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December 14, 2019
EARTH IN EXTREMIS WHILE TRUMP PLAYS OSTRICH
Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust
Authors' Note: This article first appeared on Commondreams.org
Storms are savaging East Africa where rainfall in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda
and Tanzania is now over 300 mm (about a foot) higher than the 30-year mean tallied
since 1981. The subsequent flooding and landslides have affected 2.8 million people
displacing many and reportedly killing 300 according to the UN Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Thousands of miles away at the other end of the Indian ocean, there is extreme dry
heat across Australia with an 80 percent chance of exceeding the median maximum
temperature for the October-February summer period. It has led to an early start to
the bushfire season as about 140 are already raging in New South Wales. Among the
worst is a vast and so far uncontrollable fire about 40 miles outside Sydney, with
evacuation warnings along its perimeter.
The cause of such extreme weather at the two ends of the Indian Ocean is described
by weather scientists as the dipole effect -- a sea surface temperature difference
between the Arabian Sea western end and the south of Indonesia eastern end. A
positive dipole means warmer ocean temperatures in the west end and cooler in the
east. A negative dipole is the opposite; and a neutral dipole, means even
temperatures and normal weather in the adjacent land areas.
This year's warmer Indian Ocean temperatures in the western section have led to
more storms and cooler, much wetter weather in East Africa, while cool waters pooling
off Indonesia mean dry weather, causing extreme heat in Australia. At a 2C
temperature difference, this positive dipole is one of the strongest Indian Ocean
dipoles on record. Such a rare event occurring once in about 17 years in the past is
now expected once in 6 years. Why? The culprit is climate change.
It projects a future of more frequent, more extreme weather unless we reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and begin to eliminate the record high CO2 levels already
in the atmosphere.
The rest of the world is not immune from extreme weather events. In a historic flood
not too long ago this year, Venice's iconic St. Mark's square lay hip-deep in water
threatening the frescoes in the church itself. And in the US, coastal flooding on the
east coast has been featured by the New York Times (As Sea Levels Rise, So Do
Ghost Forests, October 8, 2019). The 'ghost forests' refer to trees in coastal areas
dying off due to frequent incursions of saltwater; it kills them from the roots up.
An excellent estimate of coastal flooding on the East and Gulf coasts, Encroaching
Tides, was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists a five years ago. Sober
reading, the report's prognosis of coastal inundation and sea level rise over the next
three decades is of concern to communities from Maine to Texas. Adaptation to new
norms, protective sea walls, economic consequences, the responsibilities of
Municipalities, States and the Federal Government, and a retreat from heavily
impacted areas are the conclusions. Is anybody listening?
The US is also not immune from fires. California's Kincade fire lasting two weeks
through November 6 this year burnt almost 78,000 acres. The largest 2019 wildfire in
the state, it was the largest ever for Sonoma county -- evacuation orders and
warnings covered almost everyone living in it. For the first eleven months of 2019
there have been 46,706 wildfires compared to 47,853 for all of 2018. Blame the
downslope Santa Ana winds for fanning them.
If such is the state of our earth in extremis, COP25 the UN Climate Change
Conference, is endeavoring to mitigate the major cause: climate change. It
concludes in Madrid, Spain this week (Dec 13) having been displaced from Chile due
to riots by an unhappy populace. And celebrity climate activist Greta Thunberg was
obliged to hitch a yacht ride back across the Atlantic arriving just in time to
demonstrate. Everything helps.
COP25's ambitious aim is to up the ante from the 2C temperature rise limit of the
Paris agreement, adopted by COP24 last year in Poland, to only 1.5C. A laudable
aim perhaps, yet the worst polluters since the industrial revolution are comfortably
ensconced, enjoying their wealth, without bearing a heavier burden -- in the case of
the US very little as Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris agreement. Indeed a
vexing state of affairs for the world when major players shirk their responsibilities.
Arshad M. Khan is a retired US-based professor and occasional commentator.
Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a
Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois with a special interest in