Climate Change Update: Weather Extremes and Global Warming – Are they one and the same?

Before climate change believers pounce on me, let me state clearly that I am convinced we are seeing the early stages of a global warming trend that is being exacerbated by human activity. But I’m not fully convinced that all of what we are seeing is human created. There are historic and geologically measurable climate cycles that may explain such things as glacial melting. What they may not explain is the rate of melt we are presently witnessing. Now that I have said this I want to move along to the theme of this article.

It’s important not to associate today’s weather with the bigger hypothesis that espouses global warming. After all we do get hot summers and droughts and historically have seen some significant weather events that occurred when CO2 levels were a lot lower than they are today. I remember the summer of 1954 in Toronto, the year we moved to the city, an August that was so hot we slept by the shore of Lake Ontario on a hillside. One of the reasons I remember it has hotter than this summer is that we didn’t have air conditioning in homes back then. Air conditioning was something you experienced in movie theaters.

But this summer, is this global warming personified? Because it is pretty darn hot. And the extremes we are experiencing are shriveling crops throughout much of the U.S. Midwest and here in Southwestern Ontario where heat-blasted corn has died in the fields. To make matters worse the accompanying drought has contributed to tinder dry conditions leading to fires. And when we finally do get rain it storms with such intensity we get floods. Yes…..a summer to remember that is also playing havoc with our infrastructure.

In the July 25, 2012 edition of the New York Times, Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz write “from highways in Texas to nuclear power plants…….the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.” The prolonged heat combined with drought has softened asphalt on runways, highways and parking lots causing buckling and sinkholes. Trains and subways are getting derailed by tracks that kink from the heat. Power generation and transmission infrastructure is suffering not just because of excessive load demands on utilities, but also because plants and hydro facilities are experiencing low water tables.

Is this weather or climate change?

The answer is “we don’t definitively know.” But we can take a pretty educated guess. Because we know that globally our planet is getting warmer (you can check the data at the bottom of the article for current statistics). We know that the last decade has seen the warmest average temperatures recorded in North America since we started keeping records back in 1880. These trends are pointing to something being amiss.

I know the birds and the bees have noticed. The Robins arrived earlier this year then I can ever remember (the first two weeks in February). We had Red Admiral butterflies fluttering all over Toronto in April when we normally see them in May. My crocuses flowered in February but were poking their heads out of the ground in January. The same can be said for my tulips. Flowering trees started to bud  in March with many coming out over a month early. Do the animals and plants know something we don’t?

If we don’t act as if climate change is upon us then we will pay a price and it appears we already are. The damage wrought by the weather this summer in North America will cost us many billions of dollars. So why not act as if climate change is in the here and now and approach our infrastructure with that in mind, looking at our electrical capacity, our use of fossil fuels, our housing designs, our transit, our water usage, and even the crops we grow.

Apparently the birds and bees know more than our politicians. They respond to environmental change out of necessity. It’s about survival.

But our political leadership continues to seek “further study” on the question of  climate. I have a theory about further study. It has more to do with their fear, not ours. And what do they fear? Losing the next election if they ask us to make the necessary changes to the way we live to address the climate issue.

After all politics is about election cycles. So climate science covering a decade or more is long term, at least 2 if not up to 5 election cycles for the U.S., and therefore not worthy of concerted action.

An editorial cartoon that I saw today on the web tells the story well. It is drawn by Mark Wilson, a political cartoonist who lives in one of the nicer places in Upstate New York, the Adirondack Mountains. In my opinion he has captured our current dilemma beautifully. We have lots of data telling us things are getting warmer. We have lots of industry telling us the cost of fixing the problem…..their cost if we hold them accountable….and our cost if we alter our behaviour. And then we have the politicians who get lobbied by industry and receive political contributions from them, and do nothing.

Credit: Marquil

Relevant Statistics and a Plea for Sanity on the Climate Issue

Final thoughts…..CO2 atmospheric levels…395.77 as of June 2012.  That’s up from 318.27 in March of 1960. Mean global temperatures since 1880 up 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.5 Fahrenheit). Since 1980 mean global temperatures rising 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 Fahrenheit) per decade. Northern polar regions above 64 degrees latitude rising 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 Fahrenheit) since 1880. If it weren’t for our oceans mitigating this increasing warmth we’d be a lot warmer.

And yet we still don’t have a carbon cap and trade system in place here in North America. And we still, in international forums, play the blame game among nations, pointing fingers, refusing to do the the right thing collectively.

Have you read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed?” If not maybe it’s about time you did. Here’s a Jared Diamond quote worth repeating: “Our biggest threat is not an asteroid about to crash into us, something we can do nothing about. Instead, all the major threats facing us today are problems entirely of our own making. And since we made the problems, we can also solve the problems.” We are the Maya, the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders and we don’t see it.







Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Mark Jones

    The biggest problem with substantiating climate change is that people experience it through weather, which by its nature is highly variable. This makes it hard to see the ‘signal’ of climate change through the ‘noise’ of weather. It also makes it easy for advocates on both sides of the debate to come up with weather-related examples and counter-examples that sow confusion and result in stalemate.

    You identified two much better indicators: horticulture and entomology. Tracking changes in these over time are much more reliable and have the advantage of being experiential at the same time: anyone who cares to look can notice the arrival of bugs that had previously only been known farther south, or advanced blooming dates for indicator plant species.

    Perhaps the best thing to do is jettison the worn-out terminology of climate change and talk about habitat change, substantiated by experience-able phenomena that are less inherently variable and resist confusion with less relevant indicators, like weather is for climate.