Wait, What? Atmospheric Rivers and Us.

I guess ‘atmospheric rivers’ have been a thing with climate researchers for a while now. Despite closely following the news in climate science for a couple of decades, I had not heard of them. Then, suddenly California was hit by a series of severe storms that they are calling an “atmospheric river.” The L.A. Times called it a conveyor belt of storms. It’s not a complicated idea, but its sources and consequences are.

What is an Atmospheric River?

As almost everyone knows, when the atmosphere heats up, it can hold a lot more water than it ‘normally’ does. In fact, that amount of water it can hold grows exponentially with every degree of increased heat. The heated water in the atmosphere also contains a lot of energy that would otherwise not be there. The increased intensity of recent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated that extra power. The devastating effects of the same atmosphere-heating process are now causing severe damage to the fifth, or is it fourth-largest economy in the world, California, and forcing large-scale evacuations, as well as death and destruction, in areas where that ‘river’ comes ashore.

The sequence of severe storms is, literally, a river of water held in suspension and transported in a pattern much like the jet stream, running parallel to it and carrying unprecedented quantities of water that become torrential rains the likes of which California has never seen. Climate is an extremely complex component system of the whole Earth System—the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. It constitutes the long-term patterns of action in the atmosphere, which had been so stable and conducive to human development over the last eleven thousand years or so. No more, it would seem, both based on scientifically documented trends, the principles of physics, and the observations of victims of increasingly erratic weather patterns around the world.

Basic Physics and Chemistry Don’t Lie.

Although the science is clear, the rise of atmospheric rivers is not about the fact that basic physics and chemistry don’t lie. It is about the human response to facts that are not convenient to maintaining the economic or political status quo. Physics and chemistry don’t lie, but people do. They also deceive themselves about what facts are true and will sooner than they imagine have the very impacts upon them that they do not want to face.

Many books and articles have been written about why people, who otherwise may seem quite rational and intelligent, cannot seem to accept overwhelming evidence of the scientific facts of ‘climate change.’ [I often put ‘climate change’ in semi-quotes, as I do with ‘global warming,’ because they are such cozy terms for describing an ultimately catastrophic process.]

But here we are, decades since the executives running Exxon-Mobil or its corporate predecessor, knew, along with climate scientists, that the exhaust from burning fossil fuels would heat the atmosphere and cause climate chaos, not mere ‘change.’ The power of economic interests, especially in those who have a lot of power, can overcome reason, science, and survival instincts, if propaganda is deployed effectively. That, of course, is exactly what the oil companies and their agent, the American Petroleum Institute have done for decades, while we fall further and further behind in our ability to respond effectively to what is now the climate emergency.

Harsh Realities, Illusions and Facts, and Our Meager Response

The widespread denial of climate chaos and its trajectory toward severe loss of food security, caused by extended drought, coastal flooding, and super storms is now broadly known, but has made little if any difference in public policies. Media reports of extreme weather events rarely contain any reference to climate change, and certainly not the urgency or even existence of the climate emergency.

On the one hand, public opinion is gradually shifting from the assumption that climate change is a risk in the future, to the acknowledgement that it is a nearby threat to someone somewhere. But that does not resonate with most people’s sense of what their own lives are about. The media agents of the biggest polluters, BP Petroleum in particular, cleverly shift attention to the ordinary person’s “carbon footprint.” The broader American culture of individualism encourages us to all blame ourselves. So, if we recycle as much of our plastic waste as practical, we can feel good about doing our civic duty, when in fact we have been misdirected from the root cause to its behavioral effects.

On the other hand, those who argue for ‘degrowth’ or extensive decarbonization of the economy are deemed ‘unrealistic’ because such extreme moves would be too disruptive of the global economy on which we all depend (but which is the source of the problem). Small personal gestures and so-called ‘greening’ of consumer products are deemed adequate.

Remarkably, a fairly accurate attempt to offer an ‘objective’ summary of the degrowth economic alternative to the mainstream endless-growth model is found on the World Economic Forum’s website. I looked at their video during the current WEF meeting in Davos, where the most powerful business leaders and politicians in the world plot our economic future. Lot’s of lip-service to climate change and taking action, but just like the UN COP27 and previous conferences, no real commitment to constraining the endless-growth impulse of the system of corporate-capital driven economies is in the offing. The even the attempt to include a commitment to phase down the use of fossil fuels failed under the powerful influence of the fossil fuel industry lobbyists.

The so-called ‘eco-modernists’ even claim that ‘we’ can ‘decouple’ the economy from ‘the environment without providing a bit of evidence as to how such magic could be achieved, aside from the claim that ‘eco-modernism’ would result from materials substitution and ‘eco-efficiency. Pure fantasy. Speaking of magic, much of the anti-climate-action talk is riddled with magical thinking. People who offer such fantasy ‘solutions’ as nuclear fusion and eco-efficiency, might be compared to the growing number of folks who believe in wildly illusory conspiracy theories attached to extreme politics. Neither have any empirical (evidentiary) basis.

When thinking of this stuff, I am often reminded of a couple of students in my research methods class many years ago. I was challenging the students to come up with a clear vision of exactly how they know what they think they know. That is, how do they determine what is a fact and what is not. Naturally, the subject of UFO’s came into the discussion.

One student said she was sure that they were ‘flying saucers’ containing ‘aliens.’ I asked how she could know that, after pointing out that UFO means unidentified flying object, that is, that nobody had been able to confirm or deny whether what she believed might be a fact, or not. Her response to that was, “I can believe anything I want!” “Well,” I replied, “you can believe anything you want, but research and science are practices that discover facts based on the evidence as to the truth or falsity of a potential fact.”

With regard to the climate emergency—the term used by those who recognize the dire consequences that will follow the present climate trends if little or no intervention happens soon—the role of belief versus facts is much more complicated than the ‘aliens from space’ controversy. Where you fall in the latter dispute has no important consequences for humanity as a whole—none that we can determine anyway.

But the consequences of ignoring climate chaos, whether we ‘believe’ in it or not, are fundamental to survival of the human species on planet Earth. It is no longer a matter of differing beliefs; the evidence is definitive. Now it is all about whether and how humans can mobilize to engage in a new great transformation of our societies to respond effectively to the great transformation we have caused in the Earth System, however unwittingly at first. Now we must transform ourselves and our societies to counter the new great destabilization of the Earth System we caused but have not learned to either live with (we cannot) or reverse.

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