Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Evidence or Oddity?

The question is and will remain, "Is what we're seeing today an indication of the way it will continue to be?" Climate change skeptics may continue, for years, to insist that nothing has been proven by dramatic shifts in the weather. Thus - based on that conviction - no behavioral changes are warranted. Normalcy will return eventually.

Climate Frog doesn't argue that question, but waits to see if, first, individuals and, then, populations begin to change behaviors out of frustration or necessity.

Take, for example, the state of Alabama, which was just (July 2) declared a national disaster area by the Department of Agriculture. Rainfall across the state is 20 inches below the annual normal of 32. Farmers are taking it on the chin, suffering tremendous losses.

The New York Times reports that, "Northern Alabama has become acre after acre of shriveled cornstalks, cracked red dirt for miles and days of unrelenting white heat." It's the most severe drought in over a century. Across the Southeast, ranchers are selling off their cattle and river levels are so low that power companies are worried and barges are unable to navigate the sandbars. Farmers are burning through their cash reserves and facing bankruptcy. Huge stands of southern pine are infested with bark beatles.

Whether or not this year's extreme drought is simply a short-term anomaly or an indication of long-term climate change, it's clear that it stands to change the behaviors, professions and lifestyles of many of the region's residents. A farmer who suffers through a year like this one may leave the vocation behind, especially if the prospect for similar weather is increasingly likely. If large expanses of timber are lost, so will be many jobs in the lumber and paper industries. If power generation is affected by low water for hydro, we may even see power rationing and blackouts.

So the question becomes, What are the thresholds of climate impact that motivates people to change dramatically? Not simply to cut back on driving or lawn watering, but to change jobs or to move to different areas.

Out at Mr. Bragg’s 7,000-acre, third-generation spread just north of Huntsville, immediate worries are pressing: he is facing the classic farmer’s debt squeeze, with heavy investment — $1 million in giant new silos, a down payment on an ethanol-based future — and little revenue to pay for it. Mr. Bragg is contemplating a $500,000 loss.

Mr. Sanderson’s grain bins cost $400,000. “Not only have we lost our revenue, I’m also $400,000 in debt,” he said.

Mr. Bragg said, “My salary is tied to how much it rains.” He is luckier than most because some of his crop is irrigated by giant sprayers. He still has “the potential to work for this whole year and not get paid.”

In his cotton fields, the stalks are not high enough to be reached by the mechanical picker. Every stalk should have 10 bolls, but these barely have four or five.

The drought takes a psychological toll. Mr. Bragg spoke of a tight feeling in the pit of his stomach when drought sets in. “Mentally, we expect it,” he said, “but genetically, we can’t handle it.”

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