Vermont’s extreme weather is ‘no mere chance’
Written by Bill McKibben
It is agony not to be in Vermont right now — to be watching the TV pictures of bridges washing away, to call my wife each hour and hear of new troubles cropping up across Addison County. The only consolations to being in Washington instead are that there are a lot of other Vermonters here with me, and that by sitting in outside the White House we’re doing what we can to help reduce the chances of floods far into the future.
We’ve been protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, which would link the refineries of Texas to the tar sands of Alberta, the second-biggest pool of carbon on the planet. And it’s that carbon which in turn links all this to Vermont’s weather. It’s not mere chance that we’ve had one of the biggest snowpacks on record, followed by the wettest spring on record, followed now by a hurricane bearing almost unprecedented loads of water. It’s simply physics.
Warm air holds more water vapor than cold — our constant burning of coal and oil and gas has heated the atmosphere enough already that on average it’s 4 percent moister than it was a generation ago. That’s a huge change in a basic physical parameter, and it loads the dice for both drought and deluge. And with those dice loaded, Vermont has been throwing snake eyes.
We’re not alone, of course. The list of countries that have faced record floods in the last year is itself a record. Pakistan, Queensland — and then the mighty surges down the Mississippi and the Missouri this spring, more water than they’d ever carried. Meanwhile, droughts from Russia to France to Africa have cut grain harvests and sent prices through the roof — and now Texas is simmering under its worst dry spell in history, deeper even than the Dust Bowl. It’s no comfort to know that as Vermont was drowning Sunday, Houston was recording the hottest day in its entire history.
We’re not going to undo the temperature rises we’ve already seen, and so Vermont, and everywhere else, will have to start planning how to deal with a more violent climate. Gov. Peter Shumlin has already taken steps in that direction, recognizing that infrastructure will have to be rebuilt to withstand greater force than originally planned. All you have to see is those covered bridges washing downstream to know we’re dealing with something new.
But human beings have only raised the temperature one degree so far, which has been enough to trigger the kind of trouble we’re already seeing (and to melt Arctic ice, and to turn seawater 30 percent more acid, and to — you get the picture). The climatologists tell us with robust confidence that if we don’t get our use of fossil fuel under control fast, then we’ll see the temperature rise 4 or 5 degrees before the century is out. And that will create a world where our civilizations simply won’t be able to cope — where instead of worrying about development and progress, we’ll simply be responding to one emergency after another. Already the finances of even a rich part of the world like our own are strained dealing with the kind of trauma — we simply can’t let it get worse.
Which is why it’s so important that we do things like persuade President Obama to block this new pipeline to the tar sands of Canada. I watched Monday morning as NASA’s James Hansen, the planet’s most important climate scientist, gave a remarkable speech: keep burning this kind of unconventional oil, he said, and it’s “essentially game over” for the climate. Then I watched as he went and got arrested, in the biggest day yet of this tar sands protest. CNN and NBC were watching too — word of the dangers we’re courting by burning so much oil is beginning to spread.
It’s hard to be away from home right now. We’re doing our best to help, though.
Bill McKibben of Ripton is a founder of tarsandsaction.org.