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General News    H3'ed 3/21/22

Tomgram: Jane Braxton Little, From Drought to Deluge on a New Planet

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Consider this perhaps the strangest thing of all in our all-too-strange world: the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced essentially never leads the news. Yes, the immediate crises of our world, most recently Vladimir Putin's disastrous invasion of Ukraine, are 24/7 headlines for weeks at a time. And any set of events that sends millions of us into external or internal exile, as has become all too common on this planet of ours, should indeed be a focus of attention. But to put all of this in context, it's estimated that within three decades up to a mind-boggling 1.2 billion human beings could be driven from their homes thanks to the burgeoning climate emergency.

Of course, climate change, as TomDispatch regular Jane Braxton Little, who still lives in the fire-devastated northern Californian town of Greenville, reminds us today, is already hard at work wrecking lives across our world. When it hits as fire or flood, as a dramatic weather disaster of some sort, the news often loves to show us the calamity at hand (and the all-too-photogenic weeping survivors). But the cause of it all, climate change itself? No such luck. The ongoing, never-ending, ever-worsening calamity that could someday simply destroy human life as we've known it gets remarkably little attention here (unless coal merchant Joe Manchin votes against its solution in some fashion).

Only recently the authoritative U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest devastating report, produced by 1,000 scientists, on what we're doing to ourselves. In the midst of the Ukrainian events, it got hardly a moment's notice. Yet its version of the news to come should have been screaming headlines, given that, if the effects of the overheating of this planet aren't mitigated soon, by 2050, at least 183 million more people could be going hungry and that's just to start down a long list of possible nightmares to come. At least climate change makes headlines here at TomDispatch. Today, for instance, you can learn from Little, who has experienced its effects in an up-close-and-personal way, just how we're going to be "whiplashed" by the weather that our eternally fossil-fuel-burning societies (and the big energy companies that have made their fortunes off it) continue to produce. Tom

Those Who Contribute the Least to Climate Change Suffer the Most


Greenville, CA Snow began falling on December 24th, big fluffy flakes that made lace on mittens before melting. Within hours it had coated the ashes, the brick chimneys that the flames had left behind, and the jagged remains of roofs strewn across my burned-out town. White mounds soon softened the look of charred cars that are everywhere, while even the scorched trees that stretch to the hilltops were coated in a forgiving winter wonder.

Any moisture would have been welcome. Over the seven months since the Dixie fire destroyed Greenville and several other rural communities in California's northern Sierra Nevada mountains, the drought that led to the flaming disaster had only deepened. October brought brief, drenching rains, but November and December were dry again. Soil that should have been moist was as desiccated as the air, while the humidity hovered just above single digits. We watched bulldozers move the dilapidated walls what had not long ago been homes into gigantic dump trucks in a haze of grime. Even the trees that survived had a withered look. Now, it was snowing for Christmas! We greeted it with hearts as wide as the open mouths of kids savoring falling flakes.

Greenville, my adopted town of 46 years, had been devastated by a climate-change disaster. Sparked by the negligence of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the Dixie fire scorched nearly one million acres, the distance, if you care to measure, from Philadelphia to New York City. On August 4th, a pyrocumulus cloud collapsed on the ridge above the tarnished old Gold Rush community where I worked, erupting into red-hot embers that fell over a several square-mile area. Trees were transformed into towering torches. Flames roared down the nearby mountain, racing through overcrowded forests left bone dry (after a century of ill-advised fire suppression) by a third year of drought. It took less than 45 minutes for that inferno to raze the historic 160-year-old downtown, including my journalism office on the second floor of the oldest building around. About 800 homes went up in flames. Over the next four months, we gathered in grief in twos and threes in the post offices and shops of neighboring towns, soothing one another.

Now, it was Christmas and snowing! We relaxed and rejoiced amid the ruins.

Little did we know that, driven by our overheated planet, we were about to be whiplashed from drought to deluge. Hotter days and hotter nights have corkscrewed our weather patterns into spiraling extremes, leaving entire regions around the world jerked from the hottest temperatures they've known to the coldest, from devastating fires to disastrous floods. This is uncharted territory and, scientists say, an all-too-grim preview of the future we're creating for ourselves.

By the fourth day of non-stop snow our euphoria had waned. Electricity was flickering on and off. The Internet was mostly off. We shoveled our steps and then the paths to our cars, only to find them covered all over again. Driveways were challenging and roads treacherous (if open at all). Snow was piling up across the Sierra Nevada, the gigantic tilted block of granite that lies along the state line with Nevada.

At Lake Tahoe, 75 miles to the south, 18 feet of snow was dumped on luxury second homes, collapsing decks, and taxing municipal snow-removal crews gone soft after years of mild winters. Highway 80, the main route over the mountains, was closed for three days by storms that made December the third snowiest month on record and the snowiest December ever. Those storms catapulted the state's precipitation to 258% of its average for that point in the year . California water officials were giddy with expectation, predicting that our three-year-old drought would be broken.

Then, of course, it ended. Precipitation of any kind simply stopped. January clocked in as the driest ever for some parts of the state, as well as most of Nevada, Utah, and western Colorado. Last month was the driest February in 128 years, according to a multi-agency partnership monitoring drought. And here's the truth of it: if we keep letting greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, we better get used to this sort of seesaw experience. Scientists say that, by century's end, such abrupt transitions between wet and dry will increase by another 25% in northern California and possibly double that in southern California.

Weather Whiplash

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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