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February 18, 2009

New Tomdispatch


Burning Questions
What Does Economic "Recovery" Mean on an Extreme Weather Planet?

By Tom Engelhardt

It turns out that you don't want to be a former city dweller in rural parts of southernmost Australia, a stalk of wheat in China or Iraq, a soybean in Argentina, an almond or grape in northern California, a cow in Texas, or almost anything in parts of east Africa right now. Let me explain.

As anyone who has turned on the prime-time TV news these last weeks knows, southeastern Australia has been burning up. It's already dry climate has been growing ever hotter. "The great drying," Australian environmental scientist Tim Flannery calls it. At its epicenter, Melbourne recorded its hottest day ever this month at a sweltering 115.5 degrees, while temperatures soared even higher in the surrounding countryside. After more than a decade of drought, followed by the lowest rainfall on record, the eucalyptus forests are now burning. To be exact, they are now pouring vast quantities of stored carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas considered largely responsible for global warming, into the atmosphere.

In fact, everything's been burning there. Huge sheets of flame, possibly aided and abetted by arsonists, tore through whole towns. More than 180 people are dead and thousands homeless. Flannery, who has written eloquently about global warming, drove through the fire belt, and reported:

"It was as if a great cremation had taken place… I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I've watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed insufferable to me as a boy vanished decades ago, and for the past 12 years a new, drier climate has established itself… I had not appreciated the difference a degree or two of extra heat and a dry soil can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was different from anything seen before."

Australia, by the way, is a wheat-growing breadbasket for the world and its wheat crops have been hurt in recent years by continued drought.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 18, 2009 08:55 AM

SHIP DRY ICE TO THE MOON to sequester CO2.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 18, 2009 12:11 PM

Charge ALL grid users X amount of millage per pound/ton/ounce? of dryice per kilowatt hr to pay for it all. CARBON CREDITS could be used like ration stamps in the financial mix.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 18, 2009 03:09 PM

One way to reduce the "carbon footprint", a way that many consider though virtually no one serious publicly discusses, is to reduce the size of the collective "carbon foot".
One way to do that without publicly espousing eugenic culls would be to reduce "world trade".
The "World Trade Center" collapsing in on itself symbolizing that pretty succinctly.
And now, seven years later, we have the collapse of "world trade".

Posted by: roy belmont at February 18, 2009 05:45 PM

There isn't going to be a "recovery" to 80's or 90's levels of prosperity. The last few decades have been fueled by burning resources in excess of the discovery rate. Soil has been destroyed and houses have been built with what formerly would have been considered scrap wood. Towns have been building new roads for new developments while the roads in established neighborhoods turn to potholes.

We can't afford to maintain what we have with existing energy resources. Improvement isn't possible without a top-to-bottom change in resource efficiency. Watch for the flying pigs.

Posted by: Pangolin at February 19, 2009 07:58 AM

Yeah, powerful article, and really, the necessary context. I was thinking of along these lines yesterday (ironically, on my commute) as I listened to the story of Obama's trip to Phoenix to speechify about resolving the housing crisis. Isn't a big part of the problem that there's extensive sprawl in places like Phoenix in the first place?

Posted by: Keifus at February 19, 2009 11:31 AM

One aspect of the Victorian fires not covered is the knock-on effect to Melbournes water storages (I'm a resident):

Fine article, Tom Englehart is an internet treasure. The scary thing is he only focussed on the drought side. Throw in floods, hurricanes, cold snaps... dare I say it, change we can believe in?

Posted by: Dave Shepherd at February 19, 2009 05:26 PM

Dave: In California a few brave souls have learned to build fireproof houses. Literally houses that survive when everything around them burns to the foundation. Many of these were built in the Oakland hills after the fire there. Oh, watch for mudslides come the rains.

Change that believes in YOU!! Climate Change.

Posted by: Pangolin at February 20, 2009 02:28 AM

Hey Pangolin,
As I understand it, courtesy of El Nino our weather reaches you guys in a few years time so unfortunately there's every chance those folks should get a chance to test their fireproof homes. And for mudslides to happen, we'd need rain- there has been maybe 5-10 mls since the year began.

Man, what a horrible day. 46 degrees and gale force winds was hellish enough, then the fires. I went to bed in the surreal calm of Melbourne suburbs while the great red beast was running wild little more than 50 km from home and the toll was already 14. Next morning, it was 35. Throughout the day it kept going, and going and going- and not in individuals, but families at a time. It currently sits over 200. Bear in mind, this happened in a very bush-fire savvy country. We expect fires in the Australian summer (sadly, along with the odd fatality) so this was something else.

Many of razed towns were pretty little tourist spots, the sort of places that made you think "great place to retire" or "I'll commute an hour each way to Melbourne if it means living here". A significant number of people at my workplace lived or had family in the burnt out areas and we weren't the only place in that position. The whereabouts of one of the guys in Kinglake had not even been verified until three days later, it turned out that while his house was ok, half his street was wiped out.

I don't have time for climate change skeptics anymore, the only argument left is the matter of degree. Summer heatwaves are getting longer and more savage, the seasons are out of whack (summer
doesn't seem to start until Christmas now and doesn't ease until fucking May) and above all, it is relentlessly, oppressively DRY. What occurred at both ends of the eastern seaboard of Australia in the fortnight around the fires is very much in keeping with the climate models- major floods in the north, living under God's magnifying glass in the south. Sensible carbon policy or not, Australia at least has to revisit it's assumptions about how it lives with it's environment no matter what happens. As do we all.

Sorry if I'm preaching to the choir here, I just needed a mind dump :-)

Posted by: Dave Shepherd at February 21, 2009 04:31 AM