Putting the puzzle together

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Green in Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark

This originally appeared on Going Green in Cancun.

My wife’s family has a tradition during cold winters. They buy puzzles, spread them on one end of a dining room table made for ten, and start putting them together.

It may take weeks, but everybody who walks past feels compelled to put in a piece or two, or sit down to work on the puzzle and socialize for an hour or two. I’ve always been curious, so it was only natural that I was sucked into the tradition 20 years ago.

Looking at climate change is kind of like working those 5,000-piece puzzles. The table’s just bigger.

There might be a corner piece in India, a whole strip of the side in Siberia, a little scrap of the middle in Kentucky. But as you gradually stick these pieces together, a picture begins to emerge.

We had a cold December in the eastern half of the U.S., so of course there is no such thing as global warming. That’s the argument of those who still believe with all their hearts that climate change is a hoax. They heap scorn on scientists who say a colder than average winter in some parts of the world is a symptom of climate change, because it just sounds so ridiculous that warming causes cooling.

Actually, it’s not ridiculous; it’s just a piece of the puzzle.

The problem is, most people don’t really pay attention to details, and puzzles are all about details. In defense of most Americans, unless they go looking for more information they’re probably only going to get what’s spoon-fed to them by the 24-hour cable “news” channels. But, to quote the X-Files, the truth is out there. It just takes a little initiative, and a propensity for puzzles.

Take that statement that cold means hot. It’s a puzzle piece that’s half red and half blue. The detail is, that there is a high pressure system over the Arctic. Remember your weather map on TV? High pressure keeps out the cold air. It has to push around the high.

So when cold weather pushed around the high in the Arctic, it pushed into North America – specifically the eastern U.S. – and caused a colder than normal winter. Let’s call that a middle piece in the puzzle. Middle pieces are always harder to see.

Then there’s the massive flooding in India, Pakistan and China last year. A fifth of Pakistan – an area the size of Florida – was under water at one time. Most people saw tht on the news. The detail is that climate experts blame it on a warmer-than-normal Indian Ocean causing the normal monsoons in the region to merge with the seasonal rains in Afghanistan for days rather hours, which would be normal. The result was another piece of the puzzle.

In the Asian end of Russia, temperatures last summer reached above 107 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time in recorded history. I don’t think I even saw that on the U.S. news, but you’ll find it if you go looking. It was part of the same heatwave that hit Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S. Even with the cold December here, 2010 was the hottest year on record.

Speaking to journalists in Cancun in November, Dr. Saleemul Huq, senior climate change fellow at the International Institute for Environmental Development and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dismissed climate change deniers. Specifically, he targeted those in the U.S. Senate, whose opinion he contrasted to that of people in the developing world who are directly affected by extremes like the Pakistan flooding.

“In the developing world, everyone knows something damned strange is happening to the weather,” said Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist based in London, England.

The latest “damned strange” thing happening, and the latest piece of the puzzle, is in Australia – not at all part of the developing world. For those who haven’t gone looking for this piece of the puzzle, you can find it here: http://bit.ly/iiJrKu.

Northeastern Australia has disappeared under a flood one official described as “biblical” in size. As of Sunday morning, an area in the states of Queensland and New South Wales the size of Germany and France combined was under water. Rainfall for December was nearly three times the monthly normal, and it was still raining on January 3 (Australia is a day ahead of the U.S.).

To understand how that piece of the puzzle affects Kentucky, Queensland produces half of the world’s coking coal, or met coal as it is known here. According to the newspaper The Australian, prices can be expected to rise to $300 USD per tonne from $246 USD (about $272.16 from $223.17 per short ton).

Lest you think this is good news for Kentucky, consider the fact that this is also expected to lead to a steel shortage (affecting the auto and construction industries in Kentucky), and will almost surely to increased electric bills, since most of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal. Rates have to be approved by the public service commission, but not the cost of the fuel used to produce the electricity. You’ll find the effects of the Australian flooding under “fuel adjustment,” on your bill.

Puzzles don’t always fit together the way you expect.