Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Feedback Loops: How Killer Heat Begets More Killer Heat

The Texas congressional delegation usually doesn’t have much use for scientists.  No other group of lawmakers has so recklessly dismissed all scientific warnings about climate change and environmental degradation.

So I sat up and took notice last week when Texas Rep. Pete Olson ($352,000*) admitted that he accepted the findings of the climate experts.  Well, sort of.

[*Note: We provide in red brackets the amount of money politicians have accepted from oil, gas and coal lobbyists. Find how much your Congressional representatives have taken here.]

Olson ($352,000) was debating recent EPA regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants last week.  And he had a tragic story to tell: “My home state of Texas is still suffering from a significant drought,” said Olson in what may be the understatement of the century.  “The district I represent went through the hottest August in history – above 100 degrees every single day in August.”

Record heat and drought had Texans praying for rain
And then came the shocker: “And experts predict,” admitted Olson, “that we’re going to have the same conditions occurring this summer.”

Yes, you heard it right: A Texas congressman citing climate warnings issued by Texas scientists.

In fact, we have been unable to find a single Texas climate scientist who does not agree that Texas is in for prolonged drought and heat waves.  From what we see, they also are unanimous in their assessment that human-caused climate change is exacerbating Texas’ heat and drought, threatening the state with potential long-term desertification.

We might think that a congressman faced with such dire warnings regarding his home district would move aggressively to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that the researchers tell us drive these climate trends.  But then, we would be wrong.

For Rep. Olson ($352,000), the record heat is all the more reason to burn more coal, to assure plenty of electricity for air conditioning.  “The organization that controls the grid for most of our state is worried about capacity shortages if this weather recurs, as expected,” said Olson.  For this reason, the congressman argued passionately against any regulation of coal-fired power plants by the EPA.

Black spot: Texas and much of Mexico are bone dry
Now, we’re very familiar with positive feedback loops.  For example, warmer global temperatures melt more sea ice; more white, reflective sea ice is replaced by dark, absorbent sea water; the dark water absorbs more solar heat, further warming the atmosphere; which, in turn, melts more sea ice; and so forth.

But there’s another feedback loop that gets less attention.  It’s the Human Feedback Loop.  People burn fossil fuels to power air conditioning virtually everywhere; the resulting carbon emissions drive extreme weather, including heat waves and droughts; and their representatives do everything possible to ensure that they can burn even more fossil fuels for the electricity to stay cool during those heat waves; and so forth.

The Human Feedback Loop does not bode well for efforts to preserve the earth’s climate systems.  Warm states like Texas owe much of their dynamism to air conditioning and the hydrocarbons that fuel it.  Now that blistering heat is the order of the day, cries for more fossil fuels will only intensify.

But the Texas researchers tell us that the carbon emissions are at the heart of the problem.  Texas State Climatologist JohnNielsen-Gammon puts it this way:  “There is evidence that global warming has had an effect on the drought, primarily by increasing the surface temperature, which increases the drought severity by increasing evaporation and water stress, and by decreasing stream flow and water supply.”

Texas Tech climate scientist and creation-care spokesperson Katherine Hayhoe reinforces the message:  “Climate change has already altered the background conditions of our atmosphere, and in that sense, every event — drought, heat, storm — contains climate change…. We know that in the future it will be hotter, with more extreme heat, so more water will evaporate, less water will be in the soil, and therefore we are more likely to have drought.”

Climate scientist Hayhoe cites Christian motivation
Rep. Olson ($352,000) accepts scientific warnings about coming heat and drought.  But like the rest of the Texas congressional delegation, he doesn’t have much use for the connection between greenhouse gases and Texas-sized climate catastrophe.  

Wonder why?  In a Texas congressional delegation awash with oil money, do you think it could have anything to do with the $352,000?

Whatever his reasons, he and his colleagues give us a perfect picture of the Human Feedback Loop. With the prospects for a blistering Texas summer, I wouldn’t expect it to ease up any time soon.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Hayhoe image credit: John Davis, Texas Tech University

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