A climate-change activist prepares for the worst

By Mike Tidwell
Friday, February 25, 2011; 4:00 PM

Ten years ago, I put solar panels on my roof and began eating locally grown food. I bought an energy-efficient refrigerator that uses the power equivalent of a single light bulb. I started heating my home with a stove that burns organically fertilized corn kernels. I even restored a gas-free lawn mower for manual yardwork.

As a longtime environmental activist, I was deeply alarmed by new studies on global warming, so I went all out. I did my part.

Now I'm changing my life again. Today, underneath the solar panels, there's a new set of deadbolt locks on all my doors. There's a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.

I'm not a survivalist or an "end times" enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I'm just a realist.

I haven't given up the cause. I still work overtime to promote clean energy, and I take solace when top climate scientists say we can still avoid the worst effects of global warming if we move quickly. It's just that, well, we're running out of time.

The proof is everywhere - outside my front door, in my neighborhood, on the news. After a decade of failure to address climate change at the national and international levels, our weather has gone haywire. In the Washington region alone, in barely a year, we've annihilated all records for snow accumulation, we've seen appalling power outages associated with year-round thunderstorms, and we've experienced the hottest summer in the 140 years we've been measuring. Winston Churchill's oft-quoted warning on the eve of World War II now applies directly: "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."

Those consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I'm reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies.

This may seem like a stunt, or a sign that this frustrated environmentalist has finally lost it. But I'm not crazy. Just wait. The mega-storms and social disruptions on the horizon will be the best proof of that.

It wasn't the wildfires that blackened much of Russia last summer that led me to buy my portable generator, nor the unspeakable rains in Pakistan that inundated nearly a quarter of that country. It was the one-two punch of thunderstorms that blew through the D.C. area on July 25 and Aug. 12 of last year. The first storm, with wind gusts of 90 mph, knocked out power to 400,000 people and generated a wave of lightning that, by a freak tragedy, killed my friend Carl Henn at a community picnic in Rockville.

The second storm hit while I was in the parking lot of a TV station in Northwest Washington, about to be interviewed about Arctic ice melt. Suddenly, darkness overcame us, and it became midnight at 8 a.m. The street lamps flickered on. Cars turned on their headlights. And I saw the largest, darkest, windiest thunderstorm I'd ever seen, approaching from the west. I whipped out my cellphone and called my wife in Takoma Park. "Go to the basement now!" I said. Inside the TV studio, I watched the anchors switch to a live report about apartment dwellers trapped by a massive fallen oak as the first of more than 100,000 homes began to lose power. Houses across the area were ripped open by wind and crashing tree trunks.

Throughout 2010, my neighborhood lost power more times than I can remember. This included blackouts during the "Snowmageddon" storms, of course, when Washington traded in sidewalks for white trenches and roads for deep canyons. And yes, major snowfall events are increasing in the eastern United States even as the planet warms, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It makes sense, too. We're not setting records for average low temperatures, after all. Not even close. We're setting records for precipitation intensity across a huge swath of America, in summer and in winter. A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water from oceans and lakes. And what goes up must come down. Last year was the wettest year on record worldwide, NOAA announced last month. That's what's driving the snow extremes - while the mercury rises.

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