Short sleeves in February. Did it have to turn out this way?

October 25, 2012, by Michael Gillenwater

Much of the world right now appears largely unconcerned with climate change. And, this state of affairs is just what social psychology tells us we should expect. People will avoid thinking about and accepting as real problems like climate change that feel remote and have complex long-term causes and solutions. Combine the enormous distractions of ongoing economic upheaval in many parts of the world and the quadrennial naval gazing in the United States that is the Presidential election season and it is unsurprising that the outcome is indifference to the specter of the climate problem.

A problem right in front of us

At the same time, climate change is finally beginning to show itself right in front of our faces. I recently moved from Washington, DC (to gorgeous Seattle if you were wondering). Back in DC, this last spring was the warmest on record (reference: National Climatic Data Center), and across the USA more than 4,300 record highs were broken in March alone. Winter seemed to end in February. I also spent a good part of the summer around Glacier National Park in Montana showing my kids the glaciers now, as they are now projected to disappear in just a matter of years (yes, years, not decades). And just two weeks ago I took the family on a trip up to the base of Mount Rainer here in Washington State. We hiked up a valley where we could see, at our feet, the path of glacial retreat over the last few years. Dozens of football fields of newly exposed ground sprawled out in front of us.

I’m not sharing these observations to convince anyone that climate change is happening. Let’s be honest, if you are reading this blog there is pretty much zero chance you need persuading that climate change is real. No, my point instead is that with our climate unambiguously changing in front of us, we have reached a turning point. It is now acceptable for each of us, as GHG experts, to talk about climate change as something that is happening now versus something that will happen eventually.

Arctic balding

Many of you are well aware of the severity of the science. In the Arctic, the toupée is coming off, and we are seeing the ugliness of the balding process. Last month we witnessed Arctic sea ice extent reach a record minimum (reference: National Snow and Ice Data Center). The area of Arctic ice is half what it was very recently (i.e., in our lifetimes, and yes it is far outside the standard deviation). If you dig deeper into the science and data, you will also realize what matters even more is ice volume (i.e., factoring in ice thickness not just area). This metric is barely a third of what it has been in our lifetimes (reference: University of Washington Polar Science Center). In sum, Arctic ice is getting dramatically thinner allowing even more to melt next year, exposing more ocean surface to summer heating. Repeat.

Besides, being awkward for some of us to explain to our kids how Santa Claus lives on a house boat, why does this matter? The climatologist’s simple answer is that without ice to reflect sunlight, we’ll see more heating of the Arctic Ocean, which is likely to increasingly play havoc with global circulation and weather patterns.

I told you so and so did James Hansen

This is a subject too serious to play “I-told-you-so” with, but it’s worth acknowledging that broadly speaking the scientific community is inherently conservative with their estimates. Looking back I’ve surprised myself with the prescience of my own prediction two years ago in this blog that ice melt would begin to occur faster than most scientists thought. So, I concur with James Hansen. What we are seeing with these signs (along with the myriad other signals including shifting animal migration patterns, etc.) is the product of anthropogenic climate change.

Again, what is sadly ironic is that that while this is happening, the broader public has ceased to focus on the issue. Arguably, climate change was seen as more politically pressing 15 years ago than it is now. Case in point is the EU’s laudable push on aviation emissions. A policy that is not terribly aggressive in terms of its emissions targets. And no one can say that after a couple decades of mostly fruitless multilateral discussions through ICAO, that Europe is ignoring more international options. Yet, the entire world is fighting even this modest policy, which was born out of frustration and inaction by the global community.

Did it have to turn out this way?

Although the optimist could come up with a different scenario, I think that the reality I’ve outlined was almost inevitable. And I feel safe saying that we are going to see a lot more serious weather changes before there is a shift in our collective consciousness on this issue. This means we need to plan and prepare for not just a different planet, but a planet “on the move.” We also need to plan for a society that will at some point shift from blind ignorance to panic at the relative blink of an eye.

So, what do these observations and predictions mean for GHG management?

But where does this leave the GHG practitioner? Do I think that we need to all go out and become activists and scream at our political leaders to act? If you have the drive: go for it. But, I have little confidence that we can shift the politics here. (I’ll address some of the more intractable aspects of climate politics in my next blog post.) What it does mean, however, is that carbon management is not only about measuring and reducing emissions. It is broader than that…it’s about managing emissions in a way that simultaneously enables us adapt to a changing planet. In other words, the job is more difficult than we generally think.

So, our job, as has been said before, needs to be more than just accounting for emissions. It needs to be about managing GHG emissions. And now we have to think about doing this in a way that considers our need to adapt in the face of ongoing changes in the environment due to a changing climate. Such is our challenge, requiring a complex interdisciplinary skillset. Given this state of affairs, it is clear that we are at a critical point in the state of our practice. Contrary to the political winds of the moment, the need to turn serious attention to professional development in the field of carbon management has never been greater.

2 responses to “Short sleeves in February. Did it have to turn out this way?”

  1. Don Bain says:


    Your post and its dateline seem positively prescient given the landfall of Hurricane Sandy 5 days later. I had to wait until power was restored in my Pennsylvania neighborhood to post my comment. Growing up near the Texas Gulf coast provided plenty of hurricane experience, but the storms of my youth complied with the local lore that the season was to be over by the second week of September. We are one degree warmer and the atmosphere has 4% more water vapor than the time of my first memorable hurricane (on September 11th of that year).

    My training requires that I recite the requisite “no single weather event is proof of climate change,” but I can now confidently show you what climate change looks like in an iconic coastal city like New York. Imagination is no longer required.

    I notice a change in timbre of the dialog on climate change in the media. Anchors and reporters seem more comfortable raising the subject. Producers are still compelled to find and grant equal air time to deniers/opposition anytime a discussion of changing weather patterns and climate are examined. Samples of the dialog this week revealed a shift in the opposing rhetoric from argument and denial, to calls for building more resilient infrastructure. Perhaps the shift arises from the cognitive bankruptcy in defending a counter-position in the face of emerging, irrefutable data. Even some U.S. policy-makers are raising the subject, at least in the moments they are governing rather than campaigning or raising money for re-election.

    Lest we be discouraged by the political and policy apathy, I remind us that there is lots of good work going on in corporations. Reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency makes good business sense and the will to make progress seems unshaken. As you have heard me say before, there is more leadership now (in the U.S. anyway) coming from corporations like Wal-Mart than the U.S. Senate.

    I applaud your encouragement to soldier on in our professional development and practice. You are right to direct aspirations beyond carbon accounting to carbon management. Let’s raise the bar even higher. I challenge us to manage profitable businesses that reduce carbon emissions and help create a prosperous and more sustainable future. I’d like to share that with our kids.

    Don Bain, P.E.

  2. Thanks Don. Well put. Although, lets not forget that ultimately, this issue is only going to be properly addressed through aggressive public policy backed up by strong public support. There are corporations doing great things, but many of them are also sending money to places like the Chamber of Commerce, who actively lobby against GHG mitigation policies.

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