Welcome to the desertification of Planet Earth, folks

Tangerines lying in the dirt in front of dry vegetation on farmland amid an ongoing drought in California. The American state is experiencing a third consecutive year of drought in the Western United States. According to the US Drought Monitor, more than 97% of the state's land area is in at least severe drought status. This is a small part of what the climate crisis is doing to the planet – and yet, we're still not doing anything serious about it. — AFP

If you’ve been keeping up with the news you’ll have noticed a pretty common theme this August, 2022: Record-breaking droughts everywhere.

From the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong: “China’s unprecedented heatwave and drought put autumn crops at risk”. From CNBC in the United States: “Europe is experiencing its worst drought in at least 500 years”. From The Guardian in Britain: “US issues western water cuts as drought leaves Colorado River near ‘tipping point’”.

If you’re as worried as I am, your Twitter feed is full of photos showing drought-hit dried-up rivers in China, Europe and the United States. CNN calls the droughts in the United States the worst in the region in centuries.

But this is all missing the point: calling these occurrences droughts is misleading. A drought is defined as a period of low rainfall. So a drought condition is defined in relation to a status quo of normal rainfall. The problem with calling what’s happening all over the world right now “drought” is that it implies we will return to the normal pattern of rainfall. That there will be a return to normal weather.

This is wrong.

Climate change is altering our environment and raising temperatures to a point that all our models of past weather and what we consider “normal” are no longer valid.

Those models were the predictions for weather with less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is not the planet we live on any longer. For the purposes of predicting normal weather, we no longer have any guide. Because we are still dumping tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, we can’t even say, well, these droughts are the new normal, because we are still making the situation worse – or, in other words, droughts are going to get worse.

Even if we were to cut emissions yesterday, the impacts of the carbon dioxide we already have in our atmosphere would be felt for hundreds of years. The global atmospheric system is not a motorbike we can stop on a dime. It’s a behemoth of a boat, cruising powerfully through the seas, and stopping it can be done but it will take time.

And already we’re seeing adverse effects of these climate change droughts that go beyond people running out of water and crops dying. In China it was reported they were trying to seed clouds to induce rainfall. This is a desperate act that could have adverse environmental impacts.

Seeding clouds to induce rain works in theory. The way rain forms is by particles of water forming around dirt or dust in the air and then attracting more and more particles of water until that droplet is heavy enough that it falls out of the sky as rain. To seed clouds and create rain, the theory goes that you introduce particles into the sky, giving moisture more opportunity to gather and fall and become rain. This is the theory. In practice, it doesn’t work very well.

The United States tried this in the 1960s for warfare. Yes, for warfare. America was embroiled in a war in Vietnam and the jungle trails were seen as a vital supply route for the North Vietnamese. The Americans thought if they could induce rain over these trails, they would make them too muddy to travel. It didn’t work.

And, hopefully, it won’t work again. I’m not wishing drought on people, but to do this cloud seeding you need to use thousands of tons of particles dropped into the sky. The United States used silver iodide in Vietnam. Any idea what that much silver iodide introduced into the ecosystem does? I don’t have any idea either, but I’m betting, on a large scale, it can’t be good.

Besides potentially worsening the environmental situation, the other issue becomes: who owns the rain? Seriously.

What if one country seeds the clouds over their land but those clouds blow over to another country and it rains there – and now there’s no more moisture to produce rain in the first country.

Right now, weather is for the most part random and we accept it. But if humans modify weather, and someone’s drought comes because of another nation’s direct actions ... well, you can already see how bad that can get.

There is no shortcut to solving climate change. It’s going to be a slow, hard slog and it starts by the media reporting things for what they are, and these are not droughts.

This is the desertification of large areas of our planet due to the climate crisis. I realise that’s not as punchy and a lot more scary, but the first step in solving a problem is admitting we have one.

Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – a model who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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