The Day We Learn That 2012 Was The Highest Temperature Year Ever Recorded – we also learn that: A Carbon Tax could help our fight against Global Warming/Climate Change and on the Economy Front as well.
The New York Times – Op-Ed Columnist
The Market and Mother Nature
Published: January 8, 2013 28 Comments
Whenever I hear the word “cliff,” I am reminded of something that President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, used to say about how we need to respond to climate change because no one can predict when it might take a disruptive, nonlinear turn. “We are driving toward a cliff in a fog,” said Holdren about the climate, and that’s always a good time “to start tapping on the brakes.” Indeed, when you think about how much financial debt we’ve built up in the market and how much carbon debt we’ve built up in the atmosphere, the wisest thing we could do as a country today is to start tapping on the brakes by both emitting less carbon to bend the emissions curve down and racking up less debt to bend our debt-to-G.D.P. curve down. Unfortunately, we are still doing neither.
Indeed, we are actually taunting the two most powerful and merciless forces on the planet, the market and Mother Nature, at the same time.
We’re essentially saying to both of them: “Hey, what’ve you got, baby? No interest rate rises? A little bitty temperature increase? That’s all you’ve got?” I just hope we get our act together before the market and Mother Nature each show us what they’ve got.
Let’s look at the huge carbon and financial deficits we’re amassing. For thousands of years up to the dawn of the industrial age 200 years ago, the Earth’s atmosphere contained 280 parts per million of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Today, that number is nearly 400 p.p.m., with 450 p.p.m. routinely cited as the tipping point where we create the conditions for out-of-control acceleration. Melting the permafrost in Alaska, Canada and Siberia, for example, would release massive amounts of carbon that would further increase global warming. Permafrost is packed with CO2 and frozen methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. “If the tundra continues melting,” says Hal Harvey, the chief executive of Energy Innovation, “we could basically release the equivalent of all the carbon that all humanity has emitted from the start of history to now.” That would really send temperatures soaring, ice melting and sea levels rising.
We’re on a similar trajectory with our debt. Mounting deficits have driven America’s debt-to-G.D.P. ratio from 36.2 percent in 2007 to 72.8 percent today. In their widely hailed book on credit crises, “This Time Is Different,” the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff argue that countries that allow their debt-to-G.D.P. ratios to exceed 90 percent experience slower growth and greater instability — much like hitting a climate tipping point. Indeed, they note, those who would point to low interest rates today as some kind of “all-clear” for more debt “should remember that market interest rates can change like the weather.”
There is another striking parallel. At some point, when we allow so much carbon to build up in the atmosphere, our mightiest efforts to cut emissions through energy efficiency, conservation and new technologies will only enable us to stay in place. They won’t be able bend the curve downward anymore. And 450 p.p.m. is not a place we want to get stuck. And, at some point, the debt will get so large that big tax increases and spending cuts will simply go to pay interest. We also won’t be able to bend that curve anymore, and spending on infrastructure, education and the poor will vanish.
I am struck by how many liberals insist on reducing carbon emissions immediately, but, on the deficit, say there is no urgency because no interest rates rises are in sight. And I am struck by how many conservatives insist we must reduce the deficit immediately, but, on climate, say there is no urgency because, so far, temperature rise has been slight. (Although 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S.) One reason interest rates are so low is that they are being suppressed by the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing. That won’t last. As for the climate, well, “Mother Nature doesn’t do quantitative easing,” said Harvey. Beware of nonlinear moves in both.
We can’t go off coal overnight, and we can’t go into recession by cutting spending overnight, but we need to start tapping on the brakes in both realms by agreeing on spending cuts, tax increases and new investments that would be phased in as the economy improves, as well as higher efficiency standards for power plants, buildings, vehicles and appliances that would be phased in, too.
A carbon tax would reinforce and make both strategies easier. According to a September 2012 study by the Congressional Research Service, a small carbon tax of $20 per ton — escalating by 5.6 percent annually — could cut the projected 10-year deficit by roughly 50 percent (from $2.3 trillion down to $1.1 trillion).
What would you rather do to help solve our fiscal problem: Give up your home mortgage deduction and wait two more years for Social Security and Medicare, or pay a little extra for gasoline and electricity? These will be our choices. I’d rather pay the little carbon tax, especially since it would clean up the air for our kids, drive innovation and make us less dependent on the most unstable region in the world: the Middle East.
How could a carbon tax not be on the table today?
The former record yearly average temperature for the contiguous US was beaten in 2012 by a full Fahrenheit degree !!!
Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S.
A dry section of the Morse Reservoir in Cicero, Ind., in July.
Published: January 8, 2013 590 Comments
The numbers are in: 2012, the year of a surreal March heat wave, a severe drought in the Corn Belt and a huge storm that caused broad devastation in the Middle Atlantic States, turns out to have been the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States.
A Record Worth Wilting For: Death Valley Is Hotter Than … (December 29, 2012)
Rising Temperatures Threaten Fundamental Change for Ski Slopes (December 13, 2012)
Related in Opinion – Dot Earth Blog: Australian Forecasters Add New Colors to Temperature Charts to Capture Record Heat (January 8, 2013)
Steve Hebert for The New York Times
Readers’ Comments – Read All Comments (590) »
How hot was it? The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year’s 55.3 degree average demolished the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.
If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at weather stations across the country, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by the Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records.
That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.
“The heat was remarkable,” said Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which released the official climate compilation on Tuesday. “It was prolonged. That we beat the record by one degree is quite a big deal.”
Scientists said that natural variability almost certainly played a role in last year’s extreme heat and drought. But many of them expressed doubt that such a striking new record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was probably a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely.
Even so, the last year’s record for the United States is not expected to translate into a global temperature record when figures are released in the coming weeks. The year featured a La Niña weather pattern, which tends to cool the global climate over all, and scientists expect it to be the world’s eighth- or ninth-warmest year on record.
Assuming that prediction holds up, it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed. Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985.
Last year’s weather in the United States began with an unusually warm winter, with relatively little snow across much of the country, followed by a March that was so hot that trees burst into bloom and swimming pools opened early. The soil dried out in the March heat, helping to set the stage for a drought that peaked during the warmest July on record.
The drought engulfed 61 percent of the nation, killed corn and soybean crops and sent prices spiraling. It was comparable to a severe drought in the 1950s, Mr. Crouch said, but not quite as severe as the legendary Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, which was exacerbated by poor farming practices that allowed topsoil to blow away.
Extensive records covering the lower 48 states go back to 1895; Alaska and Hawaii have shorter records and are generally not included in long-term climate comparisons for that reason.
Mr. Crouch pointed out that until last year, the coldest year in the historical record for the lower 48 states, 1917, was separated from the warmest year, 1998, by only 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit. That is why the 2012 record, and its one degree increase over 1998, strikes climatologists as so unusual.
“We’re taking quite a large step above what the period of record has shown for the contiguous United States,” Mr. Crouch said.
In addition to being the nation’s warmest year, 2012 turned out to be the second-worst on a measure called the Climate Extremes Index, surpassed only by 1998.
Experts are still counting, but so far 11 disasters in 2012 have exceeded a threshold of $1 billion in damages, including several tornado outbreaks; Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast in August, and, late in the year, Hurricane Sandy, which caused damage likely to exceed $60 billion in nearly half the states, primarily in the mid-Atlantic region.
Among those big disasters was one bearing a label many people had never heard before: the derecho, a line of severe, fast-moving thunderstorms that struck central and eastern parts of the country starting on June 29, killing more than 20 people, toppling trees and knocking out power for millions of households.
For people who escaped both the derecho and Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed, the year may be remembered most for the sheer breadth and oppressiveness of the summer heat wave. By the calculations of the climatic data center, a third of the nation’s population experienced 10 or more days of summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Among the cities that set temperature records in 2012 were Nashville; Athens, Ga.; and Cairo, Ill., all of which hit 109 degrees on June 29; Greenville, S.C., which hit 107 degrees on July 1; and Lamar, Colo., which hit 112 degrees on June 27.
With the end of the growing season, coverage of the drought has waned, but the drought itself has not. Mr. Crouch pointed out that at the beginning of January, 61 percent of the country was still in moderate to severe drought conditions. “I foresee that it’s going to be a big story moving forward in 2013,” he said.