Mother Nature will balance things out eventually. Don’t stress yourself out over it. We are not evolved enough as a species to co-operate and solve problems on this large a scale. We’d probably have an easier time bringing an end to political corruption than saving the planet.”
Prior to the influence of humans in speeding up extinction rates, the average age of a species, particularly of mammals, was about 1 to 2 million years. Anatomically modern humans, as a species, are about 200,000 years old. The genus Homo is 2.5 million years old, and the evolutionary line that would lead to Homo diverged from that of the apes 7 million years ago.
So, it’s either “time’s up, go extinct,” or “evolve into something that will survive in the new environment.” The capacity for specie-wide enduring cooperative behavior to stop the anthropogenic input to climate change would be an evolutionary advancement of humanity that would necessarily overcome tribalism, overturn existing ideologies and economics, and revolutionize industrialization and how humans extract energy from Nature to ease their toil and activate human society.
Can such an evolutionary step for our entire species be prompted by the uncoordinated volunteerism of individual ecowarriors sensitive to the future and agitating as they can, trying to expand public consciousness? Logically, it seems improbable; irrationally, I certainly hope so.
Manuel García, Jr. is a retired engineering-physicist and has long been interested in energy, both natural and technological. He blogs at http://manuelgarciajr.com, and his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.