It has been 20 years nearly to the day that Hurricane Isabel came ashore in North Carolina, causing enormous destruction along the densely built eastern seaboard as it moved up through Virginia and on into the northeastern United States. Now Tropical Storm Ophelia has made landfall in North Carolina and it appears it will follow a similar path of destruction as Hurricane Isabel did 20 years ago.
The notable difference between the two weather systems, besides strength, is how much later in the alphabet the “O” in Ophelia comes after the “I” in Isabel. I – J – K – L – M – N – O. That’s a six letter difference, yet the time of year for the landfall of both systems is nearly the same. Using the alphabetical convention for naming Atlantic storms this way is admittedly a seat of the pants method for marking 20 years of climate change, but it’s memorable in the same way that markings on a door jamb tell the story of a child’s growth over the years.
High water marks on a door jamb in Wertheim am Main, Germany. 2011 photo by Rainer Lippert.
The convention for naming storms has been in place since 1953. The U.S. National Hurricane Center at first maintained the list of storm names, a task which has since been taken over by the World Meteorological Organization. Only twice since 1953 has either organization run out of letters of the English alphabet and had to resort to letters of the Greek alphabet, in 2005 and 2020. They may run out again this year.
A scene from Jaws, a 1975 movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss. Warning: foul language.
In records going back to the late nineteenth century, the three most active Atlantic storm seasons have occurred in the last 20 years. None of the least active seasons have occurred in the last 20 years. If this trend continues, running out of English alphabet letters to use in naming storms may become a common occurrence over the next 20 years. Such an eventuality will be far from an ideal way for the inhabitants of the eastern seaboard and points inland to learn Greek.
For industries teetering on the edge of irrelevance,the strategy to remain relevant has always been the same – deny their activities have caused a problem, debunk evidence of harm, and claim they are only giving the people what they want, thus shifting blame onto consumers. From the tobacco industry to the fossil fuel extractors and the pesticide and herbicide manufacturers, they all follow the same script as evidence mounts that the products they once touted as a boon to humanity turn out to be poisonous. Poisonous to mind and body. Poisonous to people, to animals, and to the planet.
The Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep. 20, 2019, was attended by over 100,000 people, making it the largest climate protest in Australia to date, and rivaling the anti-war protests in 2003 and the Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. Photo by Flickr user Takver.
Add to the list of peddlers of poison for profit agribusiness and its processed foods, along with animal confinement operations and massive applications of fertilizers that deplete the soil instead of enriching it, ultimately leaching into the water every creature needs for survival. Give the people what they want. In entertainment, give the people gossipy reality television shows in the evening and mean-spirited confrontation programming in the daytime.
Social media companies give people information dressed up as news when it is nothing more than pandering to what they want to hear. If giving the people what they want absolves purveyors of poison from responsibility for their actions as they go about making money, then hardly anyone is responsible for anything. A sociopath is concerned only with what he or she wants, and whether the pursuit of those wants interferes with the rights and needs of others is material only to the extent that those others can obstruct the sociopath in achieving their desired end. That’s the society of imagined meritocracy and capitalism of “looking out for number one” that giving the people what they want instead of what they need has created.
The new Ford F150 Lightning battery-powered pickup truck is a step in the right direction of redressing these hypocritical imbalances in an energy hungry society. The original F150, the gasoline-powered one, has been the best selling vehicle in the United States for over three decades. The gas-powered pickup truck will still be available alongside the battery-powered version, but the investment Ford made in developing the Lightning was not insignificant. They could have developed a different vehicle altogether as their flagship entry into the battery-powered market. Putting that investment into a version of their biggest breadwinner, the F150 truck for the masses, is a big step toward making use of electric vehicles common.
A scene from the 1970 film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. Chief Dan George played Old Lodge Skins, and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the picaresque title character.
The development of the Lightning could do for electric vehicles what Ford’s innovation with the Model T did for internal combustion engine passenger vehicles over 100 years ago, namely make a new technology accessible to everyday people. Electric vehicle models have until now been popular only in niche markets, whether that’s more well off people with a need for sportiness driving a Tesla, or people whose need for merely getting around town could be met by a Chevy Volt. If the Lightning becomes as popular today as the Model T did in its day, then it could go a long way toward redressing the climate imbalances kicked off in large part by its predecessor.
Recently an Etsy entrepeneur started marketing “Make America Greta Again” caps, “Greta” being Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who has been in the news lately after her speech at the United Nations in New York City and her participation in the Climate Strike, which she inspired with the Fridays for Future school strikes she started a year ago. The entrepeneur, Johan Hansson, claims 100 percent of the profits from cap sales will go to Greenpeace, and if that is indeed the case, then it appears his primary goal in making the caps is trolling the current president and his followers, the MAGA crowd.
Mr. Hansson did not think up the slogan for his caps, which has shown up on placards at climate change protests since Greta Thunberg became an internationally famous figure, but he did think to put the slogan on caps that look exactly like the original MAGA caps. The typography and colors are the same, and all Mr. Hansson had to do was switch around two letters. It’s a clever twist, and as for trolling the trolls it is bound to be effective. The question is whether that is the best way to read the science behind climate change, as Ms. Thunberg continually stresses is the driving force of her activism, or whether it is merely a satisfying way to get under the skin of MAGA people by giving them a dose of their own medicine.
Greta Thunberg speaks at the May 2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (or Fair). Photo originally posted to Flickr by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Like the enlarged image of Ms. Thunberg on the screen at the left of the stage, her influence on the climate debate has grown in the past year such that journalists and politicians have attributed the tripling of seats gained in the Austrian parliament by the Green Party in the September 2019 election to what they call “The Greta Effect”.
The problem is not the altered slogan itself, but in how the design of the new cap mimics the original so closely that even from several feet away most people would be unable to distinguish the difference. The original MAGA cap has over the course of a few years become strongly associated with hatred and hatefulness, and the wearers delight in how its appearance “owns the libs”, or trolls them. For MAGA people, that’s part of the fun of wearing the cap. Since the new cap looks exactly the original from a distance, most reasonable people, associating the wearer with hateful beliefs and often unpleasant behavior, would probably steer clear, under the assumption the wearer is a devoted follower of the current president, a hateful person who often exhibits unpleasant behavior.
MAKE AMERICA GRETA AGAIN
Fellow MAGA travelers, on the other hand, upon companionably sidling up to the wearer of a cap with a slightly changed slogan, may not even notice the difference until the wearer gives out unexpected opinions or points out the change to them. The old trick of switching two letters in a familiar word derives its surprise from how often people will gloss over the change in their minds and never even notice it.
MAKE AMERICA GRETAAGAIN
Trolling trolls may seem satisfying at first, but the long term result is like that of a wrestling match between a person and a pig in a muddy pen (once considered a fun event at county fairs), in which the person ends up filthy and exhausted, and the pig is happily in his or her element. The altered slogan would probably serve its ultimate, positive message of taking action against climate change better by rising above the muck where the current president and his followers wallow in hatred and hatefulness. To do that with the slogan on caps, perhaps changing the color or font or point size of “Greta” would make all the difference in signaling to friend and foe alike that the original was only a point of departure, and a lowly one at that. Maybe change colors of the cap and the typography of “Greta” entirely so that it stands apart, the way Greta Thunberg herself has demonstrated in dealing with the trolls. Nothing infuriates trolls more than not being taken seriously and having their distractions ignored as reasonable people go on about the business of taking serious action on real problems, and that can give climate activists some measure of satisfaction in denying the power of climate change deniers in MAGA caps.
Hey, Stupid! takes your questions about weather, or climate or whatever.
Questioner asks: Last week was bitterly cold throughout much of the U.S., and of course you chimed in about that on Twitter. This week, high temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast are forecast to rebound above freezing, and in Washington, D.C., where you can sometimes be found when you’re not on a golf course, are forecast to be in the 50s, 60s, even 70s. That’s pretty warm for mid-winter, even in D.C.. Will you be making any follow-up comments about that on Twitter?
Hey, Stupid! responds: Pffft! Sounds like good weather – or climate, or, you know, whatever – for hitting the links. Nice to get in 18 holes without having to go all the way to Mar-a-Lago this time of year.
Q: Just what is the difference between weather and climate?
HS: It’s the difference between owning the libs by throwing red meat to my base and another slow news day. Next question!
Q: Does your public denial of climate change have anything to do with protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry?
HS: What a dumb question! You’re always asking dumb questions! Of course it does.
Q: When you say “throwing red meat” to your base, what exactly do you mean?
HS: I mean I know what they like, and what they like is anything that gets a rise out of pointy-headed, know-it-all liberals and scientists. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Facts are irrelevant. What matters is reassuring them in their ignorance.
Q: My, that’s a remarkably cogent and well-spoken analysis coming from you. Did someone write it for you?
Q: So it doesn’t make any impact on your base of support to point out how climate change will affect everyone, even them, and especially their kids and grandkids?
HS: First of all, nothing ever affects everyone equally. The rich will always manage to skirt the consequences of their actions. It’s the poors who will suffer the worst effects – and I’m not saying there will be any, because you know it’s a Chinese hoax – anyway, the poors will suffer if there are any problems, and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, get what you can today, Make America Great Again, and let the Chinese worry about tomorrow if global warming is such a big deal to them.
Q: It’s hard to believe you’re openly admitting to contempt for the poor, instead of merely implying it as you always have. Aren’t a fair amount of your supporters working class or poor?
HS: Yeah, but they all imagine they could be like me one day. The people I’m talking about, and they know who they are and my supporters know who they are, are the Other ones, the ones who are looking for government handouts and are rapists and druggies.
Supporters of the current president turn out to welcome him on a fundraising trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, in October 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider. The same flubs and ignorant or hateful remarks that dismay Democrats and even some Republicans serve as badges of solidarity for these people.
Q: Ah ha. So getting all this straight now – the cold weather last week was an opportunity to beat up on the libs and the scientists for the benefit of your base, who don’t care whether climate change is real or not because people they resent stand for it’s reality, and your base prefers to take the immature position of opposing whatever those other folks are for, regardless of the merits, and they are either ignorant of or do not care about how they are being used by you and your cronies in the corporate oligarchy. Does that sum things up?
HS: Yup, that’s about the size of it. You forgot to mention jobs. Dangle jobs in front of them and they’ll go for anything, never mind whether the jobs materialize or not, because when they don’t, it happens down the road. They have short memories, these people, Lord love ’em. By the time the temperature hits 70 later in the week, they won’t make any connection with my comments from last week. That kind of critical thinking is for people wearing pointy wizard’s hats, not good ol’ MAGA hat wearing Americans like my people, the Second Amendment people – they’ll only remember the rosy glow of how I outraged the libs and scientists and got them sputtering mad over my very stable genius remarks. Never mind the change in the weather. Or climate or whatever.
Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm at landfall in Rockport, Texas, on August 25, has moved on finally after causing catastrophic damage, mainly due to flooding, in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Following on Harvey’s heels is Hurricane Irma, currently a category 5 storm entering the Caribbean Sea, with many Caribbean islands, large and small, in its sights as it makes its way to Florida later in the week. Beyond that Irma’s track is uncertain, and it could affect communities anywhere from the eastern Gulf Coast to the southern portion of the Eastern Seaboard.
With the various early warning detection systems in place today and improvements over the years in computer modeling of forecast tracks, predicted landfalls of hurricanes has become better than guesswork and moved on to science. Until the World War II era and the development of radar, detection of hurricanes and predictions about their track relied largely on observations made by knowledgeable shipboard weather watchers reporting to shore stations and the tracking by shorebound observers of weather systems that might influence a hurricane as it approached land. Early warning of hurricanes in the first half of the twentieth century was limited to a few days, with an uncertain track left up to guesswork until practically the day before landfall.
View of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina taken on August 28, 2005, as seen from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter aircraft before the storm made landfall on the United States Gulf Coast.
Before the twentieth century, prediction of hurricanes was further limited to personal observations of weather conditions as the storm approached, because ships at sea were largely driven by wind power and were not as likely as coal, steam, or oil powered ships of later times to arrive in port well ahead of a storm and warn of its approach. People relied on observations of certain types of clouds and of the drop in barometric pressure, however they measured it, to give them indications of an approaching storm. Residents along the shore might have a day or two warning to head inland for higher ground. Absolute amount of fatalities could be high during the storm because of the short notice, but values of property damage were low because there were fewer people living along the coast and because they had not invested millions and billions of dollars in homes, hotels, and infrastructure to be destroyed.
USA hurricane weather warning flags. Drawing by Herostratus.
That formula has been steadily turned upside down through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Property damage amounts from hurricanes have skyrocketed due to the enormous increase in development close to the sea, while fatalities in proportion to total population have dropped dramatically due to warning times of several days to a week or more. Even if people do not evacuate the area entirely, they have sufficient warning time to load up on supplies and defenses to help them weather the crisis in place. In the past, shore residents did not have that luxury. To find a similar situation today of short warning of dangerous weather contributing to high fatalities, one would have to look at tornadoes, a highly localized phenomena when they do crop up.
No one who has ever survived the experience of a hurricane or a tornado or other severe weather disaster can ever dismiss the further possibility of such events lightly. They know in their guts how frightening and life-changing those events can be. The poor especially, as they do in all things in life, suffer disproportionately. The poor cannot afford to flee to higher ground. The houses the poor live in, where they might choose to shelter in place in order to ride out storms, are often flimsily constructed and the first to be destroyed by high winds or high water. Tornadoes are not magically drawn to trailer parks, it’s just that there is where the damage happens that draws the rubberneckers running the local television news stations.
We live in an age when severe weather events are becoming more common, regardless of whether or not an ideologically motivated minority continues to argue the point without reference to facts. Preparing for severe weather, however, has never been a better proposition for most of humankind over what it was in past generations. Ironic that our reliance on technology, which has brought us to the brink of climate destruction, could also serve to save us from its worst effects, at least in the short term.
Last week, upon returning from Europe and announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Supreme Leader was supposed to have remarked to his companions over lunch after yet another weekend round of golf, “They can’t even get the weather report right, so how come they think they can get that right?” He was conflating weather with climate, a common mistake for laymen, but an unfathomable lapse for someone who has the best science at his fingertips, if only he had an interest in tapping it.
Stupidity may not account entirely for Supreme Leader’s climate change denial, nor for that of his core supporters or other conservatives, for denial of climate change does appear to be a trait of conservatives. Cupidity plays a part, in that the fossil fuel industry, a primary contributer to global warming, does all it can to deny it and thereby preserve its profits, much like the tobacco industry fought against cancer research. Until a recent study showed otherwise, people may have thought ignorance of the facts determined the stance of deniers. The study showed instead that deniers had as much access to the facts as anyone else, but they make the facts fit their predispositions on the issue, a trick which they can accomplish more easily with a long term problem like climate change. The effects of climate change are unfolding over a period expected to last well over a lifetime, into the lives of children and grandchildren, unlike the effects of smoking, which could be felt within a single lifetime.
Biloxi Blues, a 1988 film adapted by Neil Simon from his play, and directed by Mike Nichols, is a semi-autobiographical reminiscence of Simon’s Army days during World War II. In this scene, Christopher Walken as the drill sergeant uses the recruit played by Matthew Broderick to make a point to the platoon that they are all in this together, and an action or failure to act by any one of them affects them all. Warning: foul language.
The problem comes with the understanding that a flexible view of the facts does not change the facts, it only delays grappling with the inevitable. We may tell ourselves that the Chinese have perpetrated global warming as a hoax in order to subvert America’s competitive advantage, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s getting hotter, and that Americans are contributing more than their fair share to the problem while contributing less than their fair share to the solution. If we like, we may puff away like chimneys in order to keep pace with the Chinese, and then we can all collapse together, wheezing and clutching our chests, our insides poisoned.
That is not an entirely accurate analogy for the effects of climate change, however, which are longer term and more widespread than one individual’s smoking habit. And that is what makes it hard for some people to acknowledge, making it a failure of imagination. If they won’t accept on their own account that it’s getting hotter now, maybe they will accept that unless they pitch in to help solve the problem, or at least stop obstructing progress, then their children and grandchildren will feel the heat to a degree that there’s no denying. Until climate change deniers reach that acceptance, everyone else has to do what they can to stall global warming without any further delay. If the Ignoramus-in-Chief won’t lead on the issue, then it’s up to everyone else, starting with the states, to act on it and steer around the obstacles.
The iceberg suspected of having sunk the RMS Titanic. This iceberg was photographed by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert on the morning of April 15, 1912, just a few miles south of where the Titanic went down. The steward hadn’t yet heard about the Titanic. What caught his attention was the smear of red paint along the base of the berg, an indication it had collided with a ship sometime in the previous twelve hours. This photo and information was taken from Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic, written by Daniel Allen Butler, Stackpole Books 1998. Climate change deniers see an iceberg and say there is no global warming because there is still ice; others see an iceberg floating free in the shipping lanes and say “Watch out!” The crew of the Titanic, of course, didn’t see the iceberg at all.
“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
― Will Rogers*(1879-1935)
Last Saturday, April 22, was the 48th celebration of Earth Day, and the first March for Science in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of other cities around the world. Just when we might have congratulated ourselves that reason and scientific inquiry had pushed aside superstition and muddled thinking, the medieval mind rises again and reasserts itself, now with a in-over-his-head champion in the Oval Office who is quite pleased to indulge the self-interest of his oligarchic cohorts in the fossil fuel industry. The lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder grunt their approval of his policies because those obnoxious policies appear to rile up the fancy pants pointy-headed folks, and that’s always a nice, satisfying feeling. The folks higher up on the ladder are only too happy to let those lower down bear their weight, and the reasons they bear that weight are not important to the higher ups, only that they continue to hold up the whole enterprise without asking troubling questions. It’s worked well for Wayne Tracker, aka Rex Tillerson.
It’s not the fault of these hard-working men and their unfortunate mules they’ve been told to “keep digging”.
The amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere is higher now than it has been in human history, based on what we know from ice cores. Sea levels are high and getting higher as the climate warms, and are already affecting coastal communities. It has been at least thousands of years, possibly millions, since Earth last encountered conditions like those we are entering into now. There is no basis for comparison for humans in the present age, now known as the Anthropocene on account of the profound effect people have had on the Earth, because in the interregnum we have settled the coastlines so densely that in geologic time it would appear as no more than the blink of an eye. Around the world now there hundreds of millions of people living within 100 miles of the sea, and accompanying all that settlement there has been an enormous investment in infrastructure such as housing, office buildings, and roads, along with the economic fortunes and personal hopes of all those people. And all of those people will feel – are feeling – the impact of a warming climate sooner than other groups living in other situations farther inland. Around the world, most of those people living along coastlines are poor. Ironically, in the United States, the richest country in the world and one where having a beachfront property is often a status symbol for the wealthy, the effects of sea level rise will possibly be more severe than average.
A portion of a BBC Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky from June 8, 2012. The situation he bemoans has not improved in the nearly five years since the interview.
Whether a person believes climate warming is caused by humans or not is, at this point, almost immaterial. It is happening; it’s here. If scientific evidence is not persuasive to some folks, then common sense should tip the scales for them. Sticking their heads out of air conditioning into the natural environment for more than a few minutes at a stretch ought to help. Too many people unfortunately are willing to ride along with Wayne Tracker, despite their common sense and their personal experience. If the Earth is a lifeboat in the cosmos (and what have we found so far to tell us otherwise?), then we are all in this together, and at this point arguing about how we got here serves little purpose. Certainly there are some people in the lifeboat who seem to feel it’s perfectly fine to flourish their revolvers and shoot holes in the boat, which of course makes things worse. What to do about them? If we can find the political will among our fellow survivors, we take away their revolvers, for they are imperiling everyone’s chances, and their ideology be damned. They should know better than to pound in the stakes of “Global Warming is a Hoax” yard signs in insufferable heat, throwing themselves into a tizzy, giving themselves a paroxysm of the vapors. They are dangerous nitwits.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 masterpiece Lifeboat holds our attention despite the limited setting because of the universal behaviors we can all recognize.
What would you do if you were on a lifeboat at sea and one or more of your fellow survivors exhibited behavior that was detrimental to your own survival, as common sense dictated it? If your children were with you on the lifeboat, and therefore your progeny were endangered as well? It’s hot, and your patience is growing short. What’s particularly annoying is that you notice some of the unhelpful survivors appear to be cynically manipulating the others, the true believers, for their own gain. Besides the danger, this behavior turns your stomach. If there were another lifeboat nearby, you’d dive off this one and take your chances with the sharks until you reached the other boat. But there isn’t another lifeboat as far as the eye can see. You’re stuck with these people. Nevertheless, with water everywhere, it’s good to know how to swim.
The first frost of fall was late this year across much of the U.S., in some places by one to three weeks, depending on the source of average frost date information. People who spend a lot of time outdoors tend to notice this, and also that a trend has developed of fall frosts arriving later and the last frost of spring coming earlier. Even people who pay attention to climate only sporadically may have noted the muted fall colors of the trees this year in parts of the eastern U.S., a result of extended warm weather and drought.
Fall Colors, Interstate State Park, Wisconsin and Minnesota; photo by Tony Webster
Cumberland Power Plant smokestacks, Cumberland, Tennessee; photo by Steven Greenwood
The growing season has increased over the last forty years or so, but that is not necessarily a good thing considering that short-lived creatures, such as insects, adapt more readily to swift changes than longer-lived plants and vertebrate creatures. Forty years is swift in the long view of climate. The short view is called weather, or weather events. Adding up weather events over forty years plots a trend in the climate. Unfortunately for the sake of rational discussion, too many people fail to make the distinction between weather and climate.
Not everyone agrees that the climate is getting warmer, or that if it is then humans are the cause of it. Some of those climate change deniers are motivated by their religious beliefs, others by a suspicion of government regulators, and still others are unmoved by the weight of scientific evidence, citing doubt about the conclusions. Who has sown that doubt? As always, we are well advised to follow the money. It comes as no surprise then that Big Oil, following the example set by Big Tobacco with regard to the link between burning their products and cancer, has worked to sow doubt about how the burning of fossil fuels contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and causes a warming climate. Where there is doubt, they know, effective action against them can be hamstrung, and profits will continue to roll in until we all burn up from second hand smoke on a global scale.
Cigarette smoke; photo by Flickr user Challiyan
Again following the money,the insurance industry is coming around to the reality of global warming and the increase in expensive weather events it is causing. The insurance industry, conservative gamblers that they are, are most interested in the economic facts they can pin down so as to minimize risk and maximize profit. They are not swayed by emotional appeals to religious or political views, but only by appeals to their bottom line. Another group whose costs are affected by the results of global warming are states and municipalities. As seas rise and severe weather events increase, causing unprecedented flooding, these entities have to pay for infrastructure improvements and higher insurance premiums.
States’ attorneys general are beginning to go after the fossil fuel industry to recoup costs, much as they did to the tobacco industry in the 1990s. It will be an even more protracted fight in this case because of the gargantuan amounts of money the fossil fuel giants can bring to bear; not everyone smoked in years past, after all, but today practically everyone uses gas, electricity, natural gas, plastics, and the list of products goes on. Some of these products can be replaced by use of renewable resources like wind and solar, but ultimately, like the reduction in use of tobacco products due to increasing social opprobrium, the steps for overcoming reliance on fossil fuel products and thereby breaking the economic stranglehold of Big Oil need to be taken by consumers, and that will require some wholesale changes in lifestyle, especially in the industrialized nations.