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Violent weather
... and the unnatural causes of climate change
Sukey Wolf
volume:  
volume 32
issue 4
August 2011
imagestuff
Tornado damage in Alabama (Photo: Lindsey Robinson); flooding in Missouri (Photo: Kansas Citiy Star); bushfires in Australia (AP photo).

2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year ever recorded, the latest in a string of record-breaking years. It’s not just temperatures on the increase, however, but wild weather of all kinds. From drought in the Amazon to flooding in Pakistan and wildfires in Australia, extreme weather is the new normal.

As the FS goes to press, the U.S. Midwest, recently ravaged by tornadoes, is sweltering in an epic heat wave. This also follows unprecedented flooding in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys this spring — a result of record snowstorms last winter.

Climate change, or global warming, is not a theory, not an anticipated future event, but an unspooling reality: the nature of the planet we live on is being fundamentally remade. The signs are everywhere and hard to ignore. (Although the mainstream media does its best.) Glaciers melt, spring comes earlier each year, and sea levels rise.

At the same time, record-busting tornadoes, heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires have ­become almost routine.

What is the connection between global warming and violent weather? And, most important, what can we do to stop the harm to our planet?

Some ABCs of global warming. Earth’s average surface temperature has been increasing since the middle of the 18th century. This warming is caused by high levels of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, a process that started with the capitalist industrial revolution. Deforestation also plays a role, because trees naturally “scrub” carbon dioxide from the air.

This warming is a disastrous ramping up of a natural phenomenon, the greenhouse effect, that makes life on Earth possible. Greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and water vapor trap the heat we need from the sun near the planet’s surface.

But, as the burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests heat the planet up, more water evaporates from the surface of land and sea into the air. This excess water vapor, a greenhouse gas, prevents more of the sun’s heat from escaping. Thus, it increases warming in its turn.

Meanwhile, about half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ends up in the ocean. As it accumulates there, it makes sea water more acid. This contributes to the dying off of coral reefs, which is taking place rapidly, and threatens all shell-forming species.

As it turns out, global warming sets off an explosive chain of events that make life as we have known it much more unpredictable — and precarious.

Dynamic, deadly weather. Few specific intense weather events can be traced directly to global warming. But, in general, it is certain: worldwide, warming is causing monumental changes in the weather.

An article this year in the journal Nature linked above-average rainfall to the jump in greenhouse gases. Two studies looked at statistics from the 1950s through 1999 and concluded that only global warming explains the additional precipitation during this period — which does not even include this last decade of extremes.

In the Indian Ocean region, the worst flooding in Australia’s history occurred this spring, following the country’s worst wildfires in 2009. Torrential rain and flooding in Pakistan this year killed 1,600 people and affected nearly 14 million more. Meanwhile, East Africa is suffering its worst drought in over 60 years; famine threatens millions.

Ocean warming causes drought as well as heavy rains and flooding because of the same evaporation of water into the air. When the sun’s heat hits dry soil, both the soil and the air above it get hotter, making the surface even drier: another vicious spiral. The severe droughts in the U.S. Southwest and South also demonstrate this.

Meanwhile, warming in the Gulf of Mexico likely contributed to tornadoes this spring in the U.S. South and Midwest, which killed over 500 people in what will probably turn out to be the country’s deadliest year for twisters to date.

Climate change also reverses typical weather patterns.

In the Arctic, which is normally dominated by low atmospheric pressure, the winter of 2009-2010 was marked by a reversal of the clockwise flow of air around the North Pole. Consequently, frigid air spilled out of the Arctic and the jet stream dipped far to the south, combining with increased water vapor to create massive snowfalls.

This past winter, the jet stream again dipped southward, bringing “Snowmageddon” to much of the Northern Hemisphere for two years in a row.

Naming the enemy — and the solution. It can be overwhelming to try to absorb all the complicated, dismaying information about global warming. It’s enough to make you hunker down and start scanning the horizon for a cloud of locusts.

According to some extreme environmentalists, our species is doomed — and not a minute too soon. They argue that humans are naturally greedy and the planet would be well-served if we became extinct.

In a milder version of the same perspective, some believe the answer is to minimize our carbon footprint by riding a bike to work and purchasing green products. They argue that we are all to blame for global warming and if enough of us change our personal habits we can save Earth.

But working and poor people are not to blame, whether we live on less than $2 a day or worry about how to pay the mortgage on an air-conditioned condo. The responsibility lies with a system that produces not for human needs but for profits — profits that depend on planet-destroying imperialist wars and unplanned, unaccountable growth at any cost.

Ways do exist to ameliorate the effects of climate change and coexist with what we cannot reverse. But they will never be implemented without the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist system that draws on the expertise and good will of all of us and leaves no one behind.

The best thing we can do for the planet is to build a movement for socialism while educating ourselves and others about environmental issues and fighting for immediate improvements: free, expanded mass transit; a huge public works program devoted to alternative energy; nationalization of the energy industry under workers’ control; and ending war.

We should hurry. There isn’t much time.

Send feedback to Sukey Wolf at swolf@igc.org. Read more on these topics by searching for “global warming” at www.socialism.com and by visiting www.climateandcapitalism.com.

Also see: Youth in the lead for climate sanity