The Polar Vortex: We've Seen This Movie Before

Welcome to Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Weekend. The current cold snap is so bad that Punxsutawney Phil almost did not even come outside. He already knew the prediction: it's cold. Damn cold. Full stop. Get used to it.

If you are stuck in your house because wondering the cause of the current deep freeze, I have corralled the latest group of climate-related articles and news I have been following that may provide context. This is the third cold wave in five years (2014 and 2015 also saw significant cold snaps) and it is easy to connect the dots behind them. Though it looks like the worst of this one is over, warmer days are ahead, and your guacamole will thaw sufficiently before game time on Sunday. (In the meantime, check out this fun little moment in the Way Back Machine courtesy of my uncle.)

Are We Trying to Air Condition the Whole Neighborhood?

To no one's surprise, the current extreme weather pattern is a direct result of global climate change and persistently higher global temperatures. As melting in the arctic increases, extreme cold air, which might otherwise be contained, escapes and flows downward. But the alarm bells are not just at the North Pole. Antarctica is in a bad way too. The rate of melting on the world's coldest continent has accelerated almost 300 percent in the last 40 years. And melting begets more melting. In fact, check out NASA's animated model showing the ebb and flow of sea ice at the Earth's poles. The two are inextricably linked.

Antarctica took the Facebook 10-year challenge. Not good.

Severe melting - and the dangerous consequences that come with it - is not limited to Earth's polar regions. Rapid melt in Greenland, which crossed a tipping point sixteen years ago and is accelerating faster than originally thought, will continue to exacerbate the ongoing challenge of sea level rise. What's more, the Earth's oceans are warming, posing serious threats to delicate ecosystems and creating more violent storms in warmer months to compliment increasing frigid extremes of winters. Critical infrastructure remains threatened and the financial impact of our inaction is skyrocketing, to say nothing of ongoing conflict and migration challenges related to shifting climate patterns.

Who's Talking Sense?

Without paying too much attention to the climate deniers, skeptics, and smart alecks are chuckling with snide remarks about the weather, it's good to know there are some seriously smart people with and equally large bully pulpit (and actual billions of dollars) working hard to meet what may very well be the greatest challenge in modern history. Which is why if you cannot spare the three minutes needed to read this entire post (or the many resources to which it links), at the very least watch this interview with Bill Gates regarding the orders-of-magnitude types of breakthroughs required to solve the global challenges of the moment. Of particular interest is his focus on the levels of R&D funding not being allocated to finding solutions. In fact, as in many areas, China is stepping in where the United States is stepping back. Chinese R&D spending almost matched the United States in recent years, which only reinforces the current sentiment that the United States cannot currently be taken seriously in the search for real solutions.

That sinking feeling you get when someone asks, "If the earth is warming, why is it so cold?"]

Another well-funded voice sounding the alarm is the U.S. Department of Defense. In a recent report the Pentagon highlights in very specific ways how global climate change threatens troop safety and the security of its bases. The report bluntly calls climate change a national security issue, leaving a particular circle in need of squaring: some of the Pentagon's most vociferous supporters show zero urgency regarding a threat the Pentagon has so clearly defined. Maybe this will motivate them.

There are other signs of good progress and reasons for optimism. More money continues to be plowed in to renewable energy than fossil-based sources. For the eighth year in a row clean energy investment topped $300 billion. California continues its aggressive battle against carbon emissions. A Colorado co-op is trying to exit pricey coal-based electricity contracts in favor for more affordable renewable sources for its customers. And nuclear plants - contentious with respect to nuclear waste but delivering copious amounts of baseload power with zero carbon emissions - are getting some much needed relief in the face of ultra-competitive natural gas prices. But as Gates points out in his talk, energy generation is only one part of the challenge. When you factor in other sectors of an economy, and how our consumption patterns exacerbate the problem, the full scale of the challenge becomes even clearer - and more urgent.

So what?

We have the myriad annual climate conferences, but those seem to be taking too long to establish how we will do what we know is necessary. And though useful, meaningful progress will always be difficult because of its top-heavy approach. Someone will always feel short-changed or sold out. Developing countries will insist they have a right to burn as much coal as the developed countries that are now telling them to cool it. By the time they iron all of this out, it will likely be too late.

Global coal use in 2018. Developing countries compose approximately 80% of the world's coal use. (Source: IEA)

Instead, we need to support innovative ideas and technologies. We need leaders who will to do whatever it takes to throw everything-and-the-kitchen-sink at these challenges. And if that doesn't work, we either have to elect other leaders who will do it, or step up and be them ourselves. We need people free to explore ideas from left, right, and center that lead to the same breakthroughs that have brought us increased crop yields, microcomputers, GPS, and Spam. And we need them now.

Or maybe once the Super Bowl is over and it's a little warmer outside.


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© 2020 by Mark Konold