Longer growing seasons! Warmer winters! What could be wrong with global climate change? That’s the overall impression one gets of a recent headline in the Argus Leader, “Hint for state’s climate future: think Kansas“:
South Dakota in 2050 will have longer growing seasons, milder winters and more extreme weather events if national weather experts are correct in analyzing the effects of greenhouse gases on climate warming.
A draft report released earlier this month by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee projects that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the average temperature in South Dakota will rise an additional 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.
That comes as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States.
What will warming bring to the state? Growing seasons will stretch longer. There will be fewer subzero-degree days in the winter and snow won’t stick around as long. Storms will be more extreme, dumping significant amounts of snow and rain but unleashing precipitation less often.
That’s one, rather rosy way to talk about global climate change. No wonder Kristi Noem wants to drive the Keystone XL Pipeline right through South Dakota – if all that tar sands oil is only going to speed up the process of making our state’s climate balmier, the faster the better, right?
Here is another way to talk about it, courtesy of Bill McKibben’s hugely popular essay “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in Rolling Stone last August:
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this [last] summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe…
Meanwhile the tide of numbers continues. The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month [July 2012], on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season’s fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado’s annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year’s harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month [August 2012], a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can’t do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving… in the dust.
Pretty big difference, huh? Suddenly approving a pipeline that would liberate nearly a million barrels of dirty, dirty oil into the international market doesn’t seem like such a great idea.
Note the end of the first paragraph of the Argus Leader’s story though: “if national weather experts are correct in analyzing the effects of greenhouse gases on climate warming.” This is a typical journalistic way of indicating that an issue is up for debate. To use the terminology of a useful model developed by journalist Daniel Hallen to talk about the media and Vietnam, it situates the claim in question in the sphere of contention.
This is the sphere of mainstream political debates, where the supremacy of the military-industrial complex (which occupies the unspoken, unexamined sphere of consensus) or the possibility of a non-capitalist mode of production (which occupies the ignored and/or ridiculed sphere of deviance) are never brought up. And as David Roberts at Grist writes:
What’s key to understand about this model is that what ends up in the various spheres has very little to do with empirical or logical merit. These are not truth categories, they are categories of practice, shaped by social forces. In other words, they are deeply, intrinsically political, though “objective” reporters seem almost incapable of recognizing that they are engaging in political choices.
After the last year, which was one of the hottest on record and saw a litany of extreme weather events culminating in Superstorm Sandy, global climate change itself seems to have finally established itself in the sphere of consensus. Now it’s not whether change is occurring, but whether it’s man-made. Back to the Argus Leader:
State Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones calls himself a Turner County dirt farmer who isn’t smart enough to know if climate warming is a natural occurrence or a man-made reality. But he doesn’t doubt that adapting to whatever’s causing warmer climate is imperative to the state’s $21.4 billion agriculture industry.
You may not be “smart enough” to be a climate scientist, Walt. But there are lots of people who are. And guess what?
Man-made climate change occupies the sphere of consensus for scientists at least. But for the economic establishment that depends on climate science denial for its continued existence, the political establishment that depends on the economic establishment for its continued existence, and the media establishment that depends on both, it’s more convenient to manufacture controversy. But hey, at least South Dakota will have warmer winters, right?