Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Now and soon

It's hot. I haven't seen statistics on the season yet, but this summer right into September has certainly felt warmer than any since we arrived in Arcata almost exactly eight years ago. It feels hot because the humidity on this coastal strip is consistently high. It's not that noticeable most of the time, because the temperatures are cool. But when the temperature is warmer for days and weeks at a time, even a little, you feel the humidity, and so it feels hot. Not New Orleans hot. But maybe Pittsburgh summer hot.

Allergies seem worse this summer, too, for both of us. Whatever combination of humidity, dampness and the year round flourishing of flora and fauna is responsible, the "Humboldt Crud" kind of illness is as much a part of the local scene as redwoods, banana slugs and dairy cows.

It seems to me the warmer weather has had something to do with our bumper crop of tomatoes, too. When we were first here, growing tomatoes in Arcata was almost unheard of. But Margaret works at it, and we do have an apparent advantage in a cement driveway (used exclusively now for container plants with basketball quarter-court), which seems to reflect sunlight. So Margaret planted a number of varieties this year, hoping some would flourish, and some have in the past few years. But they all did this year, so we've got big tomatoes, small tomatoes, round ones, sort of oblong ones, as well as red, orange and yellow ones. And so I've been trying to keep up consumption with lots of salads, tomato sandwiches, fried peppers and tomatoes, and sliced tomatoes over pasta. And I'm not complaining.

Still, I don't like the heat or the allergies. And the forecasts for the future aren't too good. A recently released analysis of California cities shows increasing heatwaves even in San Francisco, with more heat-related deaths expected-as much as a 70% rise by the end of the century.

Sacramento will be worse than that, and Fresno worse still. San Bernadino--forget it. It's global heating, brought home.

Click here for the SF Chronicle story on this survey:

SAN FRANCISCO / 'Cool gray city' projected to turn murderously hot / Temperatures likely to rise by mid-century as a result of global warming, study warns

Like our summer here, there will be some relatively good things as well as the relatively bad things associated with hotter times, and that will help mask the eventual consequences. But of course it's not just heatwave-related deaths we're talking about, but the need for more electricity for air conditioning (one of the problems here when it gets hot is that nobody has air conditioning, not even the restaurants and movie theatres, because nobody needed it before), the need for more water when it may be dryer, and the likely increase in pest-borne diseases where cooler weather used to temper these outbreaks by keeping the insect population down. Then the whole ecology gets thrown out of whack. Wildlife hereabouts is already being affected by the years of drought and now the heat.

At the least it will all mean more demand on civic services, which will cost more money. It's a problem for cities losing population and businesses, and tax base. It's a problem for a state that already has fiscal problems, and an addiction to lower taxes and more services. And thanks to the G. W. Bush crowd, it's going to be a big problem for the debt and deficit-laden federal government for a long time.

We're already seeing that in the states (and countries) suffering the onslaught of hurricanes. Loss of life, of homes, of property are the most proximate and most obvious, but there's also the impact on the economy when so many people are dislocated; the economic impact of a loss of tourism for a year or more in some areas; plus the costs to government and NGOs like the Red Cross, which lessens their resources for the hurricanes yet to come. Somewhat similiarly, the costs to insurance companies will eventually mean more expensive and less available insurance for people and businesses, which will make the next round of hurricanes even more expensive, and so on. For if even if this is the return of an otherwise normal cycle, only augmented by global heating, damaging hurricanes will be such a regular feature of existence there that even the cable news stations will tire of sending reporters out in slickers to try to talk while being manfully blown around.

The hurricanes are dramatic and obvious in their effects, though even there we shortchange them. Florida has certainly been hard-hit but there have been other places too, that got it worse (Haiti) and bad enough, but fewer reporters were there (much of Pennsylvania had damaging floods from rivers and streams---including Pittsburgh and its three rivers; flooding in West Virginia was said to be the worst in its history.) Tornadoes, cyclones, all part of the disturbances, are also part of the larger cycles. Cycles within cycles, and global heating may not even be the largest in scale. However it is still shaping up to be the most telling. Recent research suggesting that carbon from natural sources is increasing because of the carbon from human-made pollution, further multiplying greenhouse effects beyond the usual projections.

The worst of these predicted scenarios for California's future would be mitigated somewhat by real attention to doing what has to be done to lessen global heating. But we've barely gotten to first base on recognizing the climate crisis, let along doing much about it.

John Kerry, with one of the best environmental records in Congress, has usually talked about this issue in connection with the Bush administration's failures in international cooperation (on Letterman, Kerry said the U.S. should rejoin the world on the global warming treaty) and especially in supporting science. He's exactly right in this regard, and only a level of understanding and confidence in science behind public support for the necessary policies has any chance of helping to head off the worst.

So for those of you who will be alive in 2050, and who will have children who are alive in 2090, I ask you to remember that some of us tried our best to raise the alarm.

That will probably be cold comfort, but anything cold may be a comfort by then.