Skip to content

It’s the Ecology, Stupid

drought-080612"I get on my knees every day, and I'm saying an extra prayer right now," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters, adding that he'd be doing rain dances if he knew of one that would work to break the drought that's gripping most of the United States.

It's a bit late in the day for prayers and rain dances. The idea that you can systematically burn up the rainforests, poison the oceans, foul the land with toxic waste from factory farms, and pour millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere ... and then pray for a "deus ex machina" to somehow make everything OK again is magical thinking at a rather desperate level.

The agriculture secretary might do better addressing his prayers to the President and to Congress.  Right now, both campaigns are behaving as though the climate crisis doesn't even exist. The Obama campaign has said they don't expect to introduce the idea of climate change.

The agriculture secretary might do better addressing his prayers to the President and to Congress. Right now, both campaigns are behaving as though the climate crisis doesn't even exist.

"I think it's politically explosive," explained Carol Davenport on the Diane Rehm show. "There's a very strong new element of climate change skepticism on the right. Most climate change policy probably involves raising some kind of energy prices. It's just not something that any of the parties or any of the candidates feel comfortable introducing."

Gov. Romney isn't about to mention the topic, either. Government "leaders" and would-be leaders are rarely in the business of leading; they feel safer following what they believe the voters want to hear. And the voters don't want to hear about climate change.

"Polls show consistently it's not really an issue that voters care about," Davenport said. "The number one issue that voters care about is the economy. Environment ranks almost dead last these days."

As if the economy were somehow independent of the ecosystem. It's not; the two are completely intertwined. Just for starters, the drought, which now affects more than two thirds of the nation, is crippling the economy.

The month of June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. It followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere.

Highways are cracking, rail tracks are buckling. Nuclear power plants can't keep their water-cooling systems operating efficiently. And in Texas, a US Airways regional jet got stuck in the asphalt, which was melting under the 100-degree-plus temperature. 

“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, told the New York Times. His company had just taken more than a week to recover from the storm that reached from the Midwest to the east coast at the end of June, knocking out power for 4.3 million people.

(That was a rather small number, in retrospect, compared to the 600 million people who suffered a power outage in India that was caused in large part by the failure of the monsoon this year.)

greenland-ice-sheet-melt-080612

It's also been a freakishly warm summer in Greenland, where July brought a massive ice sheet melting. While it's not unusual for some ice to melt during the summer, what was unusual was that the melting happened in a flash and over a widespread area. "You literally had this wave of warm air wash over the Greenland ice sheet and melt it," NASA ice scientist Tom Wagner said. The ice melt area went from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent in four days, according to NASA.

At the same time, a giant iceberg broke off from the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland.

A US Airways regional jet got stuck in the asphalt, which was melting under the 100-degree-plus temperature.“It’s dramatic. It’s disturbing,” University of Delaware professor Andreas Muenchow told NPR. “We have data for 150 years and we see changes that we have not seen before. It’s one of the manifestations that Greenland is changing very fast."

Meanwhile, drought continues to strangle the economy. One third of the nation's counties – 1,297 of them across 29 states – have been declared federal disaster areas. More than half of the continental United States is under moderate to extreme drought.

“It really is a crisis," Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois told the New York Times after touring ravaged farms in the southern part of the state. "I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this in my lifetime.”

"We're moving from a crisis to a horror story," Purdue University agronomist Tony Vyn told Reuters. "I see an increasing number of fields that will produce zero grain."

Food columnist Mark Bittman wrote:

Here’s what American exceptionalism means now: on a per-capita basis, we either lead or come close to leading the world in consumption of resources, production of pollutants and a profound unwillingness to do anything about it. We may look back upon this year as the one in which climate change began to wreak serious havoc, yet we hear almost no conversation about changing policy or behavior.

While Congress and the White House continue to do nothing, scientists warn that we are approaching another tipping point. A new study in the journal Nature says that by the end of this century we're going to be looking at a very different kind of planet. Lead author Anthony Barnosky writes that we humans are causing changes to the Earth even faster than the natural events that brought an end to the last Ice Age. Global temperatures are rising faster than they did back then, and humans have completely transformed 43 percent of Earth's land surface for cities and agriculture, while the explosion in human population is putting ever more pressure on existing resources.

Barnosky explains that the thing about tipping points is, by definition, that they suddenly tip.

Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds.

"These ecological systems actually give us our life support, our crops, our fisheries, clean water," he told reporters, adding with typical understatement, "We're at a crossroads where if we choose to do nothing we really do face these tipping points and a less-good future for our immediate descendants." (Translation: "Your kids are screwed.") "If we choose to do nothing we really do face these tipping points and a less-good future for our immediate descendants."

One thing Agriculture Secretary might include in his prayers is for an answer to the conundrum that's brought about by cattle ranching and factory farming. Much of the corn and other crops that are wilting under the drought are to feed cattle who use up huge quantities of corn and water to produce far less food than would otherwise be available. At the same time, these cattle emit more greenhouse gases than all the vehicles in the world. But Secretary Vilsack is in the business of promoting and subsidizing the very people whose cattle are such a major part of the problem.

As things stand, the system is locked in place. Perhaps we should all be praying that someone in Congress, in the administration, or in the election campaign would simply have the courage to tell the truth to the American people – even if it costs that person their job. It would be a small price to pay for at least salvaging one's conscience.

0 comments

Trackbacks

  1. […] this month, we quoted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that he prays every day for an end to the drought. But it's a bit late in the day for prayers when you've steadfastly […]

  2. […] It’s the Ecology, Stupid: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he’s on his knees every day saying prayers to help break the drought. But the drought is not a natural disaster; it’s man-made. And neither of the two presidential candidates will even discuss it. […]