Commentary: Droughts and those climate-change deniers

The Rock Hill HeraldAugust 24, 2012 

As Mark Twain used to say, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.” Ironically, if we want to continue living on this planet, we might finally have to do something about the weather.

Are there any climate-change deniers still willing to claim that mankind has no effect on the weather? I’m sure there are some who are so wedded to the idea that climate change is a conspiracy of kooks and tree-huggers bent on destroying the economy that they never will accept the idea that global warming is a real threat.

But the facts and, perhaps more importantly, the evidence before our eyes, keep confounding the doubters. It might still be possible to believe that climate change is a hoax, but it’s getting harder every day as the current drought continues.

Climate scientists have long felt duty-bound to explain that attributing any single extreme weather event to global warming or other long-term change in climate conditions is anti-scientific and essentially impossible to prove. There adherence to real science prevented them from pointing at the rising temperature gauges on a hot summer day and shouting: “See, I told you. Global warming did that!”

The deniers generally don’t play by the same rules. They feel no compunction about pointing to a winter deep freeze in Moscow and shouting: “See, I told you. If global warming is real, why is it so cold in Russia?”

What the average person has had to accept is that we have been largely incapable of determining the validity of theories about global warming by ourselves or by our own observations. We have had to rely on the consensus of genuine scientists who tell us that, yes, human-caused climate change is real.

But the narrative might be changing. Finally – and perhaps too late – we might now be able to see climate change with our own eyes.

The worst U.S. drought in 50 years may be easing slightly in some areas, but the damage to American agriculture has been devastating. Reuters reports that the drought has affected 87 percent of the U.S. corn crop, 85 percent of soybeans, 63 percent of hay and 72 percent of cattle.

The drought actually is intensifying in Oklahoma, Kansas, western Nebraska and western Missouri, according to climatologists. No drought-busting rainfall is on the horizon.

The scariest thing is, this drought might represent the new normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported that July was the fourth-warmest July since scientists began keeping records in 1880. It also was the 329th straight month in which temperatures exceeded the 20th century average.

The last below-average July temperature was July 1976. The last below-average temperature for any month was February 1985.

The first seven months of 2012 were among the top-10 warmest on record. In addition to July, April, May and June also ranked among the top-five warmest ever recorded.

James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and his colleagues recently published a paper tying brutal heat waves over the past decade directly to climate change. Hansen also believes data will show that climate change was the cause of this year’s record-breaking summer heat.

Hansen states in his paper: “Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

Hansen notes that extremely hot conditions affected only about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the globe from 1950 to 1980. Over the past 30 years, with the increase in average temperatures, the extremes now cover about 10 percent of the globe.

While this is a frightening development that will directly and indirectly cause the deaths of thousands of people around the world, it might help persuade skeptics that man-made climate change is real. If we can see it, maybe more of us will believe it.

And Hansen has one bit of good news: There still may be time to take action to reverse the trend. Mark Twain notwithstanding, we need to quit talking about the weather and do something about it.

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