I think this is the year that I finally accepted that global warming is not just a future threat, but something that's happening right now. While Hurricane Irene might have freaked me out a little, I think it's this year's accumulation of unprecedented weather events, especially flooding, that is the handwriting on the wall.
To recap, the following places, among others, have seen unprecedented or extreme (100+ year likelihood) flooding in 2011:
- Binghamton, New York
- Northern Italy
Other nasty events include the tornado(es) in June in western Massachusetts, the Texas drought (starting in 2009 and still going in places), and the weird Halloween snowstorm.
Now, I'm pretty aware that none of these events are due solely to climate change. There are a lot of other regional local cycles and just plain luck that have a hand in the weather. There is also a historical element in the human toll as well: people increasingly tend to live near the sea, or in floodplains, and build modern infrastructure such as large buildings, roads and parking lots that are not as permeable to runoff, thus increasing flow to areas downhill and downstream. Especially in developing countries such as Thailand, there is more and more expensive infrastructure that is sitting in potential harm's way.
But climate scientists say that the dry getting drier and the wet getting wetter is a definite consequence of climate change. If weather events area partially due to chance, then it's pretty clear that more energy in the atmosphere is loading the dice for more extreme outcomes.
So, what about today's headlines? Well, a late-season typhoon just hit the southern Philippines killing over 400. This area is not in the usual track for typhoons (although normally they can expect one every twelve years or so). The sheer amount of rain was by any measure, extreme.
Also, the New York Times has a long article on the possible extent and effects of the release of carbon dioxide and methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the Arctic. The disturbing thing is that even if get man-made CO2 emissions under the control (which I still this is possible technically, if not politically until it's too late), there is a fairly reasonable chance that this kind of releasee will be setting off a warming process that will not stop for hundreds of years. Then the question will be if warming temperatures make civilization as we know it difficult — while I think the planet is pretty resilient, we have built an impressive but delicate and interdependent system that has never really been tested against global shocks. Even worse is knowing that we can see the warning signs now, but refuse to take relatively painless steps to get us off a track of nasty positive feedback loops of environmental and societal destruction.