Earlier this week, Philadelphia broke a record for snowfall and Los Angeles
broke a record for heat. What if the weather extremes we're experiencing are
going to be normal in the future?
Last winter was the mildest in a great many years. Last summer was so dry
around here that crops failed. The past hurricane season was long and busy.
Almost every week there is a report of a record-breaking storm, rainfall,
temperature, flood or drought somewhere on earth.
Suppose this trend toward more extreme weather is going to continue. What
should we do?
For any place, there is a lot of natural variability in the weather, from day to
day, and year to year. There is also variability, from decade to decade and
millennium to millennium in the climate, which is the average or prevailing
weather conditions of that place. About a dozen millenniums, or 12,000 years
ago, it snowed so much, there was a sheet of ice one-half mile thick on top of
This kind of variability is normal in complex systems such as the earth. This
planet, our home is an elegant solar collector made of rocks, water and living
things covered with a membrane of gases which protects life from harmful rays
and acts as a thermostat by controlling the amount of the sun's heat that our
planet retains. The atmosphere, just a thin film over the planet, was created
and is maintained by life on earth.
For over a hundred years we have been adding large and growing quantities of
greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons - to the
atmosphere. These gases are all very effective in keeping more of the sun's
energy on the earth. That extra heat then causes unpredictable changes in the
weather. For many years, scientists have believed that more and fiercer storms
are a likely outcome of this greenhouse effect. Disrupted agriculture, higher
sea levels, increased infectious diseases, widespread forest decline, decreased
fresh water and flooded coastlines are also likely.
Since the industrial revolution, we have increased the concentration of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 percent. If we don't reduce our output to less
than it was in 1990, the concentration of carbon dioxide will double in the
next hundred years. We are returning to the atmosphere in a matter of decades,
carbon dioxide that was removed over a period of millions of years.
And indeed the earth does seem to be warming. The highest average surface
temperature was recorded just last year. A long record shows that the waters
off the Pacific coast are heating up. More of our rain is coming in heavy
downpours, and day-to-day and week-to-week temperature changes have gotten
smaller. The extent of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice has decreased, and the rate
of decrease has increased. Two thousand leading scientists from over 120
countries recently agreed that our behavior is, in part, responsible for these
If this kind of weather is going to be normal, perhaps we should think about the
design of our society. Current plans and trends imply more roads, cars and
airplanes, yet during and after the storm earlier this week, cars, airplanes and
even trains were of little use.
Another trend is toward greater dependence on distant sources for our food,
clothing, energy, employment and entertainment. Yet, those who are most
self-sufficient in food, heat, work and amusement, find storms the least
If these sorts of storms will be normal in the future, perhaps it would make
more sense to decrease, rather than increase, our dependence on these vulnerable
forms of transportation while we work and play closer to home.
The same strategies that will make storms less disruptive, such as moving people
and things around a lot less, and getting more of our basic needs from within
walking distance of our homes, are also some of the most effective strategies
for reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.
Since more local self-reliance, and greatly reduced energy use can strengthen
our communities, provide more jobs, and reduce the power that distant
corporations and governments have over us, perhaps we should explore the
benefits of local sufficiency. These steps will help us to deal with the
climate changes we've already created and lessen the extent of future changes.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
C 1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Living on the Earth airs every Friday morning at 6:53 on WSHU, 91.1 FM public
radio from Fairfield, Connecticut. A collection of these essays was published
in 1993 as Living on the Earth, Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Solar Farm Education works to increase local sufficiency and organic agriculture
through a variety of collaborative projects including a long-running school
garden program in Bridgeport and an educational farm in New Haven. It is based
on the Old Solar Farm in Oxford.