A meteorological Pearl Harbor

Hurricane Irene was one of many weather events that should be waking us up to the danger of climate change.
Hurricane Irene was one of many weather events that should be waking us up to the danger of climate change. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Posted: August 31, 2011

By Mark Reynolds

As the Cowardly Lion says in The Wizard of Oz, "Unusual weather we're having, ain't it?"

It has been unusual to say the least.

Most of the Philadelphia area breathed a sigh of relief this week after Hurricane Irene did not wreak the havoc many forecasters had anticipated. Had Irene hit the densely populated Northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, the destruction would have been biblical. As it stood Wednesday, the storm was "only" responsible for about 40 deaths, estimated damage of at least $7 billion, and power outages affecting millions, as well as turning much of Vermont into a lake.

Irene continued a trend of extreme-weather disasters that have devastated much of the country this year: killer tornadoes in the South and Midwest, record flooding along the Mississippi River, wildfires charring millions of acres in Arizona, severe drought throughout Texas, and intolerable heat waves from Minnesota to Massachusetts.

There is definitely something in the air, and that something is excessive carbon dioxide, which causes the atmosphere to retain more heat. It has been piling up since we began burning coal at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and it shifted into high gear with the advent of motor vehicles.

Are higher temperatures the sole cause of tornadoes, droughts, and hurricanes? Of course not. These phenomena are as old as the Earth itself. But heating up the planet has "juiced" our weather, making heat waves hotter and longer, and storms more violent and numerous. Juiced is an apt word, because warmer air holds more water, producing heavier rainfall and more floods.

Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is emphatic about the connection between climate change and recent disasters: "Given that global warming is unequivocal," he said, the assumption should be "that all weather events are affected by global warming, rather than the inane statements along the lines of 'of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to global warming.' "

While few Vermonters anticipated having to pump out their basements this week, the New England flooding bears out a pattern that climate scientists have followed. Last year, Thomas Knutson, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published a paper titled "Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change." Knutson and his team found that "projections ... consistently indicate that greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift toward stronger storms." They expected "substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones" and in associated rainfall.

The volatility we are seeing is at a time when average global temperatures have risen by 1 degree Fahrenheit. Scientists expect current trends to boost temperatures by 4 to 5 degrees by the end of the century. As environmental activist Bill McKibben put it, "If 1 degree does the damage we're seeing at the moment, we'd be fools to find out what 4 degrees will look like."

Earlier this year, the National Research Council urged policymakers to impose "a comprehensive, nationally uniform price on CO2 emissions ... sufficient to drive major investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies." Unfortunately, that advice falls on deaf ears in Congress. Cowed by a fanatical antiscience faction, many members are afraid even to talk about climate change, let alone address it.

There is also a fear that putting a price on carbon would hinder our struggling economy. But a carbon fee could actually stimulate job growth in emerging energy technologies. A recent Brookings Institution study shows that sector has grown rapidly over the past seven years, producing jobs that pay 20 percent more than the national average. A price on carbon would move massive amounts of private investment into the sector without public spending.

But job creation, important as it is, is not the most important reason to price carbon. The disasters we're seeing should be a "Pearl Harbor moment" on the issue of climate change - a call to action to preserve a livable world. It's time for the nation to declare war on carbon dioxide.

Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens Climate Lobby.

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