L.A. Times: Climate change is the true crisis

Lawmakers today aren’t seeing the forest for the trees; that will change when the forest has burned or been destroyed by bark beetles, but by then it will be too late.

That’s the concluding paragraph from a terrific editorial in today’s L.A. Times, “Climate change is the true crisis:  West Virginia’s mining disaster and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were disastrous and investigations are justified, but the real threat is much worse.”

The piece opens:

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: One deadly explosion while extracting fossil fuels may be regarded as a misfortune, but two within a month looks like carelessness. That’s the problem lawmakers are wrestling with amid hearings and federal investigations of the Upper Big Branch mine blast in West Virginia and the BP oil rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re pleased to see that the reactive machinery is functioning, and confident that it will result in regulations to better protect miners and oil workers. But we can’t help thinking that our representatives are missing the signs of a far more destructive crisis in the making.

Coal and oil have more in common than a tendency to produce explosions when mistakes are made in the extraction process. Together, they account for the main reason the Earth’s climate is gradually changing. The deaths of 29 mine workers and 11 oil workers were tragic, and the economic consequences of the oil spill to the gulf’s fishing and tourism industries could be devastating, but they’re dwarfed by the deaths and financial losses that will come with global warming.

Climate change is a little like weight loss: When you’re on a diet, it’s hard to see the fat melting away day to day, but compare photos of yourself before and after losing 20 pounds and the difference is dramatic. Our political system functions well when it’s reacting to a discrete disaster such as a mine explosion, but a slow-motion catastrophe such as climate change doesn’t spur the same outrage because most people don’t see it happening until long after the damage is done.

In short, Turns out humans are not like slowly boiling frogs “¦ we are like slowly boiling brainless frogs.

Thus, we’re a little bemused by the conversion of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a former advocate of offshore oil drilling who has now changed his mind. Unmentioned by Crist or other Sunshine State politicians is that, even as Floridians fret about tar balls from the gulf spill showing up on their pristine white-sand beaches, those same beaches are going to vanish within half a century (along with much of Miami) under the worst-case scenarios presented by climate modelers. But voters can see tar balls; erosion is tougher to spot.

Congress and the Obama administration are wasting no time investigating the mining and drilling disasters. Meanwhile, a comprehensive climate bill is hopelessly stalled in the Senate, and its prospects of approval in an election year are dim. It’s no more likely to progress in 2011 either, because the Democratic majority is expected to shrink.

The bottom line:  The time to act was a long time ago, but now is infinitely better than who knows when.

14 Responses to L.A. Times: Climate change is the true crisis

  1. Peter Bellin says:

    I just read the editorial, and it made my morning coffee even more enjoyable.

  2. Dewita says:

    Politicians have too many things on their plate! That’s why we need to be proactive in reaching out and educating them – persistently. The Dems could have *owned* this issue and act on it! But, they’re not. So now it’s up to us to keep making the noise and never give up. We can’t let things slip.

  3. Wit's End says:

    The politicians should be reminded of a comment posted on, in response to Sarah Palin’s persistence in the policy of “drill baby drill”

    “Trust the oil companies? Seriously, $carah, do you know there is still oil on the beaches in Alaska 21 years after the Exxon Valdez tragedy? Seriously Sarah, our citizens waited 20 long years for the litigation to be over all to get a measly $12,000 each. Seriously, Sarah, do you know how many fishermen commited suicide after losing their livelhood? Seriously, $arah, did you know the mayor of Cordova commited suicide after watching his whole community be devasted? Seriously Sarah, do you know how many people involved in the clean up of the Valdez are sick or dead from the carcinogens? Seriously Sarah do you know how many sealife species are gone from this part of the world and will never come back?”

  4. WastedEnergy says:

    Bill McKibben put it well:

    “If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully. We now realize, as we didn’t on the first Earth Day, that the slick of carbon dioxide spreading invisibly across the atmosphere is driving change on a massive scale: by raising the planet’s temperature, it’s melting everything frozen, raising the level of the ocean, powering ever stronger storms. In the Gulf, and in every other ocean on the planet, that extra carbon is turning seawater acid. You can’t see it, but it’s wrecking marine life far more effectively and insidiously even than the spreading oil.

    And there’s no way to prevent global warming with better valves. The only way is by ending our addiction to fossil fuel with great speed.”

  5. Seth Masia says:

    Good editorial. But the LA Times editorial board should look closely at its own news operation. News editors don’t react to slow-moving catastrophe either — they front-page only immediate crisis. And is the paper’s science reporting as vigorous as it was, say, 10 years ago?

  6. mike roddy says:

    Yeah, the LA Times is one of the few papers whose environmental coverage has actually improved over the years. We should also credit brave LAT reporters like Margot Roosevelt (who I communicate with occasionally).

    The reason may be geographical. Eastern papers such as the New York Times are often in bed with old money interests. Since their securities advisors and bankers have fallen back on fossil fuels as one of the few remaining safe investments, editorial policy has become ever more reactionary. Capital preservation for old wealth and sunset industries dominates. And let’s not even talk about the South.

    Out West, people see the future, as well as the opportunities. Watching Congress these days makes me pine for Cascadia, a new political entity composed of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia that has been proposed for 40 years. Note to Rick Perry: We encourage your secession attempt. That will make ours much easier.

  7. dhogaza says:

    Watching Congress these days makes me pine for Cascadia, a new political entity composed of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia that has been proposed for 40 years.

    Ahem. NORTHERN California. Where the cascades are, not the sierras … the idea of Cascadia is the antithesis of everything SoCal represents.

  8. paulm says:

    Well said Seth.

  9. mike roddy says:

    You’re right, dhogaza. SoCal was never invited, and I should have been more precise. Let the home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan form some kind of psycho alliance with Arizona and Texas.

  10. Barry says:

    Kudos to LATimes.

    I grew up there and much of my introduction to environmental awareness came from reading the regular “Environment” section in the LA Times 30 years ago. They were way ahead of the the MSM curve back then and deserve a shout out for that.

    Also, Mike (#6) is right that the West Coast is not afraid of the future being different…and many believe they can be part of whatever transformation is coming next. Hopefully all that verve and talent can be a leading edge in a post-fossil future that restores hope.

  11. Bill W says:

    Well, dhogaza and Mike, let’s not forget that this story is in the Los Angeles Times. SoCal may not be as green as NorCal, but we’re getting better.

    Bill who grew up in NorCal and now lives in SoCal.

  12. Aaron Lewis says:

    The last sentence, “Lawmakers today aren’t seeing the forest for the trees; that will change when the forest has burned or been destroyed by bark beetles, but by then it will be too late.” is sadly late.

    Bark beetles have been expanding through our forests for years, but few acknowledged that the rapid expansion of affected areas were a symptom of global warming. Mountain Pine Beetle was a clear problem by the time I arrived in California in 1980. This would have been an excellent editorial in 1980 after the Ixtoc I Oil Spill. That was 30 years ago. CO2 was 330 ppmv and global warming was slow enough that we could engineer our infrastructure to accommodate it.

    That was the time to call for aggressive mitigation. We are past that now. Our (western) forests are pretty much toast as a result of a higher temperature to precipitation ratio allowing the MPB to kill the mature stands of trees. With global warming, we are not sure what can replace those trees, or even whether any trees used to replace current trees can withstand accelerating global warming.

    You do not think global warming is accelerating? Then, look at the Arctic Sea ice. We are about to lose it. Not in 80 years or even 40, but in the next dozen years. The so called “Switch Yard of the Arctic” no longer has the mechanical strength to deflect ice from the Trans-Polar Drift back into the Beaufort Gyre and keep ice from being exported through either the Frame or Davis Straits. Warm currents from the North Atlantic drift are intruding into the Arctic mid-water, and warming the Arctic Sea ice from below. The combination of lower albedo as a result of surface melt, warmer water under the ice, more heat in the air above the ice (from the “south”), and more water vapor in the atmosphere above the ice from cracks in the ice are combining to melt the sea ice faster than the GCM predicted. In short, Arctic Sea Ice is in a death spiral. Once Arctic Sea ice is much reduced, then heat absorbed in the summer by the open Arctic Ocean and released as latent heat upwind of Greenland will accelerate ice dynamics on Greenland. Then, we will see truly magnificent sea level rise. Not ice melting in place, but big blocks of ice sliding into the ocean.

    The “Ice Guys” will squeal, “We can’t say that, we have never seen it!” No but Feynman did (his lecture on the topic started off talking about ice skating). It’s not that I trust the theory guys, but I get the same numbers. We are way past the point where we can have any confidence in any IPCC forecasts of future sea level rise that do not include robust GIS/WAIS/EAIS ice dynamics calculations. Melting sea ice absorbs a lot of heat, but does not change sea level. When the sea ice is gone, that heat stream that has gone into melting sea ice will go to melting Greenland. Melting Greenland will raise sea level.

    It is time to stop talking about mitigation, and start planning adaption. It is time to start moving infrastructure and populations away from sea level. Our (plan, permit, finance, engineer, and construct) public infrastructure cycle is 20+ years. If we are going to prepare our public infrastructure for the kind of sea level rise that will occur rapidly after we lose Arctic Sea ice, we needed to start yesterday.

    We did not. Frankly, today we need to talk about life boats.

    This comment is to remind JC of how an old “Warmist” rants.

  13. ToddInNorway says:

    Aaron Lewis, I fear you are correct in this. There is really no stopping the positive feedback processes now. The massive efforts put into monitoring the globe for all the signs of climate change are producing a tsunami of evidence and it is all bad. I think our only hope now is a crisis in fossil fuel supply and fast. Some would argue this is a bigger disaster. Maybe it is, but at least we have technical solutions to fix the energy problem. I do not see we have technical fixes for long-term climate change.

  14. Wit's End says:

    Todd in Norway: “…from an evolutionary perspective, if humans are even partly the cause of the warming since 1990 then we are already doomed as a species.” Michael Baillie