Climate Departure: Imagine Living on a Different Planet

New Yorkers, do you remember the heat wave of July 2012 in the city? As we sweltered in the oppressive heat, we came within a whisker of the month-long heat record set eleven years earlier. Ten days broke the 90-degree mark. Our asphalt streets jacked up that heat to oven-like conditions. The subway was nearly unbearable. Remember?

But what about Washingtonians? Do you remember July a year earlier? That month in 2011, you set your all-time record for summer misery. For 23 days that month, you broiled in the ninety-plus oven, and broke 100 seven times. Do you remember?

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Larry Deklinski/The News-Item

And Dallas, and Houston: You haven’t forgotten that summer either, have you?  If Dante Alighieri had been alive to visit you in 2011, his Inferno would have had a whole section devoted to you. Remember the newscasters who fried eggs on car dashboards, and baked cookies on the passenger’s seats? You spent 34 consecutive days above 100 degrees. Do you remember?

Okay, it’s beginning to come back now, isn’t it?

Now, I want you to picture a very different world. This’ll take some imagination, but just try, okay? In this imaginary world, your very coldest July – your record cold July – is hotter than those sizzling months. That’s right: In this hypothetical world, July 2011 would break every record for summer cold snaps in Texas. Only 34 days straight above 100 in Dallas? Thank God for the cool weather! And in this land-of-make-believe, that’s true for every single month of the year. Not one single monthly record low that’s not hotter than the corresponding record high in our world.

Could you imagine living in such a world?

Well, depending on where you live, it may not take much imagination very soon. That’s the conclusion of peer-reviewed research published yesterday in the journal Nature. How soon? For New York and Washington, 34 years from now — 2037. For Istanbul and Kampala, same year. But for the six million residents of Papua New Guinea, this strange new world arrives in 2020 – only seven years from now.

“To put it simply,” National Geographic reports, “the coldest year in New Guinea after 2020 will be warmer than the hottest year anyone there has ever experienced.”  

New Guinea’s people have seven years – plus or minus a margin of error – according to this research to prepare for their version of Texas’ summer of 2011 – and maybe worse, but never better. Oh, and that goes for the 26,000 species of plants, animals and corals which God created to flourish on that sub-continent as well.

I know what you’re thinking. This must be some crazy theory. Right?

Not really. The research team from the University of Hawaii didn’t even break any new ground in climate science. In fact, they simply combined the data from 39 existing climate projection models, and built a timeline for what they call “climate departures” – the point at which “the coldest year of the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past,” according to lead researcher Camilo Mora.

And that’s not the most significant contribution of the research. It’s this: they’ve crunched the data for any point on the globe. Live in Juba, South Sudan? You can now project the time you’ve got left, before you’re on this new suffocating planet. Kolkata? Miami? St. Louis? Faisalabad? You too.

For us at Good Hand Farm, New York is close enough. At 59 years old today, I’d be 93 – about my Mom’s age when she died – when we cross the “climate departure” line. My kids and grandkids, they can do the math: just add 34 years. If I’m planting trees, they’d better be able to survive in a record-hot world. Buying a house? How does it handle unimaginable summers? Training for a career? Planning for a family? Virtually every decision is impacted by this reality: In 34 years, my city’s coolest monthly record will be hotter than today’s hottest record.

But wait: Are we sure of this?

Well, no, of course. These are scientific models, sophisticated programs run on high-powered computers that simulate outcomes. Modeling is the science of is getting information about how something will behave without actually going through it in real life. What’s the best design for a racing yacht? How should a city prepare for a hurricane? How to chart the course of a space craft? How many tons of vehicles will a proposed bridge support? Every field of science relies on them, and they get refined year after year as they succeed or fail at projecting actual outcomes.

In climate science, they’re getting better all the time. And in this case, there are 39 of them, which combine to minimize errors from any one or two outliers.

But can’t we do anything about this?

I was glad to see that the answer to this is yes. The truth isn’t all that rosy, but we can buy time if we act strongly to rein in carbon emissions. For New York, the research says that we can buy an extra 22 years – to 2067 – before we reach the point of “climate departure.” And that’s more important than you might think at first blush. Because with climate change, time is everything. Species need time to adapt: new flora need time to grow; animals need time to migrate; all creatures need time to develop resistance to new pests and diseases. Humans need time to innovate, to redesign and to build a society that can survive such extremes. Farmers need time to establish new orchards and new cultivars. And the list goes on.

So if you’ve been thinking about getting more engaged in climate action, maybe this report will be the boost you needed. Time is getting really short.  Now you have an idea of just how short. Why not visit our Action page, and think about new ways you can make a difference?

And one final hint: Your congressman will NEVER do anything on climate stewardship unless you force him to (or her).

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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