Here there be dragons

From Washington, a lot of hot air

| July 27, 2006

It’s about time for anyone out there who still thinks global warming is “just a theory” to answer one simple question: Is it hot enough for you? If not, don’t despair. All the evidence now points to the very disturbing conclusion that global warming is occurring at a much faster rate than scientists had predicted. Thanks to our complete lack of political will to realistically address the problem, we may well be into what explorers dubbed “Ultima Thule” or “Terra Incognita”—the areas beyond the borders of the known world where early mapmakers wrote “Here there be dragons.”

The global warming crises are coming fast and furious these days, but California, long thought to be on the forefront of the future, might be a good place to start. The state is currently experiencing a declared “heat emergency” that has so far killed 29 people. As I write this, the temperature is expected to reach 112 degrees in Los Angeles today.

The extreme heat has caused an enormous consumption of electricity as people try to survive the deadly temperatures by cranking up their air conditioners. Yesterday, California set a new record by consuming 50,270 megawatts of electricity. To put that in comprehensible terms, Montana’s total annual electricity consumption was about 12,000 megawatts in 2004. In just one day, California used more electricity than Montana uses in four years.

It should come as no surprise that this has brought on an energy crisis in California, just like in 2000 and 2001 when Enron infamously made billions by artificially jacking up power prices. Having had half a decade to address the problems, you would think that perhaps the nation’s richest state, under the Republican governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger, operating hand-in-hand with the energy-centric Bush administration, would have made some progress. But no. While Bush is off spending billions of dollars a day waging senseless and endless wars around the world, California is once again being threatened with rolling blackouts as consumption overwhelms capacity.

Or perhaps you’ve heard about what’s happening in St. Louis or New York? After losing electricity to half a million homes and businesses over a week ago, St. Louis now has National Guard troops escorting citizens to “cooling centers” so they don’t die in the relentless heat. New York City lost power to 100,000 a week ago due to some unknown cause as the deaths follow the temperature curve ever upward. Once again, the White House has no explanation for this mini-replay of the East Coast power outage of 2003 that Bush pledged to fix. Meanwhile, heat-related deaths have been reported this week in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Indiana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Kansas. So much for Homeland Security.

But that’s just what’s happening in America’s major cities. Out in the environment at large, things are really cooking. Take Russia, where an estimated 29 million acres of forests have burned so far this year, and the fire season isn’t over. Scientists are dumbfounded by winter temperature increases 3.6 to 7 degrees hotter than the pre-1960 average. Besides the smoke from the forest fires, the massive Siberian permafrost is melting rapidly, releasing huge and totally unforeseen quantities of stored carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere.

Montana and Canada are seeing similar events as higher temps lead to warmer winters, less precipitation, earlier spring runoff, drought-stressed forests, an explosion of tree-killing insects and ultimately, more forest fires. Canadian scientists estimate wildfires have nearly tripled—to 6.4 million acres annually—from the pre-’70s average of 2.4 million acres. While it may seem like a firm grasp on the obvious, science panels worldwide are now confirming that global warming has indeed increased both the incidence and severity of wildfires. Unfortunately, recent studies also indicate the northwest is likely to suffer more severe problems from global warming than previously expected.

Taken together, the rising temperatures and the subsequent host of consequences is making a mockery of such bogus programs as Bush’s so-called Healthy Forests Initiative. Given the extreme temperatures, the science and on-the-land empirical evidence is finding that broad-spectrum forest thinning is unlikely to have much effect on either the incidence or severity of wildfires. It is, as many environmentalists have long claimed, simply a cover for yet more logging operations, road-building, suspension of environmental review and restriction of public comment. That the warming is being significantly exacerbated by Bush’s equally bogus “Clean Skies” program that keeps massively polluting old power plants running seems a sort of poetic, if harsh, justice.

The other global-warming-caused tragedies around the planet are now too numerous to list. Polar ice caps are melting quickly, which in turn is raising ocean levels, affecting sea currents, drowning islands and low-lying coastal areas, destroying native flora and fauna, and disrupting the lives of indigenous inhabitants who have lived for thousands of years in a world that was once stable—but no longer.

Against this backdrop of undeniable impacts sits the Republican White House and Republican Congress—neither of which will even acknowledge that global warming is severe, that it is being driven by our excess consumption and industrial pollution profile, and that we ignore it at our own peril. Instead of leading us away from the significant and growing dangers, we see our national policymakers spewing election-year rhetoric on such pressing topics as flag-burning, gay marriage and keeping “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Instead of designing, funding, and implementing large-scale conservation and clean energy sources, what passes for an energy debate in Washington these days is outmoded supply-side drivel that is simply intended to further fatten the already obscenely fat coffers of their loyal, campaign-contributing friends in the energy conglomerates.

It may not be time to give up yet, but make no mistake, we are adrift and rudderless in the perilous waters of Ultima Thule, off the edge of the map, beyond predictability, and burning up. For here there be dragons—and they’re breathing fire.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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