An early spring comes before the fall

Here in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, the daffodils and forsythia are in full yellow splash. An hour’s drive south, Roanoke’s roads are lined with brilliant white canopies of flowering trees. Ninety minutes northeast, in Washington, D.C., the cherry trees have started to pop, nearly a month early.

We’ll almost certainly pay for this bucolic weather later in the month, when the inevitable cold snap grasps all those premature blossoms in its mortal grip—or not, in which case we’ll pay weeks later with a bumper crop of bothersome insects. We’ve had only one significant freeze all winter, back in December, which means that barring a reprise we’ll be looking at a summer of bigger and more plentiful mosquitoes, flies, stink bugs and other pests. But there’s at least some truth in that warning about March—in like a lamb, out like a lion and vice versa—and it’s not unusual for us to have blizzards and significant snowfall well into April. One can hope.

California, on the other hand, has flipped the script with record amounts of cold, snow and rain. Los Angeles, which gets an annual rainfall of 12 inches, has been a flood zone. Yosemite National Park is closed indefinitely, the valley floor buried under nearly four feet of snow amid drifts of 15 feet or more, and more expected in the days ahead. Tahoe’s ski resorts are giddy over unprecedented amount of powder, so much more preferred than the usual heavy “Sierra cement”—but all that snow makes getting to the lodges an ordeal, and in an apparent paradox, the fluffier powder increases avalanche risks. Moreover, if a slight thawing of oncoming fronts brings more rain than snow, look for significant flooding throughout the state.

The weather, in other words, has become enormously intrusive from one end of the country to the other. It’s no longer a background phenomenon, punctuated by the occasional hysteria of a tornado: it’s very much in the foreground almost all the time, throwing one curve ball after another. It shouldn’t be a surprise—we’ve been getting warned about this for at least a couple of decades—but still there’s astonishment and disbelief. And, it should be noted, a stubborn refusal to make significant changes in response.

Consider, for example, the report out today from the International Energy Agency, which found that the world emitted more carbon dioxide last year than in any year on record dating back to 1900. Despite all the global conferences and solemn pledges to reduce such emissions, a rebound in post-pandemic air travel, as well as more cities relying on coal-fired power plants, resulted in an overall 0.9% increase in 2022. More carbon dioxide in the air means a stronger greenhouse effect, which means more heat trapped in the atmosphere, which means more extreme weather, which . . . .

And yet. A Republican-led charge this week seeks to ban retirement funds from taking environmental factors into consideration when making investment choices. Claiming Wall Street has succumbed to “woke capitalism,” the House on Tuesday voted along party lines to repeal a Department of Labor rule permitting such consideration; the closely-divided Senate is lining up for a similar vote, with across-the-aisle support from coal-mining Senator and faux Democrat Joe Manchin. The ostensible purpose of such an attack, as summarized by potential presidential candidate Mike Pence, is to safeguard “hard-working Americans’ retirement accounts.” What’s really at stake is the fear that investment funds will disinvest in fossil fuel companies.

Given the above, it’s ironic that this week also marked the release by First Street Foundation of the latest in a series of risk factors it has analyzed for real estate properties across the United States. A non-profit research group working to make public access to climate risk easy to understand, First Street previously reported on flood, fire and extreme heat trends caused by global warming; this week’ s release is titled “The 7th National Risk Assessment: Worsening Winds.” The bottom line? Tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are becoming more intense and are moving farther north, to such an extent that “over 13.4 million properties will be exposed to tropical cyclones in 30 years that are not currently.”

Poetically, hardest-hit will be the uber-conservative southern states that are most vociferous in denouncing any attempts to curb environmental despoliation, a broad swath from Texas across the Gulf states and along the eastern seaboard to North Carolina and points north, but also as far inland as western Tennessee. But the most vulnerable will continue to be the increasingly feudal state of Florida, which already is burdened with more than 80% of the nation’s hurricane risk, at $13.4 billion in annualized losses—growing to $14.3 billion a year by 2052.

All that seems very far away from the drowsy, premature spring we’re enjoying here in the Shenandoah, however short-lived it may prove. Eventually, though, the piper will collect his due. He always does. Reality bites.

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