What’s Hot in Global Warming? Dear President Obama: Words Won’t Do It

Bruce E. Johansen*

My wife, Pat Keiffer, and I were watching the horrific tornado destruction in and near Moore, Oklahoma May 20 when she suggested I write a letter to President Obama about global warming and increasing storm intensity. “You know how to explain these things,” she said. I said the letter would never reach Obama, and if it did, he wouldn’t do anything about it.

Here it is, I suppose, briefly, in a Tweet--length executive summary: rising temperaturesprovoke a more unstable atmosphere. Tornadoes feed on contrast between heatnear the surface and cold air above, plus instability. We have had a plentiful dose of extremes this spring.

I’m already on my second Tweet: Recall a week in Omaha early last May when we had a frost warning on Sunday morning and a high of 101 degrees the next Tuesday afternoon, less than two weeks after we had awoken to three inches of wet snow? That’s the same contrast that blew most of Moore, Oklahoma, into the past tense on May 20.  Recall last fall, when Hurricane Sandy, also a creature of contrasts, grew to monstrous proportions by combining a tropical cyclone feeding off a late-summer Gulf Stream with a cold, winter-style snowstorm.

400 Parts per Million

In the midst of all this, Mr. President, the carbon-dioxide  level reached 400 parts per million. Anyone who has been following what goes on in this space for more than two minutes already knows the implications of a 400-p.p.m. carbon-dioxide level that will be painfully obvious in a scant few decades. You know that the full effects of that level will hit, via thermalinertia, in about 50 years. Today’s heat and storms are what we get from the fossil fuels that were burned back when John F. Kennedy was president, gasoline was 25 cents a gallon, and most Chinese owned one light bulb, if that. Today, the amount we are burning world-wide is much higher, and that will shape the storms our grandchildren grow old with.

Is anyone from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the line yet?  May I call you Barack? People who are tuned in know the implications that opening a wide-open tar sands spigot from the Canadian prairies and the wide reaches of North Dakota frack-land via the Keystone XL Pipeline will have on the CO2 level in future years.

While I have you here, Barack (I can wish!):  consider that increasing carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere holds heat close to the surface like a blanket, allowing upper levels to cool, increasing contrast.  The surge in sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in a warmer, wetter, more energetic flow of airmoving on its usual northerly path. The more energetic atmosphere is largely responsible for the increasing intensity and frequency of storms during thepast few years. Remember Joplin, Missouri two years ago? Or the fact that Moore, Oklahoma, wiped out on May 20, recorded a tornadic wind gust of 302 miles an hour?

I fully realize, Barack, that if you refuse to grant a permit for the XL Pipeline, the tar sands gang doubtless will find another way to ruin the atmosphere. They’ve already bragged about it. A pipeline through British Columbia, perhaps, thence by tanker to the throbbing fossil-fuel colossus that some people still call “Communist China,” or another one to the Yukon coast where melting ice -- irony behold! -- will bless Keystone with an open shipping channel to Europe and Asia.

The United States, especially the Great Plains, has moretornadoes than any other part of the world. However, lately they have occurred in places where they were once unknown or very, very rare. On December 13, 2010: a tornado destroyed several homes near Salem, Oregon. Three people were killed near Auckland, New Zealand December 6, 2012 by a tornado. A tornado tore through a city northeast of Tokyo, December 6, 2012, killing one person, injuring dozens of others and destroying scores of houses.

Weather as Weapon of Mass Destruction

It could happen here, Pat said. And it has, in 1913, and1975, direct hits on Omaha, but not the behemoths that have hit Moore, Oklahoma. That was then, a more tepid time. In our time, the weather leads the evening news more often than anything else. If we class climate change as a weapon of mass destruction, the Department of Homeland Security would be blaring warnings.

We are in a state of denial sharpened by addiction to fossil fuels. Between the reports on weather disasters, the evening news feeds us fossil-fuel propaganda from the spokes-shill whom Pat and I call the “oil and gas lady.”  Clean and safe. Gives us jobs. Build that pipeline. Life as usual. Convenient and normal. Then there are the big lies sponsored by “clean” coal. Someone will tell us that weather happens. Human use of fossil fuels isn’t at fault, we will be told, again.

My best friend, a life-long cigarette smoker, died of lung cancer. He would take one out, roll it around his hand, and say “I am killing myself.” And then he would smoke it.  So it is with fossil fuels. The addiction is doing the talking.

No-drama Obama has been talking up climate change, but real action has been in very short supply. If carbon dioxide had a sense of humor, it would be laughing at us. We cry for Moore, Oklahoma, but changing our climatic future is going to require a lotmore than tears, It’s going to take more than a dose of Mr. Obama’s famous empathy, that wonderful, cathartic balm in which he bathes us after another one of our addictions (big, handy, plentiful guns) becomes an instrumental part of yet another mass murder. We then conveniently forget, until the next time. So it is with tornadoes. Carbon dioxide has no memory and no empathy – just as bullets shed no tears.

All of us, and our children and grandchildren, will reap this whirlwind. Where is real leadership based on what will be important for future generations?

*Bruce E. Johansen is Jacob J. Isaacson professor in Communication and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has authored or edited 38 books, the most recent of which is The Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement (Greenwood, 2013). In addition to writing in Native American Studies, Johansen also has written widely in environmental studies, including several volumes on global warming (latest: The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology, Greenwood, 2009) and toxic chemicals (The Dirty Dozen, 2003). Johansen also has written occasionally (and usually briefly) in national newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, The National Geographic, The Progressive, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several others. Johansen, who has taught at UNO since 1982, is presently at work on histories of Seattle’s El Centro de la Raza and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, as well as a two-volumeencyclopedia of Native American culture for Greenwood.  He lives in Omaha with his wife Pat Keiffer and an extended family.

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