The High Cost of Climate Change Denial

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Sierra Club Blog

The High Cost of Climate Change Denial

Oh, Yes, Keep Turbocharging the Climate -- It's So Cheap Compared to Getting Off Carbon

Not since 1927 has the Mississippi River crested so high for so long. This year has seen more tornadoes than ever before in U.S. history; not since 1925 have so many people died from twisters. The fires last month in Texas were the worst in 90 years, the drought the worst in a century. Ironically, most of the states afflicted by recent weather extremes voted last November to shrink the federal government and drown it in a bathtub -- the extreme weather is hammering Tea Party country. The response was predictable. Texas Governor Rick Perry stopped talking about secession and started asking for federal help, governors in the tornado belt called for Obama to declare them eligible for more aid, and along the Mississippi, the big complaint was that the Corps of Engineers hadn't built enough dikes high enough. States' rights, anyone?

The states facing this fury of hyper-weather are also, for the most part, represented in Congress by die-hards who advocate continuing climate disruption by choking the atmosphere with greenhouse pollution. While some of these folks claim that the whole idea of global warming is a hoax, what they really believe is that while the climate is warming, we should let the future worry about it, because adjusting to new weather patterns is cheaper than giving up our addiction to coal, oil, and carbon waste.

The climate disasters of the past two years alone ought to put that argument to bed for good. Last year we had floods the size of England in Pakistan, drought and heat that burned more than 300,000 acres and destroyed the entire wheat crop in Russia. Observers called it "the Year of Extreme Weather." Now, in the spring of 2011, it's America's turn. The odds that we are having three different "once-in-a-century" weather disasters in the same region in the same month would be incredibly small -- unless, as climate scientists have been warning, these extremes are no longer "once-in-a-century."

The U.S. weather system has now been bulked up by climate pollution like an athlete on steroids, so that it can unleash what were previously very rare hyper-weather events on a regular basis. A warmer climate does not just raise the thermometer; it also stores more energy, which kicks up extreme winds and carries more water vapor to power bigger storms. Just as a pot of sauce gets violent when it boils, we are seeing the weather do the same.

We won't know the full bill for this year's hyper-weather for a while. It's only May, and the rising Mississippi floods themselves may well have far more painful surprises in store as the rains pelt down and the waters move south down the river towards New Orleans. No one knows what this summer will bring.

It's important to note that mismanaging our carbon budget is not the only folly we are paying for. The Mississippi River needs more floodplains, wetlands, and floodways. Its levees should be built further back, not higher. The river is suffering from congested arteries as well as heavy rains. There shouldn't be 300 people in harm's way in the New Madrid floodway; then the Corps could have opened it up earlier, sparing Cairo, Illinois. We need to be smarter about planning for hyper-weather while we also stop encouraging it.

The glib and absurd notion that we can somehow "adapt" easily to climate disruption refuses to die. Climate action cynics like Bjorn Lomborg and the Fox network continue to claim that since any one episode of hyper-weather may not be linked to carbon pollution, we can ignore the overall reality -- a warmer climate means more extreme weather. As you watch the flood waters rise along the Mississippi, remind yourself: extreme weather is not something you should try at home.

Carl Pope

Carl Pope is the chairman of the Sierra Club.

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