Is Global Warming Inevitable? A Case Study

color photograph of industrial...
color photograph of industrial...

2012-08-17-loganpollardacorncrop.jpg"We are into our 11th day of temps near or over 100 with another week to go," Bill Patzert just reminded me.

He's a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and an expert on climate forecasting, and like me he's up working into the night.

He also sends these stats along, not that anyone needs proof that's it's been hot. Very hot. :

08/16/2012 103
08/15/2012 101
08/14/2012 106
08/13/2012 105
08/12/2012 108
08/11/2012 108
08/10/2012 106
08/09/2012 109
08/08/2012 107
08/07/2012 107
08/06/2012 108

Why this is significant I'll get to.

But first a bit about the town we both live in.

Bag ban

In July, Pasadena, California joined several nearby municipalities in banning the use of plastic bags at area supermarkets.

According to Monica Zubcic, a cashier at Ralph's supermarket in West Pasadena, "It's pretty much 50-50 -- people who like it and people who are really pissed by it."

Pasadena, of course, has a lengthy history of being ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating environmental concerns into public policies -- from promoting bicycling, to water and power conservation, to advocating solar energy, and of course, recycling.

Noted conservationist Theodore Parker Lukens back at the turn of the last century advocated for reforesting the mountain ranges around Altadena (which lies north of the city) and Pasadena. Lukens and famed naturalist John Muir, the well-known co-founder of the Sierra Club, together forged a friendship based on shared values of advocating for the natural world.

So what happened?

In a word: progress.

"As the area has grown into a great megalopolis, there's been a tremendous change in land use. What used to be a dry chaparral now is full of golf courses, shopping centers ... we created our own micro-climate," says Bill Patzert.

Climate change seems to be everywhere this summer -- freak storms, wildfires, record high temperatures. In fact, reportedly and according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, this year has been the hottest on record, with July the warmest month in the continental U.S. So what do these radical occurrences elsewhere really mean to people residing in Southern California?

Enter Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who two years ago commissioned a study to be led by a group of researchers at UCLA. Their objective: Examine what we're really dealing with locally with regard to climate change.

Their study, released on June 22, finds that the average temperature, even in places like Pasadena, will go up by some four to five degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, "tripling the number of extremely hot days in the downtown area and quadrupling the number in the valleys and at high elevations," the report states.

The kids get it

On a personal level, the thermostat in our home in Pasadena hovers around 80 degrees. When it goes three or four degrees above that, my husband and I start to feel uncomfortable. How do you think things will go when the temperature rises by this much on a regular basis and people like us crank up the air conditioner?

We're two healthy, young adults. What about the elderly, the sick and those with small children?

This change will be significant not only for people, but also for the natural environment -- our entire ecosystem is influenced by even the smallest, incremental changes -- and no one knows with absolute certainty how this development will impact us all.

So, is warming inevitable?

Yes and no, says lead UCLA investigator Professor Alex Hall.

"In the study, we examined two emissions scenarios, a 'business-as-usual' scenario where greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the same rate as they have in the recent past, and a 'mitigation' scenario, where emissions begin to decrease over the next decade or two."

"In the mitigation scenario, we see about 70 percent of the warming that we see in the business-as-usual by mid-century. This indicates that some warming is probably inevitable in the region, no matter what decisions are made in the coming decades regarding greenhouse gas emissions," says Hall. "However, beyond mid-century, the choices we make in the coming years make a much larger difference in how much climate change materializes."

That's science talk for 'now would be a good time to make some adjustments,' something Pasadena seems to have picked up on again, this time with its bag initiative.

Hall was reluctant to give recommendations on how individual efforts can help steer us off this course, but Bill Patzert is more forthcoming:

"There's no going back, it's irreversible," says the veteran climatologist. "The length and duration of heat waves have dramatically increased. A two- to three-day heat wave will be the two-week heat wave in the 21st century."

Patzert, however, points to some basic moves we could make now that will make the change, to use his analogy, less like being hit in the head with a baseball and more like a beach ball.

These simple modifications include incorporating more vegetation, especially trees, into our living spaces. White roofs can help mitigate heat by reflecting sunlight, and people could start converting to eco-friendly appliances and try to be more tuned-in to the environmental consequences of policies made by their local public planning honchos.

Beyond individual efforts, Patzert argues that engagement in public dialogue is essential.

"How you vote matters. Vote for big oil or vote for Al [Gore, former vice president and the co-creator of "An Inconvenient Truth," the 2006 documentary about global warming]. You feel the impact, but the issues have to be dealt with at a national and international level."

Patzert says this with the kind of gallows humor that scientists sometimes have, but behind his laughter is real concern -- and even some optimism about the future.

"The kids get it much better than some of the parents and grandparents.

I always bring a canvas bag to my talks. 'Real men' use canvas bags."

Plant trees

But really, how do we protect ourselves from all this heat and how do we slow down the global warming signal? Patzert asks.

"Wean ourselves off fossil fuels. With 7- to 8-million cars on the freeway, that's a tremendous heat and CO2 source -- more public transportation."

"Locally, we can green and cool our cities. " And curb "our aspirations for affluence," he says.

The LA mayor's office had this to say about the study: "We are mitigating the effects of climate change with an 'all-of-the above' approach," reads a statement issued by Villaraigosa's office. "We have quadrupled our use of renewable energy, reduced carbon emissions at unprecedented rates, passed the nation's toughest building standards, added 670 more acres of green space, and upped our recycling rate to over 70 percent."

Let's hope that his successor will also view sustainability as a priority.

As for Pasadena, 61 residential units were completed during the 2011 calendar year, and the city has 20 buildings with Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Certification, according to the city's planning department. Along with the plastic bag ban, the city's trying to fire up (couldn't resist that one) two ambitious projects: something they're calling "the Zero Waste Strategic Plan," to grow both recycling while decreasing the amount of trash we create, as well as its "Open Space & Conservation Element," an effort to be more strategic about preserving our natural environment.

Clearly, there is a conflict between the city's burgeoning development and the problems all that building can create.

More auspiciously, however, at least we live in a community that's making an effort to be mindful of these issues.

And if Ms. Zubcic is right, and 50 percent of her customers actually get the importance of using canvas bags instead of plastic, let's also hope the other half finally comes around.

On any given summer day, when I walk on the side of the street with no trees, the heat is unpleasant, it's so intense. A shaded sidewalk, however, is a completely different experience: a light breeze rustles the leaves, a protective separation between my head and the beating sun.

How much more extreme will this experience be when/if it gets even hotter?

Perhaps one step we can all make is to support efforts to plant trees, something Mr. Lukens advised all those years ago.

Find the full climate report and the mayor's action plan at or here. And the temperature listings at the top of this article were recorded at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA., just west of Pasadena.

A version of this post first appeared in the Pasadena Weekly. Photo by Logan Nakyanzi Pollard.