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Old Letter // Changing the Game

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:10 AM GMT on December 27, 2010

Old Letter // Changing the Game:

This entry will take a ritualistic view at the end on 2010 and the beginning of 2011. First though I want to start with a letter that my brother Bob stumbled onto. (My readers might like this: The Nature of Technological Civilizations). The letter is from a distant relative of our family, Tabitha Morgan, who was describing the winter of 1782-1783. It is available online at Christmas in Virginia, specifically here.

Winter in 1782-1783:

“The wind was still biting cold on the 5th day of March outside the church in Amelia County where we made our vows to each other. If not the coldest, then surely it had been the longest winter that anyone could remember.

The Elizabeth River froze at Norfolk and all of Virginia was covered in a blanket of snow well into what should have been spring. The Chesapeake Bay froze clear out to the mouth and the ice frozen hard on the Potomac didn’t even crack til ten days after the wedding.

When the thaw finally came, the massive sheet of ice that jammed the James River broke loose at Richmond. Ice and water came crashing down the river’s course like a mighty Atlantic wave. All the boats tied below the falls were lost. No living thing survived in the path of that flood.

In May, as it always does, new life burst forth out of the long frozen ground. This year though, the grasses seamed greener . . . the blossoms more fragrant after all those long, dark months of winter. When the hot, wet Virginia summer finally arrived, I realized that I also carried new life within me.

Nothing was as important to me as the child I carried. He dominated my thoughts and absorbed all my energy. I have never known such joy. ….”

From the past year: I have been in Colorado for the past couple of weeks. The week before Christmas there was more than six feet of wet, heavy snow in Gothic, Colorado. This occurred during a month of warm temperatures, with at least one record high in Grand Junction. Meanwhile, I know people who have been stranded in Europe and missed Christmas because of snow. (some old relevant blogs: Cold Warm Cold Warm, Warm Snow, Weather and Climate)

This year also saw the heat wave in Russia, and the floods in Pakistan. All of these events bring together weather and climate, extreme events, geography and people. (see Brian Fagan’s, for example The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization -- review) More and more we hear of this combination of weather and geography and people leading to disruption and destruction and the collapse of fragile, stressed systems.

Is this climate change, increasing stress on societal capacities, exposure of a growing population, or information shared more broadly, more quickly, and with more focus? Is the flood in Pakistan the biggest – or not. Are the (Lady) Huskies better than the (Gentlemen) Bruins of a previous generation? We reduce our focus to events like the focus on the last game, this game, and the next game. We let this gamesmanship rule the day.

This winter I teach my Climate Change Problem Solving class for the sixth time. Usually I try to lead students through an unfolding of the scientific evidence and the complexity of how to approach climate change as a societal problem. I march through ideas like avoiding dangerous climate change. I lead the discussion to conclusions like - we need to understand far more carefully geo-engineering, because we are, in fact, engineering the planet - if we are going to control carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then we are going to have to develop the technological means to remove carbon dioxide. We discuss the political and scientific and practical problems of carbon markets - the intersection of climate change and national security. The list goes on.

This year I plan to change my approach, into one of thinking about how to prepare for an atmosphere with more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide and with temperatures that are beyond our notional two degree average that represents our arbitrary and comfortable threshold of dangerous. It has become evident that we must think about this world that is likely to be. We need to prepare and by making this world more real, perhaps, we raise the tangible information that will motivate us to make this world less notional, less likely.

Climate has always impacted us; it brings us success, and it causes us grief. This will continue to be true, but the Earth will be warmer, sea level will be higher, and the weather will be different. Water will come and go in different cycles. There will be more people. Ecosystems will be different. Weather and geography and people will continue to mix it up. No longer will we be able to plan over generational spans with the idea that the environment is constant, or that we have experienced environmental extremes. The very fabric of the way we build will have to change, buildings and houses and infrastructure will have to adapt. Our crops will have to change. It’s a new way of thinking, a big problem that I have difficulty explaining, much less taking on, but it is time to move beyond identifying the problems and take them on in a new game.


Figure 1: The 1953 floods lead to a rethink of London's flood strategy. from The Thames Barrier, from 21st Century Challenges

Pakistani Flood Relief Links

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

An impressive list of organizations

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.