Climate change produces a summer of extreme weather

The effects on Western forests are alarming. A new study helps explain why the scientific facts of climate change are taking so long in moving the minds of Republicans.

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The Colville National Forest: Is there enough to go around?

The effects on Western forests are alarming. A new study helps explain why the scientific facts of climate change are taking so long in moving the minds of Republicans.

Friends who live in Steamboat Springs, Colorado recently complained that pine bark beetles were bringing devastation to the forests around Steamboat Springs and throughout the Rocky Mountain West. According to recent reports, Colorado and Wyoming have lost 3.5 million acres of mountain forest to the bark beetle, with up to 100,000 trees on average falling every day.

As bad as the problem is, scientists with the US Forest Service say the problem is likely to get even worse in coming decades as coniferous forests adjust to climate change. Warmer winters allow the beetles to survive and multiply.
Like a canary in a coalmine, the bark beetles are just one of the many early warning signs of accelerating global climate change. Climate change is here. It is affecting us now, in numerous ways, both seen and unseen. Even those who deny the reality of climate change are having trouble denying the accumulating evidence that something is going terribly wrong with our natural world.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2010 was the hottest year in the hottest decade ever recorded. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Apocalyptic floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water.

This year, things have not improved. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornados have roared across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. Historic flooding has plagued communities all along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The largest wildfires in memory razed hundreds of thousands of acres in Arizona and New Mexico. Parts of Texas are in the worst drought in more than a century as heat waves plague large swathes of North America.

The U.S. Weather Service just announced that July was the hottest month in Washington, D.C. since record keeping began in 1872. People may blame this on hot air from Congress, but the mercury has been rising from coast to coast. In early August, 18 states had temperatures over 100 degrees. Dallas reported 35 straight days of 100 degree heat. The sustained high temperatures and drought have turned parts of the Southwest and Great Plains into a parched landscape of cracked earth.

Wherever you look around the globe, communities are reporting extreme weather events of unparalleled scope and severity: the hottest temperatures, the most severe droughts, the biggest mudslides, the worst wildfires, the longest heat waves, etc.

Scientists have been saying for years that as the planet heats up, we will have to deal with more severe weather. While we can’t attribute any particular heat wave or tornado to global warming, the trends are clear: global warming loads the atmospheric deck to deal out heat waves and intense storms more often. Jay Gulledge, director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center, says that “climate change is a risk factor for extreme weather just as eating salty food is a risk factor for heart disease.”

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus and mounting evidence all around us, why are so many elected officials unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat that demands immediate attention? One theory is that climate change is now “part and parcel” of America’s “culture wars.” Similar to abortion, gay rights, school prayer, and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan political issue.

This might explain why earlier this summer, House Republicans pushed legislation to overturn a 2007 law, signed by President George W. Bush, that would gradually phase out old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs in favor of new energy efficient bulbs. “Having to buy energy efficient bulbs is an affront to personal freedom,” they said. Never mind the fact that the average homeowner would save almost $90 a year by switching to the energy saving bulbs, and also never mind that the law, once fully implemented, would eliminate the need for 33 large power plants, according to one estimate.

A Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year found that a majority of Americans support the energy efficiency bulb law and that most Americans have already switched to more energy efficient bulbs. So what else explains why some politicians’ views on climate change are so out of sync with our scientific community — or for that matter, with the rest of the world? A cynic might say that fossil fuel interests, like coal companies, have used the tobacco industry’s playbook: disinformation, high priced lobbyists and their own so-called “experts” to confuse the public and delay action.

However a new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sociological Quarterly suggests another reason. It finds that “conservatives’ failure to acknowledge the real threat of climate change has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts.”

Conservatives believe in small government, reduced spending, and a go-it-alone foreign policy. But solving climate change will undoubtly require robust government, increased expenditures, and a great degree of international cooperation. People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs. Science and logic are a lost cause in the face of ideological rigidity. To accept climate change is to question the wisdom of some people’s core beliefs.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently said, “I believe the world is getting warmer and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” He went on to say, “It is important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.” While Romney’s statement wasn’t the least bit radical or controversial, some conservative commentators called it “political suicide.”

Hopefully, like Nixon going to China, thoughtful conservatives will eventually embrace what has become abundantly clear: our climate is changing and we ignore it at our peril.

This story comes to Crosscut by way of, a service focused on issues of metropolitan regions.


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