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The Commons
Voices / Editorial

Breaking the official silence on climate change

Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).


It would be too facile to say that Hurricane Sandy was Mother Nature’s revenge for the silence of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on climate change during the presidential debates.

But the death and destruction that this massive storm brought to New York City, New Jersey, and the mid-Atlantic states has put climate change front and center.

Opinion polling shows that 70 percent of Americans now believe that the earth’s climate is changing, that human activity is to blame, and that switching to lower-carbon sources of energy is necessity for the nation.

Many Americans were saying so well before Sandy hit. But after a year with massive forest fires in Colorado and New Mexico, record-breaking drought in the Midwest, and now one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the Northeast, the most notable deniers are the oil companies and the politicians who work for them — the very people most needed to address the problem head on.

Despite the false-equivalence of the conservative media, that climate change exists is scientific consensus. And climate-change skeptics, like Richard A. Muller, who once gave a scientific imprimatur to the countervailing theories, has done an about-face, with research funded by the notoriously conservative Koch brothers.

““Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming,” Muller wrote in The New York Times. “Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct.”

“I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause,” Muller wrote.

The scientists will also tell you that you can’t take one weather event and say it was caused by global warming. But they will tell you that the pattern of extreme weather that we are seeing around the world is caused or aggravated by global warming.

The weather data backs this statement, as we’ve seen progressively warmer temperatures over the past two decades.

If anything, climate scientists have been too cautious, because extreme weather events are happening sooner and in greater numbers than first thought.

* * *

Storms like Sandy are becoming the new normal, thanks to the lethal combination of rising sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures. Sandy had a diameter of 900 miles, so even here in southern Vermont, we saw winds that as high as 60 to 70 mph even though we were more than 300 miles away from the Jersey Shore, where the storm made landfall.

And here in Vermont, where many towns are still trying to rebuild from flash flooding caused by last year’s megastorm, Tropical Storm Irene, we breathed a sigh of relief that we didn’t get hit again.

But last year at this time, we were digging out from a Halloween-weekend snowstorm that dropped 1 to 4 feet of snow on New England. And, in the last few years, we’ve seen more heavy rainstorms hit our region than ever before.

Even in Vermont, a place known for weather extremes, it’s unusual to have 90-degree temperatures in late March, followed by heavy frost in April, as we did this year. This combination wiped out 30 to 40 percent of our apple crop. The previous year, we had crop damage from a hard freeze in May.

* * *

The extremes are fast becoming the norm, no matter how hard the climate-science deniers try to spin the facts. And the consequences of these extremes are becoming more deadly.

A recent report from the international humanitarian organization DARA found that 100 million people will die by 2030 if the world fails to tackle climate change. The world’s poorest nations are looking at a future of drought, water shortages, crop failures, disease, and increased poverty, while developed countries will see a drop of 2 to 4 percent in their annual gross domestic products.

For at least two decades, we’ve known that the solution to slowing global warming is reducing fossil-fuel use. We haven’t, and the consequences of two decades of inaction can be seen all around us.

The choice that now confronts the world is a simple one.

Continue on our present path and see a planet where deadly floods, droughts, and superstorms occur regularly. Or work to make increased energy efficiency and increased use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, the foundation of a cleaner, greener future.

It’s time for the official silence about climate change to end, and time for our leaders to treat it appropriately: as the looming threat to our nation’s and world’s health, wealth, and stability.

How many more Hurricane Sandys and Tropical Storm Irenes will it take for that to happen?


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