One of the key distinctions in our national conversation about climate change is the difference between weather and climate. Weather is that stuff coming up over the hill this afternoon. Climate is the weather that will consistently clear the hill decades from now.
We’ve had plenty of weather in 2017, mostly of the old-fashioned variety. It was cold. It snowed, over and over. The Elk Hunter had a pile of shoveled snow next to her driveway that towered over her head. The pile was sculpted by wind to resemble a wave crashing over a tropical beach, or maybe that illusion was a symptom of our desire to be as far away from winter as possible.
The glacial wave lingered into March. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone uttered a version of “I wonder what Al Gore thinks of global warming now?” During those dark days, I’d have had enough cash to buy a taco or two.
We moved into another world by the time the first official day of summer arrived. Two days before June 21, I drove through Las Vegas on my way to visit family. At 11 p.m. the thermometer in my truck registered 108 degrees. I didn’t stop.
Things haven’t been so bad in the Northern Rockies. The chukar grounds were still green when I left. That neon green is deceptive, however. It’s mostly cheat grass. The green lasts only a short time in spring, and then cures to a dingy brown that suggests the weathered pages of old books.
In the Southwest, the hillsides foretell what late summer may look like in the Rockies. There’s a carpet of cured grass behind the family home where there was mostly bare ground a year ago. That’s what a winter of monsoon rains will do to this country. The grass provides seeds and cover for wildlife, but if this heat keeps up it will soon be dry enough to carry fire like lighter fluid.
The weather has already hit the northeastern corner of Montana where continuing drought threatens the state’s winter-wheat bread basket. Farmers who put off planting last fall due to wet weather were forced to bury their seeds in dry spring ground and then pray for rain.
So is all this weather just weather, or is it symptomatic of a changing climate? And if it is climate, which is it: the snowy, cold winter or the hot box that arrived with summer? Climate scientists will tell you that weather is just a shiny object, an attention-grabbing squirrel that distracts us from the story the long-term data reveals.
I read another bit of “weather” related news this week, one that suggests there might be an upside to all the hot, sunny weather I encountered on my trip south. A new study suggests renewable energy generation will grow 169 percent by the year 2040, while coal, despite recent revival efforts led by President Trump, will decline by 51 percent during the same period. It’s a change led not by subsidies for wind and solar, but by improving technology. Renewable energy is getting cheaper to generate, and when flip-the-switch reliability is needed, natural gas is increasingly the dead-dinosaur fuel of choice.
While much of the climate talk is depressing, the flip side is that we may be on the cusp of an energy revolution. The final weak link is battery technology. For instance, the battery pack in a Tesla Model S weighs 1,200 pounds, while 20 gallons of gasoline weighs about 120.
Once Tesla starts making batteries that approximate the energy density of the tank of gas, and are as quickly refillable, fossil fuel’s day will be done. Then we’ll drive across the blistering summer desert in electric cars charged by energy generated at wind and solar plants.
And that will be good for the planet, regardless of what’s coming over the hill tomorrow.