WASHINGTON – Ten years ago, I put solar panels on my roof and began eating locally grown food. I bought an energy-efficient refrigerator that uses the power equivalent of a single light bulb. I started heating my home with a stove that burns organically fertilized corn kernels. I even restored a gas-free lawn mower for manual yardwork.

As a longtime environmental activist, I was deeply alarmed by new studies on global warming, so I went all-out. I did my part.

Now I’m changing my life again. There’s a new set of dead bolt locks on all my doors. There’s a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.

I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist.

I still work overtime to promote clean energy, and I take solace when top climate scientists say we can still avoid the worst effects of global warming if we move quickly. It’s just that, well, we’re running out of time.

The proof is everywhere — outside my front door, in my neighborhood, on the news. After a decade of failure to address climate change at the national and international levels, our weather has gone haywire.

In the Washington region alone, in barely a year, we’ve annihilated all records for snow accumulation, we’ve seen appalling power outages associated with year-round thunderstorms, and we’ve experienced the hottest summer in the 140 years we’ve been measuring.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted warning on the eve of World War II now applies directly: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Those consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I’m reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies.

This may seem like a sign that this frustrated environmentalist has lost it. But I’m not crazy. Just wait. The mega-storms and social disruptions on the horizon will be the best proof of that.

It wasn’t the wildfires that blackened much of Russia last summer that led me to buy my portable generator, nor the rains in Pakistan that inundated nearly a quarter of that country.

It was the one-two punch of thunderstorms that blew through the D.C. area on July 25 and Aug. 12 of last year. The first storm, with wind gusts of 90 mph, knocked out power to 400,000 people and generated lightning that, in a freak tragedy, killed my friend Carl Henn at a picnic in Rockville, Md.

The second storm hit while I was in the parking lot of a TV station in Washington, about to be interviewed about Arctic ice melt. Suddenly, it became midnight at 8 a.m. The street lamps flickered on. Cars turned on their headlights. And I saw the largest, darkest, windiest thunderstorm I’d ever seen, approaching from the west.

Inside the TV studio, I watched the anchors switch to a live report about apartment dwellers trapped by a massive fallen oak as the first of more than 100,000 homes began to lose power. Houses across the area were ripped open by wind and crashing tree trunks.

Throughout 2010, my neighborhood in Takoma Park, Md., lost power more times than I can remember. This included blackouts during the “Snowmageddon” storms, of course. And yes, major snowfall events are increasing in the eastern United States even as the planet warms, according to National Oceanic and Atmos-pheric Administration data.

It makes sense, too. We’re setting records for precipitation intensity across a huge swath of America, in summer and in winter. A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water from oceans and lakes. And what goes up must come down. Last year was the wettest year on record worldwide, NOAA announced last month. That’s what’s driving the snow extremes — as the mercury rises.

After August’s storm, I made the financially painful decision to buy the Honda generator. My solar panels, by themselves, can’t power my home. I spent $1,000 on the generator, money that would have gone into my 13-year-old son’s college fund. I’ve expanded my definition of how best to plan for his future.

On the security side, it was the global food riots of 2008 and 2010 that led me to replace the 50-year-old locks on all my doors last fall. When extreme weather alternately baked and flooded wheat fields in Australia and Russia, helping to jack up grain prices more than 40 percent worldwide and leading hungry people to protest from Mexico to Mozambique to Serbia, I took notice.

After all, the many climate effects we’re already seeing — massive wildfires, bigger hurricanes, astonishing Arctic ice melt — all result from just 1.2 degrees of planetary warming since 1900. Now scientists at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the planet could warm another 5 degrees by the end of this century.

If that happens, corn and wheat will wither and die on a scale never before seen. That’s because heat-triggered mega-droughts will intensify across much of America’s “continental interior” regions, scientists say, as flooding increases elsewhere. Much of the heartland will resemble a scrub desert.

How will we feed ourselves adequately if our breadbasket is a desert? Answer: We won’t, and there will be social unrest as a result. Indeed, when the options are extreme hunger or pillaging the neighboring village, history tends to favor pillaging.

My actions may seem alarmist, I realize. And if you think so, I can’t really blame you. I’d be confused about climate change, too, if I got most of my information from the half-asleep news media, much less the committed disinformers at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation.

But here’s a question for skeptics: Why would private insurers lie about climate change? Already, Allstate has stopped selling new homeowners’ policies in coastal Virginia and Maryland because the warming Atlantic Ocean is bringing larger hurricanes to the region.

And Munich Re, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, announced in January that weather-related disasters soared in 2010, providing “further indications of advancing climate change.” Total weather-related losses exceeded $130 billion worldwide in 2010, it said. Why would Munich Re make this up?

Those still unimpressed should just hang on — more is on the way. Surely we can all admit that we’ve heard our friends and neighbors utter the words “I never saw that before” with increasing regularity.

Anecdotal, you might say — so let me predict a few more anecdotes. Our streets are going to flood. Our neighborhood bridges will wash out. Our roofs will sag from freak snowstorms and bake from unimaginable heat. And our power will keep going out. We’ve waited too long to avoid all this.

That I already understand it just means I’ve probably gotten a better price for my backyard generator than you will once the rush starts.

 

Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

 


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