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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

UA researcher's work should light fire under Sinema to heed climate crisis

Atlantic current has soaked up enough heat to power 50 civilizations, study by Arizona's Jianjun Yin shows

A UA researcher has just come up with the 974,238th reason why human civilization should seriously do something about greenhouse gasses.

It turns out the oceans and extreme weather in the Sun Belt are linked. His experiment didn't deal directly with climate change, but it's close enough so that I now have a news peg to perch on and preach about urgency. 

In related news, Congress is wrestling with legislation that would finally take steps to address that climate change. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin wants the teeth wrenched back out of climate rules and his partner-in-delay, Arizona's Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, isn't talking.

But Sinema works for Tucson, whether she knows it or not, and she needs a few thousand proverbial kicks right now to get her moving.

So, it’s zero hour to get something done about climate change and Tucsonans have real power right now — as much as they will ever have. They can let their senator know who's in charge.

Hey, I wish both parties knew the dangers of climate change, but that's not where we are.

The party that takes climate change seriously has unified control over Congress and the White House. 

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will head to the Glasgow Climate Conference at the end of the month. If the U.S. has done nothing, how will it be able to lead other nations into doing anything at all about the climate crisis? With the largest economy on Earth opting out of fixes, the rest of the world can't, and won't, fix our climate.

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If nothing gets done this time, we might have to wait another 12, 16 or 20 years for Democrats to control the House, the Senate and the White House. The human endeavor doesn’t have that kind of time.

The good professor

And if you want another reason to act, may I introduce you to Jianjun Yin, a University of Arizona assistant professor of Geosciences.

He and Ming Zhao, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, ran an experiment to measure the potential effect of ocean currents on extreme weather. Their research is climate-adjacent but not climate-specific.

They wanted to know what would happen if somehow the Atlantic Ocean's deepwater conveyor were shut off, and if it would make winter weather more extreme. 

Yep.

The deepwater conveyor is just a slow-moving, highly-dense tube of saltwater moving through the earth’s oceans. It acts as a sort of insulation and heat-distribution device, keeping the climate from getting too extreme.

The Earth would lose 0.5 petawatts of energy moving through the oceans, if the deepwater conveyor stopped working.

“If the ocean heat transport reduces, the atmosphere must transfer more heat,” Yin told me. “The transfer must happen.”

You might remember something your weird science teacher muttered about the "law of conservation of energy."

How big is zero point five petawatts? A single petawattt is enough to power 50 civilizations (not houses, not suburbs, not cities, not nations but the whole of civilization 50 times over).

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Shut down just the Atlantic portion of the conveyor and suddenly there’s an extra 25 civilizations worth of energy moving through the atmosphere.

Release a bunch of heat into the atmosphere, and it will move toward the poles. It will knock the cold polar air south. Suddenly Texas has frozen water pipes and no power.

"You can get extreme weather in a southern state like Texas," Yin said in an interview. "The extreme weather represents north-south heat exchange."

Yin’s research simply asked “What would happen if the heat transfer from the south to the north stopped?” Then he measured the results.

"Our work was the first work to use state-of-the-art modeling climate modeling to quantify the climate effect," he said, adding that the modeling has improved over time. "The model is quite reliable. The model can get many things correct. The model is based on numerous observations and regression theories."

Next, he wants to do the same experiment but add a warming climate to the mix. Warmer air will change the numbers.

So we have an experiment that yielded a number and will lead to further inquiry. 

There are limits to his research and he's cool with it.

It’s important to draw bright lines around the extent and limits of research so it doesn’t get misrepresented or sensationalized. The last thing Yin needs is some alarmist columnist to shout from the keyboard: “UA researcher proves climate change will kill us all!”

Climate change didn’t exist in the four walls of his experiment. However, it’s in the next room.

Climate effect

Yin turned off the heat transfer by modeling an injection of freshwater into the Atlantic. In real life, Greenland is already doing that because of greenhouse emissions.

The deepwater conveyor is deep because it’s dense with saltwater.

Warm water at the surface of the Atlantic flows north and as it loses its heat, it becomes more dense and sinks deep before heading south. There, it rises as it warms and goes back north. 

Greenland’s ice melt is dumping a bunch of freshwater into the ocean diluting the saltwater. That could shut off the Atlantic conveyor if the greenhouse gasses continue to melt the ice and leaves the atmosphere to work alone.

Heat is energy. A warming atmosphere is a more energized atmosphere that unleashes chaos.

It’s why I think “Climate Chaos” may be a better term than “Climate Change.” Also, the ensuing chaos makes for weather weirdness, which is impossible to predict long-term. It’s chaos theory or the butterfly effect.

Fires, floods, and pestilence follow on in the chaos.

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The urgency

And yes, there is something you can do about it — right now.

Congress must act now. Delay means doom for ourselves and the generations that follow.

Manchin has reportedly nixed much of the plan.

Scientists vary on the some of the details but most agree humanity has a 2050 hard deadline for decarbonizing the global economy. We can debate how to get there but the journey must start now.

Voters tend to stick with divided government when they have it, as they’ve only given one party control over the House, Senate and White House in 11 of the last 40 years. Democrats squandered the BTU tax to fight climate change in 1993 and cap and trade policies in 2010. I’d be thrilled if Republicans got an epiphany and took the crisis seriously but they won’t (but please, prove me wrong).

As it is, we are playing catch up on inaction since the early '90s. Waiting means a future congress must pass 60 years worth of work into 20 years of time. No way will the system allow for that. The fixes will become more severe as the response is further delayed and that severity will be easier to defeat or undo in subsequent elections.

This is it. Right now. If Democrats squander this third chance, then the only honest answer will likely be to start planning for the unthinkable.

I’ll spitball that. Let's start with no more disaster relief for any weather event deemed “climate related.” New York, Miami and every trailer park in Oklahoma are just going to have to move.

Then we can move on to military contingencies in a world with dwindling fresh water.

Call to action

Manchin wants to let West Virginians pretend the year is still 1964 at least until 2025. Sinema has her "mavericky" brand to protect. Carbon takes no time at all to load into the air. It takes millennia to work its way out. Team "Sinem-in" are risking that thousands of years worth of human beings will know they were the two individuals most responsible for the global catastrophes that followed.

Imagine if all we knew about Rameses the Great or Hammurabi was that they messed up the climate and we’re still dealing with it. Nero and Caligula wouldn’t look so bad.

So Sinema's web page claims "OUR OFFICE IS HERE TO SERVE YOU" (though given how she's acting, it may only refer to Monsanto and BlackRock Capital). So, call her up at (202) 224-4521.

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Progressives can quibble about free college, universal paid family leave and child tax credits all they want (and they should). Climate is the must do. It must be done now.

Sinema is rumored to care about this issue. Then demand she tell Manchin and the Blue Dogs that they don’t get their infrastructure plan without strong climate legislation. The climate provisions were removed from the infrastructure plan to be passed later. Now is later.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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New University of Arizona research provides yet another reason to force congress (and one Arizona senator in particular) to act now.

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