Skilling & Wuebbles: Heading into the late innings on climate change

Thursday, August 7, 2014

We’re numbers guys. Climate science is all about observations and data. They reveal the past and help us plan the future. In meteorology, observations and data are the backbone of forecasts and statistics are the vertebrae of narratives. We’re also fans of baseball, which offers us lots of opportunities to dig into numbers. In baseball, numbers can make goats and legends. In climate and weather, they show we’re in a whole new ballgame.

Our planet is on a record-shattering streak. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now over 400 parts per million. This is the first time in more than 800,000 years that there has been this much carbon in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, carbon dioxide concentrations were around 280 ppm. That’s a jump of more than 43 percent, and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are likely to get much higher.

Carbon isn’t the only thing rising. Globally, June was the hottest month on record. It broke a temperature record set just a month earlier. The hot streak prompted Derek Arndt, climate monitoring chief at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to declare: “We are living in the steroid era of the climate system.”

A rainbow arcs over Minneapolis after a Home Run Derby rain delay in All‐Star activities last month. (Brian Mark Peterson, McClatchy‐Tribune) Between the 1980s and the 2000s, baseball saw the average season-leading total for home runs jump to almost 50 home runs from 36. Even casual observers knew something was up.

Congress and Major League Baseball took action. But when it comes to carbon dioxide, the stakes are far higher than peanuts and Cracker Jack. Earth’s atmosphere is a dynamic system affected by things we can and can’t see. Disturbances to this complex system, such as those caused by increased amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, can cause dramatic shifts in local weather patterns. Climate is the long-term statistics of weather but it is not weather itself. However, changes in climatic conditions have a real impact on the weather we experience.

For decades, data analyses and climate modeling indicated that increasing levels of carbon dioxide would change weather patterns in the Midwest. Some changes, like longer growing seasons, offer short-term benefits. Other impacts, like more intense heat waves, more downpours and more allergy-causing pollen, reveal that we have more to lose than gain from climate change.

Climate change is here. With the intense heat and drought of 2012, our state and region experienced one of its hottest, driest years on record. We experienced significant agricultural losses, and Lake Michigan and Mississippi River water levels fell to historic lows.

In recent years, the intensity of our rainfall has been impressive. Four of Chicago’s 10 wettest summers have occurred since 2001. This summer is already in sixth place and inches upward with every downpour.

When baseball got out of whack, congressional hearings led to modifications to America’s national pastime.

However, it has become apparent that Congress is not inclined to act on stemming the pollution that leads to the extreme weather-causing climate change that we’re experiencing.

Almost 40 percent of that pollution comes from power plants that spew large amounts of pollutants into the air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft rule that would require Illinois to cut carbon pollution by 33 percent by 2030. Now we need strong state leadership to cut carbon pollution by boosting renewable energy resources and cutting waste by increasing energy efficiency.

Several steps are already underway. From 2005 through 2011, Illinois cut its carbon pollution by 2 percent. In the next three years, it’s estimated that energy efficiency will cut enough electricity demand to power 450,000 Illinois homes for a year. And we’re growing our economy too. More than 60,000 Illinoisans work in energy-efficiency related jobs and more than 20,000 are employed in renewable energy fields.

Last month, Major League Baseball held its annual All-Star festivities in Minnesota and a spectacular image of rainbows was captured after a Home Run Derby rain delay. Climate change is not a game, but if it were, the box score would be clear. We need a rally.

Thanks to data, we know exactly what’s coming. Let’s not the take our eyes off the ball.

 

Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist at WGN-TV, is a member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association.

Donald J. Wuebbles is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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