J.J. Goldberg

New Climate Woes: Fires, Road Rage ... and Wars

By J.J. Goldberg

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Arizona wildfire, July 1, 2013

New scientific and academic studies of climate change—its causes, pace, cost, impact—continue to pour out almost daily from institutions around the world. They come at us so fast that it’s hard to keep track—and yet many of them are essential to understanding what’s coming down the pike and what, if anything, can be done about it.

One of the latest and most alarming, published yesterday in the uber-authoritative journal Science, finds that wars and interpersonal violence increase as global temperatures rise, and that current patterns suggest a 28% to 56% increase in wars and civil conflicts between now and 2050, along with an 8% to 16% rise in interpersonal violence. The researchers, economists and earth scientists from University of California-Berkeley, collated some 60 existing studies that cover every continent and look back several thousand years, examining everything from tree rings, sea levels and crop yields to traffic and road rage in Phoenix. The reasons are speculative at this point, but likely include documented short tempers induced by heat, as well as increased competition for scarce food and water.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the estimates are based on the assumption of a 4 degrees Fahrenheit average global temperature rise by 2050, predicted by the World Climate Research Program in Geneva based on current patterns. This BBC report on the study is also worth reading. Among other things, it has some useful links to other related information, plus some smart questioning of the findings by (reputable) climate researchers.

More scary stuff: a study by two Stanford climatologists, reported in ScienceDaily.com, estimates that the expected changes in climate over the next century will occur 10 times faster than any comparable climate change in the past 65 million years. Average global temperature rose about 5 degrees Celsius when the earth emerged from the last ice age. The process took place over a period of several thousand years. A comparable temperature rise is currently expected to take place over the next two centuries.

Although some of the changes the planet will experience in the next few decades are already “baked into the system,” how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond.

And how will humans respond? Well, consider this: climate change appears to be causing an increase in the size and destructiveness of wildfires in the American West, according to a new study out of Michigan State University geography department, published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology and reported today at Redorbit.com. This provides some hefty scientific backing for reporting on the climate change-wildfire link by The New York Times, CBS News, PBS, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and others in the wake of the deadly wildfire disaster that killed 19 firefighters July 1 in Yarnell, Arizona.

But as Katherine Bagley reported in mid-July at InsideClimateNews.com, the Arizona press has barely mentioned (except for a “throwaway line” in an Arizona Republic editorial) the possibility—much less the scientific consensus—of such a link to the tragedy. The reason, Bagley writes, is that the subject is considered too controversial and divisive to bring up at a time when relatives are grieving. The discrepancy between local and national coverage, she writes,

highlights an ethical question that is expected to increasingly confront publications and TV networks as climate-related calamities are set to rise: Amid loss of life in weather disasters, when is it appropriate to speak of climate change?

Experts, Bagley writes, say the answer “isn’t straightforward.”

The dilemma, they say, is not unlike the one journalists face after school shootings, when they must decide when—or whether—to link the incident to gun control. Both issues are political lightning rods for many Americans. And in the wake of both types of tragedies, journalists struggle to find a balance between delving into controversial debate and being sensitive to the affected communities.

In a follow-up piece posted yesterday, Bagley writes that the debate over climate science shows up in the differing reactions of Democratic and Republican lawmakers when natural disasters occur in their districts. She contrasts the silence on the topic of GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, whose district includes the site of the Yarnell disaster, and the outspoken response of Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, one district over.

The stark partisan divide over global warming isn’t unique to Arizona—it has become an entrenched part of Congressional politics. But the schism is becoming more visible as extreme weather events increase and claim more lives, and turn climate change into something tangible for communities.

Since 2011, there have been 368 national disaster declarations in the United States. Polls say a larger majority of Americans from both parties see the bursts of deadly weather as a sign of climate change.

But when faced with climate-related weather tragedies in their backyards, Congressional Republicans don’t seem inclined to budge from their stance that the science of climate change isn’t settled. Democratic leaders in the same situation, on the other hand, are often quick to assign blame to global warming and move climate action to the top of their political agendas.

Incidentally, the Redorbit.com post on new wildfire-climate change research cites another recent study indicating that as much as global warming is helping to increase the danger of wildfires, the increasing pace of emissions from wildfires is in turn increasing the pace of global warming. That’s the sort of negative feedback we’re also seeing in the Arctic, where warming melts the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, and the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, by replacing the reflective white ice surface with a darker, heat-absorbing ocean surface, fuels further warming of the atmosphere.


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