How could global warming be bad when it feels so damn good?
Even though I grew up in Minnesota, I have never been a fan of the cold. Every year, I wait patiently for the first patches of grass to break through the snow and the first buds to form on the trees. As with previous years, I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring, so yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to get a taste of spring several months early. Temperatures reached 62°F in Northeastern Vermont. This was well above the average high temperature of 33°F and far exceeded the previous record for this day of 58°F. While it is still February, it felt like early May.
I drove home from work with my windows down and even enjoyed the fresh breeze moving through the open windows of my house. I read several social media posts from my friends and family all over the northern parts of our country who were also basking in this unusual warmth. They were visiting local parks with their kids and grilling out for the first time since last fall. Spring came to visit during an unexpected time, and we all celebrated its arrival. If this is what global warming looks like, I’ll take it!
Now for a reality check. This is not what global warming looks like. This is what the very, very, very beginning of global warming looks like.
There are now more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere than at any time over at least the past million years, and our temperatures are steadily climbing. Since our climate takes a long time to respond to changes in atmospheric composition, our current temperatures are more reflective of greenhouse gases that were emitted several decades ago.
If we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, the earth would continue to warm for decades into the future. As a planet, we are currently experiencing temperatures that are not much warmer than temperatures during the 20th century as illustrated in the graph below. A seemingly tiny increase in temperatures can be the difference between sledding on freshly fallen snow and grilling out in February. This is because global temperature increases are not what we actually experience. First, higher latitudes are warming much faster than the earth as a whole. Second, small increases in global temperature translate to enormous increases in available energy. This energy is what fuels extreme weather.
If the day-to-day weather is surprising us now, imagine what it will be like 25 or 50 years from now. The red line in the graph above illustrates how temperatures are expected to change under “business as usual,” meaning that we continue polluting the air at the present rate. If we stay on this path, global temperature will far surpass those witnessed today. As a result, weather events will continue to become more and more surprising until our own backyards become virtually unrecognizable. Severe weather, previously reserved for a few months during the summer, will be present during much of the year. Snow will continue to melt more often through the winter and eventually give way to rain year-round. Droughts will become more frequent and be broken up by intense rainfall which, instead of proving much needed moisture for our crops, may wipe them out all together with floods. Coastal areas and all of their history will eventually become part of the ocean as once-permanent ice at our poles continues to melt at an unprecedented rate.
The most important part of this story is as follows: What we are doing cannot be undone. Our actions today will continue to warm our air, alter weather patterns, and increase sea levels for decades to come. We are on track to experience weather events so extreme that they have never before been witnessed by humans, and this new climate will likely remain in place for centuries to come.
So this is where we are headed. While we may enjoy some of the perks of global warming as it is just getting underway, we cannot lose sight of what is in store for our future selves, our children, and all life on this planet if we continue on this path.
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