California Documents the Damage Already Done by Global Warming

Friday, August 09, 2013

There is no need to worry about the approach of global warming.

It is already here, and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) has documented its effects in a new report. Indicators of Climate Change in California (pdf) updates a report from four years ago that, once you get past the self-congratulatory back patting, charts the state’s steady decline in resistance to global warming.

Greenhouse gas emissions have increased from 1990 to 2010; the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases in coastal areas is greater; and acidification of coastal waters is rising. The climate is warming and humans are undeniably a prime mover behind that.

Average temperatures are up 1.5 degrees in California since 1895. Extreme heat events, especially at night, are more common everywhere in the state since 1950. The winter chill, a critical element in the productivity of fruit trees, has been decreasing the past 60 years. The freezing level high up in the atmosphere has risen 500 feet in the past 20 years. Precipitation from one year to the next has grown more unpredictably volatile.

Glaciers in the Sierra Nevada are shrinking and, in some cases, have lost 69% of their areal content since 1900.    

Sea levels are rising, up 6 to 8 inches at San Francisco and La Jolla over the past century. The San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta is at immediate risk of flooding—even as the state argues over spending billions of dollars to shore it up—along with roads, bridges, beaches, and cities in low-lying coastal areas.

Coastal ocean temperatures are up 1.8 degrees, threatening more harm to already damaged ecosystems, and water temperatures at Lake Tahoe have risen a degree over the past 30 years.

The result of this across-the-board climatic change is evident to even the casual observer. Spring runoff from Sierra Nevada Mountains snowmelt is way down. Precipitation occurs as rain, not snow, resulting in a 9% drop between April and June that threatens the state with drinkable-water shortages.

An unprecedented July 2006 heat wave killed 140 people in the state. Trees are dying with greater frequency. Wildfires have spiked since 1950, with the three largest ones occurring in the past 10 years. Already-evident changes in vegetation as a result of the heat are impacting birds, mammals and other species that rely on it for their food supply.

Most of the report documents changes that have already occurred and are occurring now, but it also lays out what lies ahead based on “scientifically defensible hypotheses, models and/or limited data.” We’ll no doubt be hearing more about the “spread of forest disease-causing pathogens and insects,” “harmful algal blooms in all aquatic environments” and “changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as droughts and floods.”

The report hails California’s “leadership role in climate policy, planning and research,” which is our only hope of surviving devastating changes to the planet. So, how are we doing at changing our evil ways?

If you think the internationally-touted, inevitable shift in focus to renewable energy sources will be Earth’s saving grace, don’t read “The Race for What’s Left” by Michael Klare. He argues that instead of entering the Age of Renewables, we are embarking on the Third Carbon Era. The Age of Coal, which gave way to the Age of Oil, is now giving way, not to renewables, but to the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.

Hello hydro-fracking, arctic drilling, tar sands, shale extraction and deep-sea drilling. Goodbye solar—we hardly got to know you. “The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables,” Klare wrote recently in Mother Jones. “Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called ‘unconventional’ oil and gas reserves.”

And as goes the energy industry, so goes the rest of us. “There will be an increasingly entrenched institutional bias among energy firms, banks, lending agencies, and governments toward next-generation fossil-fuel production, only increasing the difficulty of establishing national and international curbs on carbon emissions,” Klare argues.

The CalEPA report also suggests another potential growth industry as the state and world grapple with global warming. It notes that, “Adaptation planning is rapidly becoming an important policy focus worldwide.”  

Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is already prepared to invest in that. “We have spent our entire existence adapting. We'll adapt,” Tillerson said in a speech last year. “It's an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Global Warming Already Having Dramatic Impacts in California, New Report Says (by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News)

Agency Finds Climate Change Taking Toll on California (by David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle)

State Tracks Climate Change Consequences (by Janet Zimmerman, Riverside Press-Enterprise)

How to Fry a Planet (by Michael Klare, TomDispatch)

Indicators of Climate Change in California (California Environmental Protection Agency) (pdf)

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