Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Climate Change is Upon Us and it is Officially Time to Worry

By Ryan LeePublished February 18, 2015

California is in the midst of what is possibly the worst drought in over 1,000 years, and that could just be the beginning of America's clime change woes. A new study by NASA's Earth Observatory predicts that the country is at risk for unprecedented "megadroughts" if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. This is especially worrisome because of the political climate in D.C., making the need for action on the part of the people more urgent than ever.
On Sunday, the 14th of April, 1935, one of the most dramatic and devastating events in US environmental history occurred.  Across northern Texas an Oklahoma, high winds picked up hundreds of millions of tons of top soil which had been turned to dust by a combination of drought and failure to employ erosion prevention techniques. When the storm hit a little after 4 PM, what had been a bright and sunny afternoon turned as dark as night, as the plumes of dust rose thousands of feet into the sky, choking out the sun's rays. Dubbed Black Sunday, this extreme weather event struck fear into the hearts not only of the Great Plains farmers, but even of urban elites on the coast. Though only one of many dust storms during the period which would come to be known as the Dust Bowl, albeit the worst of them, Black Sunday helped propel the country into action. The following year, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt and one of the most successful conservation efforts in history was launched, saving American agriculture from utter ruin.

Those hardy pioneers did not lack in sense. The people of the plains knew long before those in Washington that there was a major problem that needed to be addressed. But they still needed to see the proof before their eyes to know that they were facing an environmental crisis. Today, we are blessed with the greatest scientific acumen the world has ever known. We are able to predict weather patterns with remarkable accuracy thanks to powerful radar, satellites carrying sophisticated instruments, and computer modeling systems capable of crunching more data than every personal computer on Cornell campus combined. We don't need to wait for a catastrophe to occur to know when we are facing a major problem. This is the situation we find ourselves in today.

A recent NASA research project conducted by the Earth Observatory analyzed climate data in order to try to predict long term patterns over the next hundred years, employing 17 different models to account for error and uncertainty. It is extremely striking then that every single model which was run converged on a common prediction; we are headed for some of the worst droughts in history. The models predict that the American Mid- and Southwest regions have an 80% of experiencing a decades long drought between 2050 and the end of the century. While the weathermen are not always right, most of us would be fairly likely to pack an umbrella if they predicted an 80% chance of rain.

Is there a silver lining here in the news of a cloudless future? If there is one, perhaps it is that these predictions are based on the assumption that we will continue to pump out CO2 emissions at the current rate, meaning that there is still time to act to stem the worst of these predictions. Unfortunately, legislative action is highly unlikely in the immediate future, thanks to a congress populated with 169 climate change denialists. This statistic is particularly puzzling in light of the overwhelming unity of scientific voices on the (former) question (basic fact) of human induced climate change.

Currently, the state of California is experiencing the worst drought seen there in possibly 1,200 years. The harm that has been caused to the environment, economy, and human health by this incredible event is truly staggering. And if you are sitting on the East coast somewhere reading this, thinking that the drought there is a problem which is 3000+ miles away, just remember that California is the most important agricultural state in the union. If you enjoy cantaloupe, almonds, salad greens, or any number of other fresh fruits and vegetables, then this drought is a threat to your lifestyle as well.

Could the California drought be a harbinger of dangerous things to come? All of the science seems to point to yes. It is more urgent now than ever that we hold our leaders to account. If you are represented by one of those serial deniers of science, pick up the phone, send a letter, march down to their office as soon as possible. There is no time left to lose.