Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

A Common Refrain

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There were floods in New York last year and there’s a drought in Los Angeles this year. A polar vortex came in a few weeks ago and it’s going to snow yet again tomorrow. One thing, however, remains consistent: News commentators asking “so what happened to global warming?” much in the same tone one would ask, “so where’s your god now?” It would be tedious to go after each event and explain what happens to polar winds when the ice caps melt or what happens to expected precipitation when seas warm, which is why the common term now isn’t “global warming” but “climate change.” It’s the same thing but, just as Bill Nye learned when he bravely battled on the front lines of pseudoscience, sound bite ear-worms matter more than well-conceived arguments. I do know, however, that New York is reacting to the weather in a different manner than when I grew up.

I was born in the early 80s and nearly went through my entire public school education in the city without a single snow day. The sole exception was in the Blizzard of 1996, which, even then, gave me only one day off. The very next day I remember getting on the 7 train and watching as darkened neighborhoods were lit up with flashes of blue light every time the train’s third rail shoe hit a snowbank. New York hadn’t closed their schools prior to that since the Blizzard of 1978. After all, most major snowstorms dodged the city (as did most hurricanes) and those that hit tended to be mild. If nothing else, our most important transit network was and is largely underground, sheltered and providing shelter from the elements.

Nowadays it’s a yearly occurrence. New York City had snow days every year for the past five years. In 2010, New York had two snow days in the same month for the first time ever. After Hurricane Sandy, New York had to extend the school year because of so many missed days. One of mayor de Blasio’s first decisions upon entering office this year was to close the schools because of snow. What, then, of our fabled subways, which saw us through so many storms in the past? Well, we’re still fixing the damages from when they got flooded out. What was a twenty year fluke is now a regular thing, and it’s not like New Yorkers have gotten less hardy; even the “mild” winter of 2011-2012 dumped more than 40 inches of snow, as we’ve gotten each year for the past five years, far above the city average of 26.9 inches.

This trend has been increasing for decades, and as climatologist David Easterling told the New York Times in 2007,

“If you warm up the air, the air can hold more moisture,” he said. “And the amount it increases is not linear; it goes up exponentially.”

Climate change is a good term, not just because it saves scientists from having to explain why global warming equals more snow, but also efficiently illustrates why this phenomenon is bad. Namely, our entire built-up environment is based on existing weather patterns. Cities are located in places that don’t flood, farms are located in places that have adequate rain and don’t snap-freeze. We can barely afford to maintain the infrastructure we have, let alone shifting everything someplace else, so when Los Angeles is literally praying for rain, there’s a real problem afoot: Rivers flood more and drain faster due to quicker snow melting and monster storms, and that erratic nature is causing dry places to become even drier, exacerbating droughts. New York and London don’t have to worry much about droughts, but New York had to dredge out our subways last year and London is bracing for flooding as we speak. It’s no surprise former mayor Bloomberg was chosen as the UN envoy for climate change: It’s in the cities where this will be felt first.

Global warming, climate change; it doesn’t matter what you call it: Once you know what to look for, it’s plain as day to see it – or at least as plain as it can be to see through all this snow – and it’s going to cost billions at the very least to protect ourselves from the immediate effects and likely trillions for the lasting results. We missed the ounce of prevention; let’s hope we can afford the pound of cure.

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