The summer of 2012 has come to a close, but it won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It delivered one extreme weather event after another, from heat waves to freak storms, wildfires to drought. People lost their homes and livelihoods, yet even as they try to pick up the pieces, more powerful weather systems are looming on the horizon.
Extreme weather is a hallmark of climate change. Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other leading groups confirm that climate change is contributing to the frequency and power of 2012’s weather events. Climate change creates stronger storms, including hurricanes like Isaac, and more potent heat and drought.
Climate change used to seem remote to many people. But this summer, we just had to look out the window or turn on the Weather Channel to see what global warming is doing to our communities.
It started with extreme heat. Rising temperatures made June the smoggiest month in five years—making it hard for people with asthma and other respiratory problems to breathe. As many as 131 million Americans were under some form of heat advisory as temperatures spiked in communities from Brownsville to New York. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July was the hottest month since record keeping began nearly 120 years ago. It was hotter even than the previous high during the Dust Bowl.
The heat fueled one of the worst droughts in more than 50 years. The National Weather Service’s Drought Monitor said more than half the country was suffering from drought conditions and nearly 1,300 counties have been designated disaster areas as a result.
The drought has been especially hard on those who make a living from the land. “If no significant rain comes, I will have to go out of business,” explained rancher Karen Harrelson. “I just don’t have any grass and won’t be able to afford the hay prices.” She already had to sell 100 of her 250 herd of cattle. Farmers, meanwhile, are plowing under their crops. The U.S. Agriculture Department has cut its forecast for corn and soybean harvest twice this summer. Just months ago, experts expected to see the largest harvest in more than 70 years, but now the Corn Belt could produce yields 25 percent lower than normal.
The intense heat and dry conditions contributed to the wildfires that raged across Western states. In Colorado, more than 600 homes were consumed and nearly $450 million in damages were caused by fires, according to estimates from the insurance industry. Last year, New Mexico tackled the largest fires in its history—until this year’s Gila fire grew even bigger, devouring hundreds of square miles of forest and prompting smoke advisories to be issued from Albuquerque to Carrizozo to Roswell. Fires are an inevitable, and necessary, part of most forests' life cycle. But increasingly they threaten homes and communities, and scientists say that’s just a preview of what climate change is bringing us.
While some parts of the nation were dealing with drought and fire, others were being pummeled by storms. A freak wind system known as a derecho left 23 dead and 1.4 million people without power from Illinois to Virginia. Another potent storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain in Minnesota and in Wisconsin, flooding homes, breaking records, and prompting a polar bear to escape from a swamped Lake Superior Zoo.
All these storms, heat waves, droughts, and fires are not one-off events, but a pattern of increasingly extreme weather that is exactly what global warming models have predicted. We can’t defuse this growing threat by denying its existence, but we can reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change. And we can start by expanding clean energy resources like wind and solar. Roughly 35 percent of all new power generated in America in the past four years has come from wind energy. This is a good start, but several lawmakers want to kill one of the key incentives for this growth: the Production Tax Credit. Our leaders must extend this incentive and promote policies to ramp up clean energy and energy efficiency.
We must also cut carbon pollution from dirty fossil fuels. Last Tuesday, the Obama Administration finalized clean car standards that will cut vehicle carbon pollution in half. In March, the administration set carbon limits for new power plants. Now it should set limits for existing power plants as well.
These measures will help America reduce carbon pollution and stabilize the climate. If we act now, summer will once again become a welcome reprieve in our lives instead of a season of deadly weather.