By Ben Geman - 07/06/12 10:00 AM EDT
Record-breaking heat across the country and catastrophic wildfires in Colorado are giving environmentalists a rare opening to regain the political offensive on climate change.
While scientists caution against chalking up specific weather events to climate change, they say generally that heatwaves, wildfires and other extreme weather is expected with increasing frequency and intensity in a warming world.
More scorching weather is forecast for Washington, D.C., this weekend, and the environmental advocacy group 350.org plans to mark the occasion with an ice sculpture of the word “hoax?” in front of the Capitol in coming days.
The melting sculpture will be a jab at Sen. James InhofeJames InhofeFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Senate Dems: Add Flint aid to spending deal Shutdown risk grows over Flint MORE (R-Okla.), who calls global warming a hoax, and other Republicans who dispute widely held scientific views on climate change.
But it also represents a wider effort by activists to use this summer’s extremes as the basis for calls for action on climate change.
For the green movement, the wild weather is a chance to show that oppressive heat and dangerous storms — and maybe even big winter snowstorms — are what experts believe nature has in store.
“This is another sad chapter in connecting the dots, and there will be more chapters, unfortunately, and hopefully the story won't get too much worse before we finally do something,” said Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We have to talk about it. This is, unfortunately, an opportunity to do that,” said Snape, the group’s senior counsel.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, surveying wildfires in Colorado Springs earlier this week, remarked on the “pattern” evident in the weather.
“You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer,” Napolitano said. “You could always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern here.”
June saw 2,284 daily maximum temperature records broken, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while 820 had already fallen for July as of Thursday afternoon.
“The heatwaves, wildfires and drought are a further reminder of what global warming will look like and hopefully nudge public opinion towards further action,” said Daniel J. Weiss of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
The green movement won’t parlay the hot weather into a successful climate bill any time soon.
Global warming legislation collapsed in Congress in 2010 and has no chance of advancement in the foreseeable future.
And a Washington Post poll unveiled earlier this week — but conducted before the recent heatwave — showed that just 18 percent of respondents call global warming the single biggest environmental problem, although 55 percent said the U.S. government should take a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of action.
Still, Weiss said the extreme weather “will put the heat on legislators who want to block action to address climate change.”
“Since so many members of the Senate and House Republican caucuses are climate science deniers, it is unclear whether that element will change, but at least for members who are sort of moderate conservatives, who in the past have tried to block carbon pollution reductions, this should be a giant wake-up call that time is growing short to act,” said Weiss, who directs his group’s climate strategy.
Growing campaigns around extreme weather would mark at least a subtle shift in messaging for the environmental movement, which in recent years has focused heavily on emphasizing what they call the economic benefits of a shift to low-carbon energy sources.
However, calls for an aggressive transition to a green energy economy have faced headwinds of late.
They include the collapse of the federally backed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra — which Republicans have used as the basis for a sustained assault against White House green energy programs — and low natural-gas prices.
Jamie Henn, the communications director at 350.org, supports a back-to-basics message about the dangers of climate change.
“For years, climate change felt like a distant threat, so environmentalists talked about the more tangible benefits of solar panels, wind turbines and green hard hats. Now that people are really feeling climate impacts — the fires, floods and heatwaves — they're more receptive to hearing about the broader crisis. It feels real,” he said.
“Environmentalists made a mistake when they stopped talking about climate change and started talking about cap-and-trade. There's a moral clarity when talking about the need to save the planet that got lost in debates about market mechanisms,” Henn said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists along with 350.org and several other groups have long discussed concerns about increased drought, heatwaves and other extremes when calling for action on climate change.
But the extent to which the green movement overall crafts its message around the dangers of extreme weather remains to be seen, a senior official with the Sierra Club said.
“There’s an ongoing discussion about that. It is certainly not resolved at all. There is definitely some tension here,” the official said. “No one wants to be the group with the message being that things are going to get more miserable. I don’t think anybody sees that as a winning message frame. But I do think there is an interest in thinking about preventive measures that need to be taken.”
In the near term, the official said there’s an immediate need to help people acutely affected by fires and other effects of the dangerous weather.
“Most groups would say that until people’s lives have been restored, it is not necessarily in good taste to be using that as an opportunity,” the Sierra Club official said.