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The New Normal

The world’s climate has already changed. Now what?

July 13, 2011, 1:00 am

Extreme temperature variations place pressure on crops and livestock, as with this stunted corn in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
Credits: Laura Paskus

Even for people who understand that the connection between fossil fuels and climate change is not open to debate, it’s convenient to imagine there is time left for a next generation to confront the issue. Despair and overwhelmed inaction are acceptable to some, as well. 

But all delusions and excuses disappear in the face of a man whose homeland is already disappearing into the rising sea. At a meeting last year, Eddie Osifelo, a journalist from the Solomon Islands, explained to me how rising waters have caused people to migrate from the coast to the interior of the island. “Will you write about this?” he repeatedly asks me over the course of four days. “Will you let people know what is happening to us?” He explains how fishermen learning to farm must also negotiate with the tribal leaders whose lands they now must share. The island and sea are changing, and so are people’s identities and ties to their past. The people living on these islands did not cause climate change. They did not call the seas to rise. But they are calling to the world for help: “We will continue to be as noisy as we can until the water covers our heads,” Seychelles Ambassador to the United Nations Ronald Jumeau said at the United Nations climate talks last year. “And even when the water is over our heads, when the bubbles pop, you will hear us yelling.”

This sounds like a dystopian future—something Bacigalupi might craft into a novel. But as global average temperatures have risen, African nations are experiencing ever-worsening droughts, food scarcity, and even flooding from extreme storm events. Asian countries that rely on glaciers to store and release water are worried about short-term flooding from accelerated melting in the Himalayas, but also long-term security threats because of water scarcity in the future.

This spring, floods raged along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and tornadoes shredded communities from Alabama to Missouri. Scientists will not attribute single weather events to global climate changes, but in mid-June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out that only halfway through the year, the United States had already experienced eight disasters, each causing more than $1 billion in damages (for a total of $32 billion). This was before hurricane season had even begun—and doesn’t include damages from drought. Drought has been declared across the southern US, from Virginia to California, with “exceptional” droughts occurring from Florida, across the Gulf Coast, up into northern Texas and Oklahoma and on across southern New Mexico and Arizona.

On July 1, NOAA also released the “new normals.” Based on data collected at more than 7,500 stations nationwide, normals are the 30-year average of climate variables such as temperature and precipitation. Meteorologists use them when forecasting weather; electric and gas utilities gauge short- and long-term energy use projections. The 1981-2010 normals are approximately 0.5 degree warmer than the previous 30-year

The new normals are also important to New Mexico’s farmers—people who rely on consistent growing seasons and average temperatures, reliable spring runoff and the start of monsoon season.
On Ironwood Farm in the South Valley of Albuquerque, Chris Altenbach is already trying to adapt to extreme weather fluctuations. His livestock survived January’s deep freeze, but this spring’s weather has thrown his crops for a loop. The weather has not only been dry—the period from Jan. 1 through the end of May was the driest on record—but also unpredictable. On May 31, for instance, Altenbach and his neighbors woke to a late freeze. By afternoon, temperatures soared to the 90s. 

Variation like that places pressure on crops and livestock, he says. And while the freeze didn’t kill his corn, its growth slowed. The corn right now is tasseling, he says, but the plants are only four to five feet tall—small for this time of year.
In adapting to the new normal, Altenbach has given up on his fruit trees—late freezes and drought make harvests unreliable—and decided to focus on annual vegetables. He’s going to have to build another greenhouse to grow more crops in controlled conditions. He’s also considering using row cover—hoops that hold fabric over the plants to moderate temperatures, increase humidity and protect plants from insects—and will have to adjust infrastructure to deal with unanticipated freezes. 

“I’m also doing more successional plantings,” he says. “Rather than waiting for a certain time that I think is going to work, I’ll plant a couple weeks apart just to try to make sure I get something to come in if there’s an event that takes it out.”
Off the grid and committed to the practice of permaculture, Altenbach worries that, in having to adapt, larger operations will increase their dependence on fossil fuels. “By trying to mitigate for extremes in weather,” he says, “other farmers are putting a little bit more strain on the environment.” This reminds me of Blinman’s four lessons and how past desert dwellers lost control of their societies. 

Whenever I finish interviewing a source, I reflect on the other pieces of the story: what other people have told me, what I have learned from them and how their stories fit together. Climate change is the biggest science story in a generation. But it’s also a story that people need to feel in order to understand. The story of our changing landscapes is written in the flames licking forests, in the topsoil that blows away when spring winds follow bone-dry winters.

But it’s also found within corn stalks and desert ruins. And all of those pieces tie back to the note of inquiry within my daughter’s voice one recent morning: “What are humans doing about climate change?”  SFR

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