Texas has a tough climate. Throughout human habitation here, people have regularly suffered through extended periods of drought followed by violent flooding and storms. But, with all things being equal, things have always managed to return to something we know as normal. So why should we care about climate change, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says she is sometimes asked.
The simple answer is, climate change means all things are no longer equal. The long-held assumption that it all balances out in the end can no longer be relied upon. In fact, not only have we already seen an uptick in billion-dollar, climate-related disasters around the planet (I’d link to NOAA, but the government shutdown has their website shuttered), but climate models developed in recent years suggest increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas levels in the upper atmosphere have locked us in for a future of increased temperatures and drought, more frequent heavy precipitation events when the rain does come, and a warmer ocean powering stronger storms across our coast.
Climate scientists, as the latest offering from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows, have never been more certain that humans are behind the dramatic increase in heat driving destructive changes across the planet. And yet, as Hayhoe told an audience at a climate symposium in Austin on Oct. 4, the public in recent years has increasingly come to believe that risks from climate change are overblown — making the concerted actions we need to survive the mounting challenges less likely.
Due to the long lag times built into the earth’s climate systems, to wait until the worst aspects of climate change are running at full throttle before acting is a recipe for disaster. It would be like, as Hayhoe said, a patient undergoing open-heart surgery for cholesterol blockage swearing to go vegetarian. “It’s too late,” she said.
Another problem for Texas is that we have built climate vulnerabilities into our system by living outside our means in our water consumption. ”The reason we care about climate change is because we have built climate vulnerability into our systems,” Hayhoe said. For instance, Texas is expected to increase water withdrawals from already-retreating aquifers by 20-40 percent by 2060. That’s before climate change’s increased temps are factored in.
And it’s not just the higher land temperatures that should concern us. The bulk of the excess heat created by thickening of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere is being absorbed in the oceans. Atmospheric temperature increases are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
As the folks at Real Climate wrote recently:
The amount of heat stored in the oceans is one of the most important diagnostics for global warming, because about 90% of the additional heat is stored there. … The atmosphere stores only about 2% because of its small heat capacity. The surface (including the continental ice masses) can only absorb heat slowly because it is a poor heat conductor. Thus, heat absorbed by the oceans accounts for almost all of the planet’s radiative imbalance.
Hayhoe is easily one of the best climate communicators working in the state today. As a committed evangelical Christian, she does an excellent work bridging the divide that has grown so stark between the science and faith communities on the greatest challenge of our time. And she’s been punished for it.
Not that long ago, she was excoriated by Rush Limbaugh on the air. In poured the hate mail, insults and death threats. Yet she’s still out in the community sounding the call for action, a somewhat unique position among the typically cloistered climate scientists.
Hayhoe closed this morning’s presentation with a quote from John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be.”
Greg Harman is a San Antonio-based writer whose column, Lone Star Green, is published every other week. You can see more of his writing at harmanonearth.com.