Evidence supporting the existence of climate change is pummeling the United States this summer, from the mountain wildfires of Colorado to the recent “derecho” storm that left at least 23 dead and 1.4 million people without power from Illinois to Virginia. The phrase “extreme weather” flashes across television screens from coast to coast, but its connection to climate change is consistently ignored, if not outright mocked. If our news media, including—or especially—the meteorologists, continue to ignore the essential link between extreme weather and climate change, then we as a nation, the greatest per capita polluters on the planet, may not act in time to avert even greater catastrophe.
More than 2,000 heat records were broken last week around the U.S. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that tracks the data, reported that the spring of 2012 “marked the largest temperature departure from average of any season on record for the contiguous United States.” These record temperatures in May, NOAA says, “have been so dramatically different that they establish a new ‘neighborhood’ apart from the historical year-to-date temperatures.”
In Colorado, at least seven major wildfires are burning at the time of this writing. The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs destroyed 347 homes and killed at least two people. The High Park fire farther north burned 259 homes and killed one. While officially “contained” now, that fire won’t go out, according to Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management, until an “act of nature such as prolonged rain or snowfall.” The “derecho” storm system is another example. “Derecho” is Spanish for “straight ahead,” and that is what the storm did, forming near Chicago and blasting east, leaving a trail of death, destruction and downed power lines.
Add drought to fire and violent thunderstorms. According to Dr. Jeff Masters, one of the few meteorologists who frequently makes the connection between extreme weather and climate change, “across the entire Continental U.S., 72 percent of the land area was classified as being in dry or drought conditions” last week. “We’re going to be seeing a lot more weather like this, a lot more impacts like we’re seeing from this series of heat waves, fires and storms. ... This is just the beginning."
Fortunately, we might be seeing a lot more of Jeff Masters, too. He was a co-founder of the popular weather website Weather Underground in 1995. Just this week he announced that the site had been purchased by The Weather Channel, perhaps the largest single purveyor of extreme weather reports. Masters promises the same focus on his blog, which he hopes will reach the much larger Weather Channel audience. He and others are needed to counter the drumbeat denial of the significance of human-induced climate change, of the sort delivered by CNN’s charismatic weatherman Rob Marciano. In 2007, a British judge was considering banning Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” from schools in England. After the report, Marciano said on CNN, “Finally. Finally ... you know, the Oscars, they give out awards for fictional films, as well. ... Global warming does not conclusively cause stronger hurricanes like we’ve seen.” Masters responded to that characteristic clip by telling me, “Our TV meteorologists are missing a big opportunity here to educate and tell the population what is likely to happen.”
Beyond the borders of wealthy countries like the United States, in developing countries where most people in the world live, the impacts of climate change are much more deadly, from the growing desertification of Africa to the threats of rising sea levels and the submersion of small island nations.
The U.S. news media have a critical role to play in educating the public about climate change. Imagine if just half the times that they flash “Extreme Weather” across our TV screens, they alternated with “Global Warming.” This Independence Day holiday week might just be the beginning of people demanding the push to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and pursue a sane course toward sustainable energy independence.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.