What If?

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 12, 1996

Earlier this week, Philadelphia broke a record for snowfall and Los Angeles broke a record for heat. What if the weather extremes we're experiencing are going to be normal in the future?

Last winter was the mildest in a great many years. Last summer was so dry around here that crops failed. The past hurricane season was long and busy. Almost every week there is a report of a record-breaking storm, rainfall, temperature, flood or drought somewhere on earth.

Suppose this trend toward more extreme weather is going to continue. What should we do?

For any place, there is a lot of natural variability in the weather, from day to day, and year to year. There is also variability, from decade to decade and millennium to millennium in the climate, which is the average or prevailing weather conditions of that place. About a dozen millenniums, or 12,000 years ago, it snowed so much, there was a sheet of ice one-half mile thick on top of Connecticut.

This kind of variability is normal in complex systems such as the earth. This planet, our home is an elegant solar collector made of rocks, water and living things covered with a membrane of gases which protects life from harmful rays and acts as a thermostat by controlling the amount of the sun's heat that our planet retains. The atmosphere, just a thin film over the planet, was created and is maintained by life on earth.

For over a hundred years we have been adding large and growing quantities of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons - to the atmosphere. These gases are all very effective in keeping more of the sun's energy on the earth. That extra heat then causes unpredictable changes in the weather. For many years, scientists have believed that more and fiercer storms are a likely outcome of this greenhouse effect. Disrupted agriculture, higher sea levels, increased infectious diseases, widespread forest decline, decreased fresh water and flooded coastlines are also likely.

Since the industrial revolution, we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 percent. If we don't reduce our output to less than it was in 1990, the concentration of carbon dioxide will double in the next hundred years. We are returning to the atmosphere in a matter of decades, carbon dioxide that was removed over a period of millions of years.

And indeed the earth does seem to be warming. The highest average surface temperature was recorded just last year. A long record shows that the waters off the Pacific coast are heating up. More of our rain is coming in heavy downpours, and day-to-day and week-to-week temperature changes have gotten smaller. The extent of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice has decreased, and the rate of decrease has increased. Two thousand leading scientists from over 120 countries recently agreed that our behavior is, in part, responsible for these changes.

If this kind of weather is going to be normal, perhaps we should think about the design of our society. Current plans and trends imply more roads, cars and airplanes, yet during and after the storm earlier this week, cars, airplanes and even trains were of little use.

Another trend is toward greater dependence on distant sources for our food, clothing, energy, employment and entertainment. Yet, those who are most self-sufficient in food, heat, work and amusement, find storms the least disrupting.

If these sorts of storms will be normal in the future, perhaps it would make more sense to decrease, rather than increase, our dependence on these vulnerable forms of transportation while we work and play closer to home.

The same strategies that will make storms less disruptive, such as moving people and things around a lot less, and getting more of our basic needs from within walking distance of our homes, are also some of the most effective strategies for reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Since more local self-reliance, and greatly reduced energy use can strengthen our communities, provide more jobs, and reduce the power that distant corporations and governments have over us, perhaps we should explore the benefits of local sufficiency. These steps will help us to deal with the climate changes we've already created and lessen the extent of future changes.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.