Peninsula Views: Empirically Yours

A Letter to My Children


It was wonderful seeing you and your kids at the family reunion last month. We’re still finding specks of glitter and tiny beads amid the chalk drawings on the deck, where they did craft projects with their Grandma Sara. I guess I’ll put away the beach gear. The weather was nearly perfect while you were here, but in the future I’m afraid that we will have to cope with extreme weather where you live in Austin and Los Angeles as well as here in the Pacific Northwest. If you ever wish to move up here, we will support you, even though Washington state may not be a perfect oasis either. Here’s what worries me:

While it was seasonably warm here in July, there were deadly heat waves and new record high temperatures around the world. The global average temperature then was nearly 1.5 degrees Celsius above the historical average in the pre-industrial mid-1800s. My worry is that this is a sign of the new normal, or worse, a tipping point after which the consequences of extreme weather including heat, drought, unmanageable fires, flooding, and food and water shortages will be much more frequent.

What worries me about tipping points is that if Earth’s climate changes too fast we humans and other animals and plants may not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. Or to think about this another way, the rate of climate change may be more important to control than the ultimate peak level. This means that the next degree rise in temperature (next year) may be more critical than the last degree in temperature rise (way in the future).

Examples of extreme weather are reported almost daily but the underlying cause is the continuing increase in heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane with which we pollute the Earth’s atmosphere. As measured at the carbon dioxide observatory on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the level of this greenhouse gas in the world’s air increased another 1% from July 2022 to July 2023.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? A few years ago the rate of increase was half that amount. This means that all the climate change mitigation we’ve done so far hasn’t stopped the flow of these gases into the air. We also tend to forget what’s worse, that 90% of this carbon dioxide is promptly absorbed by the ocean.

Yes, most of the accumulating heat as well as the polluting carbon dioxide are absorbed by the world’s oceans. The heat drives the global El Niño weather pattern, while the absorbed carbon dioxide makes sea water more acidic. Warmer, more acidic sea water is leading to dire effects on sea life. Obvious examples are the bleaching and death of corals and crustaceans such as crabs as sea water reaches Jacuzzi temperatures. I’m glad our granddaughters had no trouble finding the tiny crabs on the beach this year, but Dungeness crab may never return to South Puget Sound. Crabs, unlike the rest of us, just can’t get climate insurance.

Well, we can still get insurance in Washington state, but Florida and parts of California are becoming uninsurable. Insurance companies simply can’t raise rates high enough to make a profit after years of enormous losses, due to extreme weather events such as hurricanes or wildfires. Insurers in other states including Texas, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, recently posted billion-dollar losses from extreme weather events.

Insurance companies gripe about the costs they face such as rising construction prices, the reinsurance premiums they must pay, lawsuits by unhappy customers and complex state regulations. But the emerging picture is that most of us are still largely in denial about the consequences of climate change. What this means for our family is that the cost of your homeowners insurance may be going up. So far, ours has not. But if pressures or risk in Austin or Los Angeles make you think about moving north, please come here. Liz, I miss those kale salads you make. I think the neighbor’s house is still for sale.

Love, Dad

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay