Perhaps the summer of 2018 will be remembered as the one that foretold the cataclysm. Maybe the cataclysm has already arrived. Nearly every day, there is some new bulletin about a raging wildfire or a ferocious typhoon or a biblical flood. Often, it's buried by news of a Presidential Porn Star Payoff, or a tape from Omarosa. But it's still happening.
The American West is still on fire, even if we refuse to pay attention-except when the president is doling out moronic advice on how to deal with it. Large portions of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent spent the summer drowning in floodwater. Greece, too, spent the month of July on fire. Europe fried in a heatwave, as portions of the British Isles recorded their highest-ever June temperatures, Sweden had its hottest July in 260 years, and the temperature in Siberia ticked up to 90 degrees.
It's in that vein that Tuesday's news arrives, a startling report in The Guardianthat even the portion of Arctic ice that scientists have long thought the most secure has already begun to falter:
The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer. This phenomenon – which has never been recorded before – has occurred twice this year due to warm winds and a climate-change driven heatwave in the northern hemisphere ... The sea off the north coast of Greenland is normally so frozen that it was referred to, until recently, as “the last ice area” because it was assumed that this would be the final northern holdout against the melting effects of a hotter planet.
While the most immediate worry around melting ice is rising sea levels that will endanger coastal communities, there's growing concern among scientists that it will also fuel feedback loops that accelerate warming. For instance, ice is lightly colored and reflective. But as it melts, it reveals the darker-colored land or ocean water below. Those surfaces will absorb more heat, accelerating the rate at which nearby ice melts and sea levels rise. As the permafrost melts in Siberia and elsewhere, it will release methane-a gas that does not linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide but is about 30 times more powerful in trapping heat.
Scientists are also increasingly worried that warming global temperatures are eroding the polar vortex, the wind system that keeps the Arctic frozen. The Gulf Stream, a warm current in the Atlantic that "has played an important part in abrupt climate change in the past," is at its weakest level in 1,600 years due to melting ice and warming ocean temperatures. All this could push our planet towards what's called a "hothouse state," where feedback loops are sufficiently powerful that human attempts to reduce emissions and scale back warming may be essentially futile. It is a point of no return.
So where, in this summer of emerging doom, does the world's most powerful country find itself? Well, to start with, its president offered his thoughts on windmills and "clean coal" last week:
Here's the transcript of Trump's remarks at a New York fundraiser last week about coal and windmills. pic.twitter.com/ADckyr4IET
- Daniel Dale (@ddale8) August 19, 2018
We seem to have gotten used to the idea that the President of the United States is a world-historical clown whose worldview is rooted in fragments of reality he internalized decades ago and now filters through the kaleidoscope of his severely limited reasoning faculties. He is an emblem of arrogant stupidity, a case study in the essentially destructive quality of stubborn anti-intellectualism that pervades American life.
There is an emerging genre of journalism just trying to parse what the hell Donald Trump said in this one instance. It appears to be a nest of falsehoods and decades-old personal beefs. After all, the indications are that Trump hates wind power so much because a Scottish firm tried to build a wind farm off the coast of his golf course there, which he feared would ruin the views. He's spent the years since spreading misinformation about wind energy and fine-tuning his concern-trolling about dead birds. Yeah, the guy whose administration is dismantling the Endangered Species Act is real worried about avian welfare.
But some of it is accurate. Coal exports were indeed up about 60 percent from 2016 to 2017, though "clean coal exports" do not exist. ("Clean coal" does not refer to coal that doesn't pollute the atmosphere and contribute to global warming-such coal does not exist. Clean coal just means you attempt to capture some of the CO2 released when you burn it, and there's no telling if the places we export to will do that.)
More to the point, coal has gotten less competitive with the rise of cheap natural gas, so the Trump administration has been propping it up using a Cold War-era law to declare coal facilities as national security infrastructure. The policy mandates that energy distributors buy enough power from coal plants to keep them open. In effect, we are subsidizing perhaps the dirtiest fossil fuel as the climate crisis deepens. Yes, workers in many coal-producing areas are struggling. Will this really save their livelihoods? And at what cost?
Beyond that, Donald Trump has ensured that the United States of America is the only country in the world that refuses to participate in the Paris climate accords, a non-binding global agreement to reduce emissions. He announced the U.S. was pulling out in a Rose Garden ceremony that will go down as a monumental national embarrassment. His administration is attempting to roll back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, our nation's primary mechanism for abiding by its emissions reductions goals under the Paris agreement. It is rolling back regulations on emissions of methane, the greenhouse gas 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, at drilling sites. It is rolling back regulations on automobile emissions. It is rolling back everything.
It is genuinely amazing that standing in the breach of history is a reality television star who knows nothing about anything and cares less, having proudly declared that a monumental threat to human civilization is a hoax created by the Chinese. He insists windmills are only good for killing birds. He doles out advice to firefighters battling the wildfires feasting on western lands ravaged by drought in between rounds of golf.
Even before this new era of national disgrace, the Republican Party had established itself as the only major political party in the western world that denied the scientific consensus that climate change is real and man-made. Any Republican president would likely have plunged the nation further into self-defeating stupidity and greed. But there is something uniquely jarring, and outrageous, about rants comparing windmills unfavorably to "clean coal" as a new region of the Arctic ice shelf lurches towards collapse.
If we make it that far, the history books will remember us for discussing Stormy Daniels and The National Debt while the world burned and flooded and weathered increasingly ferocious storms, such obvious signs of what is to come. How will you explain it to your children?
('You Might Also Like',)