Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 3:22 pm | Partly Cloudy 74º


Ivor John: The Climate Carnage Must End

The president’s first year

As we reflect on the first year of the 45th presidency, it will be remembered among other things as one of the worst years in history for natural disasters in the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the costliest year ever for weather and climate disasters, with a cost totaling more than $300 billion. And once again, this past year was one of the warmest years ever.

Ivor John
Ivor John

This record year was highlighted by a string of hurricanes that pounded the southeastern U.S. coast in August and September, and Puerto Rico is still in disarray. Devastating wildfires torched large areas of California, and the fire season extended through the end of December. It culminated with the Thomas Fire, which ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara for five straight weeks. It was the largest-ever wildfire in California. Then came the deadly mudslides in January.

One cannot blame this array of disasters on the new president, but we have every right to question the administration’s dismissive response to these events. There is increasing evidence that the combination of high disaster frequency and intensity can be attributed to climate change, and it is foolish to simply dismiss this troubling reality the way our president does.

On Inauguration Day — Jan. 20, 2017 — all of President Obama’s policies were scrubbed from the White House website and replaced with President Trump's new agenda, with not a mention of climate change. Furthermore, this administration is systematically scrubbing information about climate change from federal websites, making it harder for the public to access scientific information funded by taxpayers over many years.

But there’s no hiding from Harvey, Irma, Maria and Thomas, and let’s not forget Tubbs, Pocket, Nuns and Pressley in Sonoma and Napa, and myriad other weather disasters this year.

Local devastation

In the counties of Santa Barbara and Ventura, and especially in Montecito, we have experienced some of the worst impacts of our changing climate, with the recent mudslides coming hard on the heels of the late-year fire. We have lost loved ones, and so much that sustains us. Our community is experiencing the impacts of climate change at a visceral level.

The intense short-duration rainfall event that occurred at 4 a.m. Jan. 9 was not by itself an extraordinary occurrence. Meteorologists are well aware that intense rainfall can and does occur in this region associated with “narrow cold frontal rainbands” embedded within a longer duration storm. But the very intense fire so late in the year was much more unusual, and when combined, the attribution of this entire sequence to climate change becomes much more compelling.

Living together through this sad tragedy, it is not for us to simply put on a brave face, keep smiling and nonchalantly say: “We will rebuild.” We will indeed rebuild, but we cannot pretend that this did not happen, and we cannot deny the immense pain and grief this has caused, and will continue to cause for a long time to come.

For if we succumb to that pretense, we will abrogate our responsibility to tackle the underlying cause of weather disasters like this. It is unfair and expensive to ask our first responders to keep risking life and limb — at enormous cost — to save us when the obvious truth of what is happening is being denied and ignored. We need to do all we can to ensure that this devastation does not keep happening, and we need to help others understand how this terrifying assault is affecting our communities.

There is a feeling of betrayal by those we count on to make sound policy decisions on our behalf when presented with a body of scientific evidence that calls loudly for action on climate change. There are those who cannot see — or will not accept — the honest truth of what climate science is telling us. How long can this go on before we are overwhelmed by devastating weather events? Like gun control, there are deaf ears to climate in the halls of power. The fallout has struck home in this close-knit community with a vengeance, and we are tired of this exhausting political runabout.

Well-intentioned friends across the country are asking what they can do to help, and it’s a hard question to answer. But I would suggest they look this way, look closely and think carefully about what just happened. If honesty can prevail, our leaders across this nation will be called upon to step out from their dens of denial and act with courage to confront this escalating crisis.

If there is anything worthwhile that can be gained from this, it is to know that we have friends in this community, across the country and around the world with the dignity to stand with us and sound the overdue clarion call to wake up from this climate complacency.

The failed promise

A year ago, we were told from the steps of our nation’s Capitol that, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now." The president spoke of abandoned and rusted-out factories “like tombstones across the landscape,” rampant crime and a failed education system. Those words remind me of W.H. Auden’s "The Fall of Rome" foretelling the end of civilization as we know it, or Carl Jung’s prophetic imagery of devastation in The Red Book (Transcript 127), where Alsace and Basel become ports, swallowed under a rising tide of change, with smoke rising from disused factories and ships. This is the very trajectory that we are now on if we fail to act on this.

Mine is not a fairyland of idealistic, harmonious wind turbines that turn our entire world tomorrow, but it is unquestionable that something needs to turn, and we need a clear plan to transition from this dangerous path we are on to more sustainable energy sources. And we need to transition fast. We have plenty of cheap natural gas in this country, so let’s use it wisely, but please let’s take out the carbon before passing it along. Drill for oil if we must, but for every barrel produced let there be a contribution of the profits to the renewable energy future that inevitably will be needed.

It pleases me that we are mostly done with coal in California now, but I care dearly for miners who are being left with no work. After all, I grew up in the valleys of Wales where coal was part of our DNA. Our miners were exalted and admired as they sang their way to the mines each day. But it was sad to see their robust lives cut short by emphysema, underground tragedies or their jobs gone. Coal has served society well for a century, but it is now a threatened and endangered species in the ecosystem of energy. It’s not a politician’s war on coal; it’s simply the destiny defined by the market's rule of our capitalist construct.

Yes, we need to “harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow” as we rebuild our failing infrastructure and by reinventing our aging energy systems. But as we set out “in the great national effort to rebuild our country,” the chosen path is one that indeed will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. We are patently aware of this. We do all dream of a better future, but will it be won with a carbon constrained economy, or will we surrender the American destiny to the flames of an unending fossil regime?

Our very personal experience here in Santa Barbara and Montecito this past month should lead us all to a very clear conclusion. It’s time now for the climate carnage to stop, “right here and right now.” Or else we all will continue to suffer this exhausting burden of disaster for many decades to come.

— Ivor John has a Ph.D. in atmospheric physics, and he has lived in Santa Barbara for the past 30 years. The opinions expressed are his own.

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