By David Loomis
INDIANA – Last week’s severe weather made banner headlines in The Indiana Gazette, and not because it was a slow news week. On May 28: “Two tornadoes confirmed in Indiana County.” On May 29: “New round of violent weather hits county.”
Neither story mentioned the word “climate.”
The Associated Press reported that last week’s weather had matched Pennsylvania’s annual average spawn of tornadoes with seven months remaining in the year.
The story did not mention the word “climate.”
But residents sensed it. Observed one long-time Indiana, Pa., resident on May 30: “You don’t see tornadoes in Pennsylvania. And we’ve had about eight tornadoes in the past week. Temps are a lot warmer than when we moved here 30 years ago.”
AND THAT WAS just local and regional news. The system that triggered electronic warning squawks on telephones and TVs in Indiana County unleashed floods and twisters across much of the country in a record 12-day streak. People sheltered in bathrooms and basements from the Midwest to the U.S. Capitol.
They could have seen it coming. On May 15, social media spread a DailyKos blog post headlined “Atmospheric Convulsion Will Cause Historic Disasters of Arctic Melt & U.S. Storms Next Week.”
“This is written to give an early warning to people,” the author wrote, citing a 2008 scientific journal article,“ and because this is what climate change looks like.“
AND HERE’S WHAT climate change looks like locally: On Dec. 30, The Indiana Gazette listed the top stories of 2018. One was record rainfall.
In 2018, 70 inches of rain fell on Indiana County. Average annual rainfall is 48 inches, the Gazette reported. That’s 45 percent above average.
On June 1, 2019, the paper’s weather data reported local precipitation was 23 percent above the annual average to date. Precipitation for May 2019 alone was up 84 percent above the annual monthly average.
The New York Times gathered data on every town in the United States to report, on average, how many days reached 90 degrees in 1960, how many days will reach 90 degrees this year, and how many days will do so by the end of the century.
In Indiana, Pa., the average number of days likely to reach 90 degrees in 1960 was five; this year, the number is nine; by the end of this century, the number will be 27. And these probabilities are likely even if the nations of the world act to limit greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change.
CLIMATE EXPERTS CAUTION against relying on weather stats to tell us much about long-term climate change. But be careful too about the amateurization – and politicization — of expertise.
Consider the Trump administration’s pick for a new climate-science adviser. He is not a climate scientist, he denies that climate change is a problem, and he ignores real experts who say climate change poses a national security threat.
And be aware of real experts who say nothing because powerful lobby interests have invested in interlocking networks of think tanks and academic programs, as documented by modern-day muckraker Jane Mayer in Dark Money. These lobbyists include plutocrats Charles and David Koch, oilmen from Kansas, or, closer to home, the late Richard Mellon Scaife, Pittsburgh heir to Gulf Oil, among other fortunes.
If your scientific research is supported by plutocratic oilmen, your research findings are likely to correspond with their agenda. Or, as muckraker Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
THIS IS AN ELECTION YEAR in which local candidates – those closest to their constituents – are seeking office. Should candidates for local – or for state or federal — legislative positions be expected to respond to voters’ questions about climate change?
Let’s see: Are citizens’ streets potholed by extreme weather? Is drainage infrastructure adequate to meet recent deluges? Are citizens seeking better jobs in new and expanding industries devoted to supplying clean, renewable energy instead of sending another generation into the mines?
Or should candidates be permitted to set the agenda by themselves? If so, the result was evident in The Indiana Gazette’s June 1 front-page story on the local legislative delegation’s “unity.” The issues that concern our state lawmakers include partisan fights over the governor’s budget priorities, finding more money for state police and learning the legislative ropes in Harrisburg.
THOSE CELL-PHONE ALARMS last week are calls for all hands on deck, when they are not sheltering in the basement from tornadoes. The alarms also call for local solutions, some of which are emerging from initiatives both official and civic.
And the alarms call for citizens to insist that their would-be elected leaders support fledgling, local climate-change initiatives — and propose some of their own.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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