Extreme weather from climate change increaes urgency of pollution reductions

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The government has declared one-third of the nation’s counties…to be federal disaster areas as a result of a drought.

The drought has withered crops, threatening higher future food prices for families. 

In addition, more than 3,200 high temperature records were set or tied in the United States this past June. May was the 327th consecutive month where the global temperature exceeded the 20th century average.

Climate science deniers argue that no single weather occurrence is definitely caused by climate change. However, it is the wrong question to ask whether global warming caused a specific record smashing weather event. Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that “all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

Climate change makes heat waves longer and more intense. This in turn makes droughts longer and more intense, which then makes wildfire seasons longer and more intense. And warmer temperatures yield more water vapor in the atmosphere, which makes rainstorms more intense.

These extreme weather conditions over the past several years – heat waves, drought, severe storms, floods – are precisely the events that scientists have spent years warning us would occur if human produced carbon pollution continued unchecked into the atmosphere.

The Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” in March 2012, which reinforced this link. Scientists reviewed “over 1,000 scientific publications,” to craft the report. The IPCC warned of “unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

· Medium confidence [50 percent likelihood] in an observed increase in the length or number of warm spells or heat waves in many regions of the globe.
· Medium confidence in projected increase in duration and intensity of droughts in some regions of the world.

The Associated Press reports that the 2012 heat waves, drought and wildfires reflect the link between extreme weather and climate change.

Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona [said] “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

These warnings are not new.  Four and half years ago then Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson privately implored President George W. Bush that

The latest science of climate change requires the Agency to propose a positive endangerment finding… the state of the latest climate change science does not permit a negative finding, nor does it permit a credible finding that we need to wait for more research.

Also within the next several months, EPA must face regulating greenhouse gases from power plants, some industrial sources, petroleum refineries and cement kilns.

Bush ignored Johnson’s urgent plea. Fortunately the Obama administration acted on the science, and established carbon pollution reduction standards for motor vehicles and proposed them for new, unbuilt power plants. EPA received over 2.5 million comments supporting the power plant proposal and urging EPA to set pollution reductions from existing plants too.  More carbon pollution reductions must occur in the United States and around the world if we are to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. 

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney both denies the science linking industrial carbon pollution to climate change, and opposes pollution reductions.

My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

Unlike Romney, many Americans understand the huge human and economic costs of heat waves, drought, and other climate change symptoms that continue to occur. And polling shows that Republicans, independents, and Democrats all believe that the federal government must act to reduce the pollution responsible for this summer of our discontent.  How many more deadly, costly extreme weather events must occur before big oil and coal’s congressional allies finally remove their roadblocks to essential carbon pollution reductions? 

Weiss is senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.