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Extreme Weather: Preview or Feature, No One Wants to See the Full Climate Change Show

A satellite image from June 22. Red means warm, blue means cold.With 2012 being another year of violent storms, wildfires, floods and extreme heat, we can argue whether this is a preview or the main feature, but no one wants to see the full climate change show. Some still debate whether a specific extreme weather event is due to climate change, but what is clear is that these kinds of events are our future if we don’t change direction.

Last week, my family and millions of others lost electricity for days during a period of 100+ degree temperatures. The past week’s extreme heat was coupled with power outages and damage to homes along a 700 mile swath of destruction from a band of “super derecho” violent thunderstorms that cut trees in half. People in the D.C. region are now seriously debating spending tens of billions of dollars on putting power lines underground. That is one of many un-anticipated costs of climate change.

We are very exposed as a country. The violent storms and extreme heat show how exposed we are, as do the many instances of coastal flooding, flashfloods, droughts and wildfires. We like having big trees in our yards. We like living on the shorelines, in the deserts and on the mountains. But how much longer can we live in places where we are prone to floods, fires, and extreme heat? And where will it be safe if we allow climate change to continue?

We can pretend that ice doesn’t melt when it is hot. The North Carolina legislature tried this with a bill to force sea level rise forecasts to be based on past patterns instead of on forward-looking projections using climate change data. They met with disbelief that any leader could think that ignoring a problem would make it go away. With the US Geological Survey determining that the mid-Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts is a ‘hot-spot’ with sea levels already having risen 3-4 times faster than the global average over the last two decades, coastal communities are having serious conversations about what this means for their future.

Modern society is based on trust. For example, airlines have to be safe or people won’t fly. Banks and the financial system need to be safe or people won’t invest. Our energy choices also need to be trustworthy.  I can’t think of anything worse that taking away people’s trust when it comes to their safety in their homes and daily lives. Yet we are on a business as usual path that depends on fossil fuels and does not do enough to curb climate change pollution.

To fight climate change, we need government leadership. As individuals, there is a limit to what we can do in our own lives, but we can and should call for government action and ask our leaders to stand up to those who would deny climate change or undermine efforts to move forward with clean energy. We can ask for limits to climate change pollution, acceleration of cleaner forms of energy and a halt to the expansion of dirtier fuels such as tar sands oil.

Indeed we need this call for government backbone now more than ever.  We see the fossil fuel industry pouring millions into defending business as usual. We see them actively undermining the clean energy industry with attacks on wind and solar power such as attempts documented in a Guardian newspaper uncovered confidential memo from conservative think tanks to create false anti-wind “citizen” groups. We see the fossil fuel industry wasting taxpayer money in challenging efforts to curb climate change pollution. Most recently, in the face of these attacks, a court decision was necessary to uphold EPA’s right to regulate climate change pollution and enact clean car standards.

Americans are innovative and resourceful and we can lead in a way that makes economic and environmental sense. Fuel efficiency standards have already done a lot to reduce our use of oil. But we need more. We need strong climate change pollution limits on existing and new power plants. We need to end fossil fuel subsidies. We need to stop expansion of dirty, expensive sources of oil such as tar sands and tar sands pipelines such as the Keystone XL. Instead we need to reduce our use of oil with better public transportation. We need to switch our grid to solar and wind and electrify our cars with these cleaner forms of energy.

People across the country know that the frequency and extremity of the storms, fires and heat of recent days are not the norm of the past but that with climate change they will be the norm of the future. With strong leadership, we can curb climate change pollution and reduce our use of fossil fuels. We can be a leader for similar actions around the world. That would be a show I was willing to see.