Kentucky voices: Weather disasters warn us human existence at stake

A homemade sign was displayed outside the fire station in Bastrop, Texas. Wildfires have destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in the area near the town.
A homemade sign was displayed outside the fire station in Bastrop, Texas. Wildfires have destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in the area near the town. AP

The year 2011 is being called the Year of the Natural Disaster: crippling snowstorms, biblical floods, punishing droughts, record heat, raging wildfires and massive tornados have hammered large swaths of the country.

Of course, each year of the past decade could be called the Year of the Natural Disaster.

It's only going to get worse.

Much of Texas is in its worst drought in more than 100 years. Coupled with a record number of days with temperatures more than 100 degrees, the result is a Connecticut-sized chunk of the state lost to monstrous infernos. It's so bad that many Texans are hoping for a hurricane to bring rain.

Texas' drought may be a preview of coming attractions. New research by Stanford University scientists predicts that in 19 short years the central and western United States will fall into a drought never seen by modern humans.

How bad will it be? Droughts are scored by a measurement called the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). The higher the minus numbers, the deeper the drought.

The worst drought on record occurred in the Sahel region of western Africa in the 1970s, and reached a -3 to -4 on the PDSI. The one forecast for the central and western U.S. in the 2030s will likely measure -4 to -6.

By the end of the century, it will have worsened to -8 to -10.

Southern Europe has a drought forecast that will make ours seem soggy, with a PDSI of -13 to -15. Cancel those scenic Mediterranean cruises; misery and famine make lousy scenery.

If our politicians continue giving scientists the cold shoulder, sometime in the next 20 years we're going to reach a point at which our hellish fate becomes obvious, but the opportunity to avoid it will have evaporated.

Like the Neanderthals before us, we're responding to the threat to our existence by ignoring it.

And if we keep allowing friends of coal and others to proselytize that fossil fuels will play a role for decades to come in the generation of electricity, it will perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even a recent Herald-Leader editorial stated that global warming will not be the end of the world.

That last statement may be true. After all, the world will change and exist in some form; it's we humans who may not fare so well.

Assuming we do nothing (and doing nothing seems popular in Washington and Frankfort), the warming climate will disrupt society as vast areas of the planet become inhospitable.

Mass migrations will occur as people and animals move to the cooler (relatively speaking) northernmost regions. Too bad seven billion people won't fit there. The ensuing competition for dwindling resources isn't going to be pretty.

If you think I'm trying to scare you, remember this: If the truth doesn't scare you, Mother Nature will. We can't afford to burn fossil fuels for even one more decade, regardless of what people say.

It's ironic that the answer to both global warming and unemployment is a massive Manhattan Project-style effort to capture and store, not carbon, but energy generated by sunlight, wind and water.

Every 45 minutes enough sunlight strikes the Earth to power every building on the planet for a year. We now have more unemployed PhDs than at any time in the nation's history, thanks to cuts in the space program, government-funded research and education. Within those two sentences lie solutions, not problems.

We can and should convert the energy grid to nuclear energy, which also would help end unemployment. The money spent would fuel a recovery just as World War II spending ended the Great Depression. We would use nuclear energy only until scientific breakthroughs in renewable energy storage allow us to convert the energy grid from nuclear to renewables. We then share the new technology with the world.

It took us eight years to put a man on the moon. We can create a renewable energy grid in less than a decade with the proper funding and resources. We can do it.

We can do it as soon as we replace the Neanderthals in charge.