Connecting the Dots: Weather, Climate, and Our Role

by: Blaine Skrainka

July 20, 2012

For those stateside, it’s been impossible this summer to ignore one sweaty fact-of-life: It’s hot. Brutally hot. It seems like we’re right back where we left off last summer — all 50 states saw record highs in July 2011 — breaking heat records on the daily while battling droughts and wildfires. Is this the new normal?

Although the inescapable heat really hits us in the face post-Memorial Day, the fact is, the first six months of this year have been the hottest ever recorded in the continental United States. Democracy Now reports that, “the past 12 months have also been the hottest in recorded history, beating out the record for the previous 12 months,” and, “in the last two weeks of June alone, more than 170 all-time heat records were either broken or tied.”

Back in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, the mercury recently hit a staggering 107 degrees. This was just one of the 23,900 daily record highs set.

At least 74 people have died in this most recent heatwave.

(Emily Berl for The Wall Street Journal)
Brooklyn, New York (Emily Berl/WSJ)

Let’s pause for a moment. Don’t environmentalists and media watchers rip Fox News every time they present a snowstorm as evidence that global warming is a hoax? How can we, in turn, point to a hot day in July as our own gotcha moment? Are we all just victims of our own confirmation bias?

Not exactly.

While climate scientists have in the past been hesitant to link individual weather events to long-term climate patterns, opinions are beginning to sway. Climatologists reading the data, just like laymen listening to our intuition, cannot help but connect the dots.

The idea is essentially this: human emissions of greenhouse gasses have warmed the air, allowing the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, and thus, increasing the odds of extreme weather events. So can you point to an individual storm and say, “climate change!”? That is still a place of caution. But, scientists are increasingly agreeing that we are loading the dice. Strung together — heat records, ice blizzards, droughts and devastating floods — one can no longer ignore that climate change is here.

Why is it taking so long to wake up to this crisis? Climate can seem abstract, while weather is more tangible. That is, we can read reports about average global temperatures rising a few degrees over the next century, and we might wonder how bad could a few centimeters increase in sea level could really be for islands on the other side of the world. But, for many, it doesn’t really hit home. Extreme weather events, on the other hand, have direct effects on our own lives.

The Maldives by Lara Day
The Maldives (Lara Day/WSJ)

Television and print media — perhaps in an attempt to dodge accusations of partisanship — are complicit in our national procrastination. According to the watchdog group Media Matters, of 258 tv segments that discussed wildfires between April and June, only four made mention of climate change as a potential factor. In print, it was eight out of 135 articles. While 98 percent of climate scientists believe that global warming is real and caused by humans, only 19 percent of local weathercasters can confidently say the same. Are there two equal sides to this debate? Should we be giving equal voice to the corporate interests funding denial campaigns and the climatologists warning that we are reaching a tipping point? What is more radical?

According to a recent assessment by the American Meteorological Society in tandem with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, five of six extreme weather events in 2011 were at least partly caused by climate change.

The report builds on the idea of ‘loading the dice,’ telling us that the record heat wave experienced last year in Texas was about 20 times more likely to have happened due to climate change. NOAA also makes mention of evidence that points to the role of climate change in causing the drought of East Africa. This, and the resulting famine, led The WILD last summer to call the Horn of Africa “the epicenter of climate change.”

So are we listening to these warnings? House Republicans certainly are not. They recently voted to cut off funding for a NOAA climate website that would provide data to journalists and concerned citizens. The author of this particular amendment (attached to a larger bill) was Congressman Andy Harris, chairman of a House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. The prudent Mr Harris, instead of championing transparency on climate change, warns: “climate services could become little propaganda sources instead of a science source.” Indeed, Mr Harris.

While the GOP flies the banner of denial, and Democrats sit idly, extreme weather keeps hitting. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 80 percent of the country is “abnormally dry” or experiencing full-on drought. Last month, 1.3 million acres burned — the second-biggest area to be hit with wildfires during any June on record. Meanwhile, Florida has actually faced the wettest June on record.  If only we could socially redistribute the rain!

Matthew Jonas/Longmont Times-Call/Associated Press
Boulder, CO (Matthew Jonas/Longmont Times-Call/Associated Press)

As the Great Plains burn, the Arctic melts.

In the last half century, the arctic has warmed at double the rate of the rest of the world. This will have consequences for ecosystems and economies both locally and across the globe. According to a special report in The Economist, Greenland’s ice cap is losing 200 gigatons of ice each year. To put this number into some context — that is enough to supply drinking water to a billion people, they say. “Even the more extreme predictions of Arctic warming have been outpaced by what has happened in reality.”  On Wednesday, a NASA satellite observed an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan breaking away from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier.

Earlier this spring, ExxonMobil made a deal with the Russian government to invest $500 billion in offshore oil exploration and development in the Arctic Sea. For Americans who lick their lips at similar bounties around Alaska, it is worth noting that it would take decades before any of that oil would be extracted and refined, i.e., usable for our domestic energy needs. The irony in all of this being that as carbon emission-induced climate change melts the arctic, access to the region’s natural resources are more easily extractable. The very energy companies that fund climate change denial campaigns stand to gain from global warming’s consequences.


The Arctic (David Astley)

Climate change is an environmental and social justice issue. It is the biggest crisis that we face, and we are all in it together. Extreme weather events disproportionately affect low income urban communities domestically. Worldwide, climate change is having terrible consequences for developing countries. The impact will eventually work its way up the economic ladder. We have a responsibility as global citizens and stewards of this planet to break the political paralysis and act now.

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