The forecast for this early August day called for 111 degrees in Fresno/Clovis, Calif. where I live. That's relatively common in this region, where 40 or more days above 100 is common for summer. But it appears more of the United States is in for similar treatment.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center says July was the hottest month in recorded history.
In fact, its State of the Climate report says, January through July was the warmest first seven months of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 56.4 degrees was 4.3 degrees above the long-term average, with only the Pacific Northwest, which was near average, bucking the trend.
And of course Alaska's a bit cooler. My friend Steve likes to post data on his runs in Anchorage's scenic Kincaid Park. The latest was 55 degrees. Sweltering.
Superheating the atmosphere
This temperature stuff is more than just fodder for oblique discussions of the weather. The ramifications are huge, and most scientists predict dire consequences should the trend not be reversed.
Author and climate activist Bill McKibben spells out the scenario in stark terms. In a piece for Rolling Stone, which has some of the best investigative journalism in the country, he highlights three numbers to watch.
The first is 2 degrees Celsius, which refers to the window the world has before it succumbs to significant effects of climate change. The second is 563 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which refers to the amount of climate warming pollutants that can be released before we hit that two degree threshold.
Carbon dioxide, public enemy
The third, and perhaps most significant McKibben number, is 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. That's the amount of carbon locked up in all the known reserves of oil and coal. Should those reserves be exploited and the fossil fuels burned, we'll be well on the path to universal environmental destruction.
The cost would be astronomical, the devastation unparalleled.
The path to dealing with this appears obvious. Or relatively. Fossil fuels stand as the most costly fuel on the planet. But society would prefer to kick the can to the next generation.
Who's the bad guy?
Pushing fossil fuels
McKibben says it's obvious.The bad guys are coal and oil executives.
"Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell," he says.
Unfortunately, the oil companies hold the enviable position of having more money than their critics. While BP reported a loss of $2.2 billion for the second quarter of 2012, it's still doing fine. That compares with net profit of $5.7 billion for the same period a year earlier.
The Associated Press reports BP's revenue for the quarter declined 9 percent and the company set aside another $847 million for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster and cleanup, "taking the total provision to just over $38 billion."
Money is the game
Not a problem. BP can afford it. In fact, it's created an ad campaign that portrays the company in such beneficent terms, its past fades to distant-memory status. Says Hamilton Nolan of gawker.com: "Remember how BP's relentless pursuit of profits at the expense of safety caused the Gulf of Mexico to be flooded with oil a little while ago? No. I don't remember that. Do you? Hmm. What I do remember is BP's absolutely awesome Olympic spirit!"
Earnings-wise, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil fared better with Shell posting second quarter profit of $5.7 billion, down 13 percent from the same period a year earlier, and Exxon showing $8.4 billion, down 22 percent, according to the New York Times. Reporter Clifford Krauss quotes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson saying, “Despite global economic uncertainty, we continue to invest throughout the business cycle, taking a long-term view of resource development.”
Talk like that drives McKibben nuts. "There's not a more reckless man on the planet," he says of Tillerson. He adds that Tillerson told Wall Street analysts he plans to spend $37 billion on a year on exploration through 2016.
The problem is that oil companies hold the future of the planet in their hands, and as long as they keep making scads of money, they won't be backing away from extracting, refining and burning as much of their fossil fuel reserves as possible. McKibben says the only way to deal with this is to tax carbon, making alternative energy more economical.
Of course, alternative energy is currently struggling its way to fossil-fuel parity already. But it could use a boost.
In the meantime, McKibben says the best recourse is moral outrage for those who would like to stop this pell-mell push to global warming. Enemy No. 1 is not Jimmy Cagney, nor is it Snidely Whiplash (both personal favorites). It's a bunch of rich executives ruining the globe for a few dollars more.