Column: Winter Weather Report: Hot With a Chance of Boiling Over

For six months the sky over the west coast was obscured by smoke that had people as far east as New York City coughing more than usual. Before those history-making fires subsided, the sky filled with torrential rain and blinding snow storms. The long sought storms extinguished the fires and created rivers of mud. Tornadoes ripped apart much of the heartland, and extreme temperature fluctuations challenged the east coast.  With each atmospheric surprise, the ‘weather experts’ routinely pointed to maps and diagrams that they probably understood and announced, “climate change.”

Saying that the climate is changing because of climate change is uninformative.  There is endless talk of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, glaciers melting, sea levels rising and forests burning, but little talk of what we are doing to stop this global catastrophe. One might take the psychiatric view that we are taking the first step to resolving our problem with the climate by acknowledging that we have a problem. We spent four years in denial. We told our friends that they were just being silly to worry about those rising sea levels. That the arctic was warmer than at any other time since records have been kept was a good thing. Nobody wants endless winters. As long as we have freezers, we do not need all that permafrost.

Eighty percent of the south Sudan is under water because of unprecedented storms in the area.  If the rains stop, evaporation will clear away the water in about 15 years.  More rain is predicted.  Thousands of acres of arctic tundra are on fire. There is no way to stop the fires as long as the local temperatures stay at their current levels.  A persistent warming trend is predicted. Coastal farms in the Netherlands have been allowed to flood in an effort to save adjacent farmlands from flooding. Large swaths of Kentucky have been reduced to rubble by record-setting tornadoes.

The incremental devastation has been going on for decades and is speeding up, but the leaders of those nations responsible for most of the global warming have been either unconcerned or impotent. Industries that cause much of the greenhouse gas production are the power behind the thrones in many industrialized countries. Russia relies heavily on oil and gas exports to keep its oligarchy afloat.  Brazil is cutting or burning down tropical rain forests at a pace that will keep that nation solvent for a few more years while it eliminates one of the major carbon dioxide sinks on the planet. In America we panic every time the supply of oil and natural gas drops by a percent or two.  Our fossil fuel hungry nation would rather maintain our current lifestyles than lose any of the conveniences many of us enjoy to save the future of our children.

Obviously, profit underlies much of this evolving tragedy, but our leaders, elected and appointed, have also proven to be a major factor in our predicament. They have proven woefully incapable of managing what has reached a critical point. The destruction of our planet did not occur over months or years. It has been going on for over a century, but we have had the wherewithal to stop it or even turn it around for decades. Now it may be too late.

We know how this story ends. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, will reach a critical level within a few decades or years, and the insidious warming of our planet will be unstoppable. All the ice and snow will melt. Hurricane strength winds develop everywhere. Seasons are replaced by an endless tropical summer. Coastal cities flood.  Inland seas reappear and cover Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and several other states. A perpetual cloud cover interferes with any cooling of the continents. The sun’s rays that heat the planet [the infrared] penetrate the clouds and continue the heating of the planet until the oceans boil, and the only survivors of this transformation are the organisms that can live without light at temperatures in excess of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. We know how this scenario evolves from studies of our planetary neighbor in the solar system, Venus.

Venus is the most easily seen of the planets because it is covered in clouds that reflect about 80 percent of the visible light hitting it from the sun.  Those clouds are the residue of oceans that boiled off the surface of the planet as it underwent its own greenhouse catastrophe. The baking of Venus continues as surface temperatures are persistently higher than any intelligent life is likely to tolerate. Venus probably had no indifferent humans that set in motion the global destruction that has left it a pressure cooker, but its devolution is a cautionary tale for those of us on this watery planet.

For tens of thousands of years humans had little impact on global weather, but as we multiplied and developed increasingly powerful mechanisms for changing our world, we set it on the path that Venus followed millions of years ago.  As in war, the decisions made by relatively few individuals have an enormous impact on billions of people. A restless monarch can send hundreds of thousands of people into a conflict that kills millions and defiles huge swaths of the planet. A greedy industrialist can profit from a system that enriches him or her for years while destroying an ecosystem for generations to come. 

As a species, we are focused on what we want, more than on what we need. We could travel and heat our homes without using fuels that produce the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but we want fuels, like gasoline and diesel, that are provided by international firms at relatively low cost.  We could build homes without destroying the rain forests of North and South America, but we want easy access to timber provided by international firms at relatively low cost. We could limit our population growth, but we want to be fruitful and multiply, regardless of the consequences for those we are introducing to our ever more crowded planet.

Does this mean that our future is sealed, that we shall soon be the extinct inhabitants of a planet that shines even more brightly than Venus from the sunlight reflecting of its stratospheric oceans? Have we reached the tipping point at which our planet cannot shake off the heat from last year and has warmer seasons globally for the foreseeable future? No, our demise is avoidable if we change, but without real global initiatives, our home, the Earth, will be just another pressure cooker revolving the sun, a planet free of fossil fueled vehicles, free of wooden houses, free of us.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.