What our ‘Year Without a Winter’ tells us about the real threat of climate change | Bruce Ledewitz

(WikiMedia Commons Art)

We are facing a natural disaster without precedent in human history. It is necessary that governments take dramatic and unpopular action to limit the damage. And those who point out the worst case, but by no means implausible, possibilities are called alarmist.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

I’m not speaking of the virus that causes COVID-19, which is a real, but transient, danger. An easily transmittable virus that’s five times more lethal than the seasonal flu is a serious problem, but it will not end human civilization. Even the economic harm we are inflicting on ourselves in order to fight the virus will be receding by the Fall.

Climate change, conversely, could cripple human civilization, especially since humanity seems determined not to take the kind of dramatic action in regard to the climate that we are taking to limit the spread of COVID-19.

If you want to see the power and peril of climate change, just look at 2020—The Year Without A Winter.

Spring officially began on Thursday, March 19.

According to AccuWeather readings at the Pittsburgh airport, the temperature from January 1 to March 19 averaged 5 degrees above normal.

To gain some perspective on what a figure like that means, consider that in 1816, commonly known as The Year Without a Summer, worldwide temperatures fell by around 1.26 degrees, due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. That change caused massive food shortages. In the last Ice Age, temperatures only fell 7.2 degrees.

The abnormal warmth this winter was not just a Pittsburgh phenomenon. According to NOAA, 2020 was the warmest January worldwide in 141 years of climate records. On February 13, the temperature hit 65 degrees in Antarctica, the warmest temperature ever recorded there. And no one will forget the fires in Australia.

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None of this comes as news to people in the eastern United States. For the first time in recorded history, there was no snow on the ground in Chicago in January and February. All over the northeast, February was among the least snowy ever.

This was no drought. Although Pittsburgh had little snow in 2020, precipitation was 2.15 inches above normal. It rained. It was just too warm for snow.

Obviously, 2020 could be an anomaly. There were strange variations in the Jet Stream during this period. Next winter could certainly be cold and snowy.

But, there was no El Niño event to warm temperatures. Solar radiation was not at a high level. And 2019 was the second warmest year worldwide on record.

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Winter 2020 could just be the taste of things to come.

Now, people may be forgiven for thinking that a year without a winter is not such a bad thing. Other than skiers and ice-skaters, who really wants more cold weather? Unlike 1816, most people did not suffer from this equally dramatic weather event.

But think of the power behind a change like the one we have experienced this winter. Such power will bring catastrophic consequences elsewhere. Imagine Florida permanently flooded. Or Las Vegas so dry it must be abandoned.

That is why when there is an event so extraordinary as a year without a winter, we must pay attention.

And there is good news. While the threat of COVID-19 distracts us from the danger of climate change, the reaction to the virus shows us the way forward.

It turns out that when there is a real emergency, we are not as polarized as we thought. Democrats and Republicans are currently working out quite significant pieces of legislation to mitigate the economic fallout from virus-related business closures. There is disagreement, but there will be a bill. Meanwhile, President Trump is praising actions by Democratic governors and vice versa.

Nor are we living in two different universes in terms of information. Look at the FOX News website and you will see, commentary aside, that it looks almost the same as the CNN and MSNBC websites. In the face of real need, people just want the news.

And, suddenly, expertise is valued again. We might have started out calling the news about the virus a “hoax” and an exaggeration, but we are listening to scientists today.

Maybe, after the immediate threat of the virus is over, it will occur to people that if scientists did not lie about the virus, they are probably not lying about climate change.

When the virus threat is over, President Donald Trump will probably not be so quick to dismiss climate change as a hoax. I doubt he will ever use that word again.

But there is also a lesson here for the left. The reason that the response to the virus has been so universal is not only that the threat is clear, but also that the government actions taken were clearly responses to the threat. There was no “hidden agenda.”

The Green New Deal, on the other hand, is a Christmas tree of goodies that the left has wanted for years. Economic inequality is important, but it is not the same as climate change. Climate change proposals must be focused to achieve widespread support.

The virus shows that America can respond to a crisis. The Year Without a Winter shows that the crisis is really here. We can hope that our current solidarity and good will transfer to the more diffuse, but ultimately more dangerous, crisis of climate change.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.