Connect the Dots

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Earlier this summer, NASA released a projection of potential temperature increases and precipitation changes across the United States from now until 2100, based on two different scenarios: In one, concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions are addressed (i.e. a CO2 level of 550 ppm), in the other, they aren’t and development continues on as it is now (CO2 levels at 800 ppm).

Mosaic of annual and summer temperature visualizations, two different projections of CO2 emissions Source: NASA

Mosaic of annual and summer temperature visualizations, two different projections of CO2 emissions
Source: NASA

In both cases, temperatures go up and precipitation increases dramatically in some areas and disappears from others. But the scenario in which emission concerns remain unaddressed is, indeed, the stuff of nightmares.

It’s taken me a bit of work to unravel the knot of why the news coverage of this projection – which usually only included the worst-case forecasts – bothered me.

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 800 ppm. Source: NASA

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 800 ppm.
Source: NASA

When I look at the coverage of this item, as well as at the increase in doomsday books/movies/television shows that project a future of apocalyptic climate change, it seems like what we are doing is paving the way towards an acceptance that the worst-case scenarios are somehow unavoidable – thereby absolving anyone from taking definitive action now, when it is needed. Panic and resignation are hardly the best cornerstones for constructive action.

Scenario showing temperatures during June, July, and August (US summer) with CO2 levels at 550 ppm. Source: NASA

Visualization of summer temperature increase in the US by 2100, assuming a CO2 level of 550 ppm.
Source: NASA

And I think that what’s disturbing is the disconnect in the general media between these dystopian visions and the actions that are moving us closer to them with every passing year.  There is rarely a realistic context of current financial, corporate, energy or government policy offered when these predictions are forecast. Thus, the scenarios seem to just manifest themselves as if that’s the way it has to be.

Climate catastrophe entertainment, both fictional and in the news, has replaced the Cold War nuclear war scare stories of my youth, or the alien invasion (again, Cold War inspired, but a different flavor) of the previous generation.

Annual precipitation projections for 2100. Scenario B1 is for CO2 levels at 550 ppm; A1 represents CO2 levels at 800 ppm. Source: NASA

Annual precipitation projections for 2100. Scenario B1 is for CO2 levels at 550 ppm; A2 represents CO2 levels at 800 ppm.
Source: NASA

And this is part of what makes it possible for someone like Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to state in all seriousness that these scenarios are all but inevitable, that they are primarily just another geo-engineering problem to be solved, as well as a justification for carrying on as usual.

It almost goes without saying that I don’t agree.

What can be done?

Beyond what you are already doing, demand better coverage in the media – coverage that connects the dots for people who don’t follow this news regularly.

What we do today matters for tomorrow.

UltimateEarth

More:

The NASA visualizations can be viewed as short films. For temperature projections, go here. For precipitation, go here.

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