Mild winter fuels debate over global climate change (video)
John Gill is a man who lives close to the land.
He knows how to read the signs of change around him, and, as a farmer, his instincts had better be right. His livelihood depends on it.
Gill has been watching closely in recent weeks as the days have grown longer and the cold snaps have become less frequent.
The Hurley farmer will soon be out there, working his 1,400-acre fields that will grow sweet corn, grain corn, mixed vegetables and pumpkins.
Gill, one of the area’s most reputable corn farmers, knows he has to wait for the soil and air to warm up before he gets those seeds in the ground, though he might have felt tempted to get out there earlier this year with the unusually mild winter.
Like the rest of us, Gill noticed back in February that some area lawns already were sprouting grass.
He’d seen the trees budding as early as Presidents’ Day and remembers those days in January when he could walk around outside without a coat.
Gill also took note that the Hudson Valley got more snow during the late October Nor’easter than it had over the course of the entire winter.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to buy into the talk about climate change or that we’re seeing its effects happening all around us — especially this winter. Continued...
Some scientists say the planet is warming due largely to human activities like burning fossil fuels, which, they maintain, is changing the atmosphere’s composition.
Gill admits it’s been a strange winter, but he attributes it more to a natural cycle of warming.
“I think it feels different without the snow,” Gill said. “The early trees are budding and some of the pussy willows are already popping, but we’ve had winters like this before.
“I think it’s more a cycle,” he said, though noting a lot of what he’s read says otherwise.
“One article says that within 50 years, we could have the same climate as Virginia,” he said. ““Is it happening? You know, I don’t know. It could be. But I’m not sold on the idea that we’re heading toward a tropical climate. I just don’t see it.”
Eban Goodstein, director at the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, begs to differ.
Called a “great hero in the fight against global warming,” the economist, author and environmental educator calls it the biggest story of our time and believes it’s primarily human-induced.
“We’ve been pumping billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he said. “We’ve been wrapping the planet in a blanket of carbon dioxide. The light comes in and the heat doesn’t come out. It’s trapping the heat. It’s really a very simple science.”
Goodstein said the evidence is all around us, and not just in recent years.
“Spring is coming two weeks earlier. Birds and animals are migrating. Glaciers around the world are retreating and melting. Sea levels are rising. The arctic ice cap is disappearing,” he said. Continued...
Goodstein also said that more frequent, “documented” increases in severe weather events like the megadrought in Russia and typhoons in Pakistan are evidence that the planet is warming.
And as the climate gets warmer, he said, we can expect more extreme weather. Warmer oceans, he noted, fuel more intense hurricanes, which translate into greater flooding and destruction in coastal areas.
Last year was a prime example.
Unusually severe weather episodes, like powerful tornadoes in the Midwest and even a rare one that struck Springfield, Mass., in June are what we can expect in the years to come, scientists say.
And later events like Hurricane Irene in late August and the snowstorm on Oct. 31 are further evidence that something is happening, Goodstein said.
“The planet is getting hotter, and every scientific group has confirmed it,” he said. “They’ve looked at all the possible explanations. It’s not (the result of) volcanic activity or solar flares. Carbon is well-known as a heat-trapping gas, and there’s no reason to doubt it. This argument holds up.”
But not all experts agree that it does.
In fact, 16 scientists with backgrounds in physics, aeronautics, geology, biology and forecasting signed an opinion letter published Jan. 27 in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”
The piece cited a “lack of warming for more than a decade” and said computer models have “greatly exaggerated how much warming additional CO2 can cause.”
The scientists, including Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists in Geneva, and Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there are “very powerful influences on the Earth’s climate that have nothing to do with human-generated CO2.” Continued...
They concluded there was no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to “decarbonize” the world’s economy.
Goodstein dismissed their argument.
“There are always a couple of skeptics out there,” he said. “There’s always going to be some people who will disagree.”
In fact, he said, most of the scientists who signed the letter lacked “legitimacy.”
“At this point, there’s very, very wide consensus among the scientists,” Goodstein said. “Ninety-five percent will tell you that the planet is heating up because we’re wrapping it in this blanket of carbon dioxide.”
So what about the winter just ending? How does it stack up against previous ones?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for January 2012 was the 19th warmest on record.
The contiguous United States had its fourth-warmest January since records began in 1895, NOAA said.
By contrast, several towns across Alaska had their coldest average January temperatures on record, the agency reported.
Looking at the entire picture, NOAA said in its latest report that the period from December through February is the fourth-warmest winter on record for the lower 48 states.
The average temperature in those states was 3.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1901-2000 average and the warmest since 2000, the agency said.
Ray O’Keefe, the chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albany, said this was the seventh warmest winter on record in Albany.
The average temperature was 31.5 degrees. The capital region’s warmest winter was in 1932, when the average temperature was 32.7 degrees.
“We’re not going to set any records for the least snowiest winter, and we’re certainly on the high end of warmth and the low end of snow, but neither the snow nor warmth are records,” he said.
The coldest winters on record regionally, O’Keefe said, occurred in 1877, 1904, 1948 and 1961.
O’Keefe said this winter has been one of the least snowy he’s seen in his adult life, but he was hesitant to attribute it exclusively to global climate change.
“It’s not at a point where we can do that yet,” he said.
“To say that this warm and snowless winter is the result of climate change … is difficult because if you talk to people in Europe and Alaska, it’s been brutal for them, and last winter, it wasn’t like this (here),” O’Keefe said.
“From one winter to the next, there’s not a pattern that emerges,” he said. “We had a very snowy winter last year, and this year, we’re having a snowless, warm winter. We’re not seeing a consistent pattern locally.”
But that doesn’t mean global climate change isn’t happening, said Sacha Spector, director of conservation science for the local environmental group Scenic Hudson.
“One of the things you really have to be careful about is equating what you experience in your local weather with the global average,” he said. “If the United States experiences a slightly warmer or colder winter, that doesn’t really give us a picture of what’s happening globally.”
On average, he said, we’re experiencing much greater rates of sea-level rise and temperature rises.
“We’ve experienced about a half-degree centigrade rise over the midcentury average from last century, so we’re seeing it happen,” Spector said. “The year 2010 was a relatively cool year for us in the Northeast, but it was the warmest year globally ever recorded.”
Scenic Hudson, based in Poughkeepsie, has been actively educating the public about climate change, its effects and what to do about it.
In January, the agency held a forum in Kingston on climate change strategies for local municipalities. Spector said it’s critical that government leaders pay attention.
“Making positive steps can feel really overwhelming when you think about the scale of this issue, but there are things we can do to really make an impact,” he said. “That means using energy wisely. It means planning our communities so they’re resilient to the changes to come. We still have time to minimize the amount of change we’ll experience, but we need to go full tilt.
“At the same time, we also are assured of some significant changes, so we need to be readying ourselves to not be impacted as strongly as we might if we’re caught unawares,” Spector said.
Gill, meanwhile, said he hasn’t seen any “drastic differences” that concern him as a farmer.
“They’re saying for the next four or five years, we can expect weather like this, but I’m thinking it’s more a weather cycle,” he said.
“We’ve only been keeping good records for basically 100 years,” Gill added, “and that’s a short amount of time in the span of this planet.”
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