It’s a good thing I remembered where I stored all my old ski gear, including the thermal underwear that I hadn’t worn in years. I’ve needed it during a season in which even the Deep South has seen an epidemic of frozen pipes, single-digit temperatures and school cancelations without snow. Schoolkids were allowed to stay home for a day or two because, according to administrators, the weather was too doggone cold.
The deep freeze might have forced most of us into a shoulder-hunching slouch, but it prompted an Easter Parade-like promenade by a crew of familiar climate-change skeptics, who trotted out their usual arguments: See, we told you so. They’re making it all up. The planet isn’t getting warmer.
Because the Northeast corridor has suffered through severe winters of late, the backlash has become a ritual. But it’s nothing more than posturing, akin to positing today that the Earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. Climate change is real — a serious threat to the economy, to the food supply, to the ecosystem.
“This time of year, people will take a cold spell and try to say, ‘We told you climate change is not real,'” said Dr. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and head of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. But, he added, “We’ll still have winter in the year 2080, when the climate is likely to be much warmer.”
Shepherd, a former NASA climate scientist, likes to explain the cold spurts to laymen with the following analogy: “Weather is your mood, but climate is your personality. Just because you’re in a bad mood today doesn’t mean that’s your entire personality.”
On the fact of a warming planet, the scientific consensus is clear: It is. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2013 ties with 2003 as the fourth-warmest year for the planet since records started being kept in 1880. Indeed, 2013 was the 37th consecutive year that global temperatures have been above average. And 9 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in this century.
The consequences could be catastrophic. While scientists disagree about some of them, there is broad agreement about drought, heat waves and rising sea levels.
Currently, a “mega-drought” — 13 years long and counting — is afflicting the western United States, disrupting agriculture, destroying forest habitat and sparking fights over water supply. While climate scientists are reluctant to blame any one drought on climate change, they predict that droughts will become more commonplace.
Then there was Superstorm Sandy, which was so damaging because of extensive flooding along the coasts of New York and New Jersey — the result of sea levels that are higher than they used to be. One of Shepherd’s doctoral students will soon publish a paper showing an increase in extreme weather events, tied to climate change, in and around Atlanta, he said.
Even if conservative politicians refuse to concede the evidence for climate change, insurance companies have already done so. Last year, Peter Hoeppe, who heads Geo Risks Research at a huge reinsurance firm called Munich Re, told The New York Times: “Numerous studies assume a rise in summer drought periods in North America in the future and an increasing probability of severe cyclones relatively far north along the U.S. East Coast in the long term. The rise in sea level caused by climate change will further increase the risk of storm surge.”
The vast majority of Americans accept the evidence — 67 percent, according to the Pew Research Center — but that masks a deeper divide within the Republican Party. Only 23 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents believe that global warming is caused by human activity, while 19 percent say the warming is due to natural patterns. Another 20 percent say they want more evidence, while 25 percent say they don’t believe the planet is warming at all — a belief that is especially popular among Tea Partiers.
Their certainty is cold comfort.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)
AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand