After Joplin it’s time to take climate change seriously

Disaster in Joplin, Missouri, should get the immediate attention of climate change deniers, but will it?

 Recent events in Joplin and elsewhere in the nation’s mid-section, have shown us that Mother Nature is getting nastier and angrier.  Its time to pay attention to the message as she’s only going to get worse.

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas – fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been – the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.

If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder about whether this year’s record snowfalls and rainfalls across the Midwest – resulting in record flooding along the Mississippi – could somehow be related. And then you might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming, and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.

joplin Joplin, Missouri – May 23, 2011

Disasters not only in Joplin

It’s far smarter to repeat to yourself the comforting mantra that no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change. There have been tornadoes in and around Joplin before, and floods – that’s the important thing. Just be careful to make sure you don’t let yourself wonder why all these record-breaking events are happening in such proximity – that is, why there have been unprecedented megafloods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year. Why it’s just now that the Arctic has melted for the first time in thousands of years. No, better to focus on the immediate casualties, watch the videotape from the store cameras as the shelves are blown over. Look at the news anchorman standing in his waders in the rising river as the water approaches his chest. All the networks have sent their main anchors to Joplin this week.

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the past decade – well, you might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining? Should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sign a permit this summer allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta? You might also have to ask yourself: Do we have a bigger problem than $4-a-gallon gasoline?

Better to join with the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 240 to 184 this spring to defeat a resolution saying simply that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Propose your own physics; ignore physics altogether. Just don’t start asking yourself whether there might be some relation among last year’s failed grain harvest from the Russian heat wave, and Queensland’s failed grain harvest from its record flood, and France’s and Germany’s current drought-related crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn planted in their sodden fields. Surely the record food prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything systemic.

It’s very important to stay calm. If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies. If worst ever did come to worst, it’s reassuring to remember what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent filing: that there’s no need to worry because “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” I’m pretty sure that’s what residents are telling themselves in Joplin today.

Bill McKibben is founder of the global climate campaign and a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. Let the events in Joplin be a wake up call.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011. Filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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7 Responses to After Joplin it’s time to take climate change seriously

  1. lazersedge

    May 26, 2011 at 10:41 am

    No need to wait for Joplin RJ, I live in Tuscaloosa, AL. As you mentioned we have saw this up close and personal. Our thoughts here are with those in Missouri. I guess if we have one of the F 5’s bearing down on congress while it is in session they might get the message that Mother Nature is seriously pissed off.

    • Holte Ender

      May 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm

      Dead right there Lazer, the guys in the ivory towers dish out sympathy after the event, (but not dollars) they need to experience the sharp end of life.

  2. Michael John Scott

    May 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I have friends in Joplin, Jefferson City, and St. Louis. They tell me that they are under almost continuous tornado watches and warnings. Regardless, nothing will change the minds of the deniers. No amount of severe weather, or scientific proof will dissuade them from their beliefs. Curiously some evangelical preachers are telling their flock that climate change is real and they should do everything they can to help the environment.

  3. Eddie

    May 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    You know, you can just say f*** the polar bears, pandas, and whatever. Take a look at what we should be doing in terms of national economic efficiency, especially after the OPEC embargoes that occurred before I was born. The capitalist plan and the environmental hippie plan and even the national security hawk plan would look very identical….but I suppose in this day and age, a freedom “loving capitalist” just has be a bigger threat to the world that the commies.

    • lazersedge

      May 27, 2011 at 4:42 am

      You know Eddie, you might just be right. Your freedom loving capitalists put us in the mess we are in economically. Bless their hearts, those wall street bankers are suffering right along with us. What this has to do with global warming and the effect it is having on the weather I don’t know. But, the next time we are having a F 5 tornado here in Tuscaloosa I will be glad you down for a welcoming party and you can explain it to the 41 dead people and their families.

      • Eddie

        May 27, 2011 at 10:16 am

        With all due respect, a cheaper and more satisfying method will be sending them up further up north say…Canada. They are experiencing something once thought impossible for their f—— cold country: tropical diseases. There is a story on the PBS Newshour about a Canadian woman that thought that she had cancer and found that there was some weird ass tropical disease growing on her spine.

  4. RickRay

    May 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Too bad prayer doesn’t work and never will. We could ask god to save what he supposedly created.