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A Week of Extremes, Climate Action Hotline 9.12.11

US Climate Action Network

September 12, 2011

A Week of Extremes

There was a lot of prime time political drama on television this week, kicked off by the Republican presidential candidate debate on Wednesday.  Republican candidates wasted no time to attack President Obama for failing to create green jobs, while at the same time distancing themselves from earlier-made claims last week that gasoline prices would drop suddenly under a GOP administration.

Only one candidate stood out from the line of denialists on stage: former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who stood up for science integrity and climate research.  He warned voters against electing any Republican who ignores scientific principles: “When you make comments that fly in the face of 98 out of 100 climate scientists, to call into question the science of evolution, all I am saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science,” Huntsman said. “By making comments that basically don’t reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.”  Mitt Romney jumped on the opportunity to distance himself from his previous support of regional cap-and-trade programs. “He keeps talking about green jobs. Where are they?”  Romney said.  USCAN member League of Conservation Voters (LCV) sent out an e-mail pointing to a report by the Brookings Institution that found the U.S. clean energy economy currently employs 2.7 million people, no insignificant number in the midst of the country’s current economic recession. To read more click here.

The majority of candidates on stage that night, however, stood by statements of denial and disbelief, maintaining they do not believe humans contribute to the warming of the planet.  So, are they representing their constituents or toeing the party line?  Research points to the latter.  A new survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that the bulk of right-wing climate stems from a small number of conservatives.  Respondents in this poll were broken up into Democrats, Republicans, independents, and self-described Tea Partiers.  Tea Party types make up a mere 12 percent of the country, yet tend to be the most outspoken global-warming deniers.  From the report: “Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening.  In contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening and 53 percent say it is not happening.”  Perhaps most notable is that although these minority views directly conflict with the vast majority of climate scientists, Tea Partiers are the most confident in their beliefs when questioned – more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.”

While President Obama’s headlining jobs speech on Thursday spent little time focusing on green jobs, he did take the opportunity to take Congress to task for continuing to provide significant tax breaks for prosperous oil companies.  “We can reduce this deficit, pay down our debt and pay for this jobs plan in the process, but in order to do this, we have to decide what our priorities are,” Obama said. “Should we keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Or should we use that money to give small business owners a tax credit when they hire new workers? Because we can’t afford to do both.” The president also sought to reassure environmental groups after a devastating decision last week to withdraw a controversial U.S. EPA ozone rule.  He emphasized that the pronouncement was not part of some larger retreat on environmental and health regulations.  While this may come as welcome sentiment, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) knows better than to let her guard down: “We’re not in a battle about one or two regulations, we’re in a battle that involves the House wanting to essentially repeal health and safety rules, health and safety laws, protection of the people.”  What is clear is that no matter which direction the battle comes from, the target is the same: the Environmental Protection Agency.

Political and ideological debates were not the only extremes apparent in this week’s news.  Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported on a group of scientists who just completed several years’ worth of climate research, uncovering data that confirms human-generated global warming previously only predicted by computer models.  The research was generated from pole-to-pole flights and to date, offers the most comprehensive look yet at atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation, a warming planet and the chains of effects on climate.  While the data will take years of thorough analysis, the project’s chief investigator, Steven Wofsy, a professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at Harvard University, offered a first impression on human-induced climate change. “It certainly doesn’t make me feel more relaxed… It confirms a concern that’s been raised about the removal of ice from the arctic,” Wofsy said. “It does look to be significant, and that’s a new result there.”  One significant take away from this research is the visual confirmation of a “feedback” mechanism: in which one phenomenon has a multiplier effect on the contents of Earth’s atmosphere.

Texas candidate Rick Perry wasn’t the only thing on fire this week.  We saw catastrophic images of a new wildfire burning around the Austin, destroying approximately 800 homes.  Hotline has reported on the Texas drought several times this year, but the statistics keeps getting worse. The Lone Star State is experiencing the hottest and driest summer ever recorded, with many localities smashing all-time records by very wide margins.  On Thursday, Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon announced that not only was this was the hottest summer and worst one-year drought on record for Texas, but that based on preliminary data, it is the hottest summer ever recorded for any US state.  Not enough superlatives for you? The deadly combination of heat and dry land has produced the worst year for Texas wildfires in over a decade.  Approximately 3.6 million acres have burned so far this year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

Sadly, this is a trend scientists are observing everywhere.  Two major studies published earlier this year in the journal Nature demonstrate the direct links between extreme weather and climate change.  One focused on the catastrophic flooding in the UK in 20001, the other on the late-twentieth-century increase in intense rainfall across the entire Northern Hemisphere2.  As research continues to build upon itself, scientific certainty grows stronger and stronger.  “My thinking has evolved,” says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Thanks to advances in statistical tools, climate models and computer power, “attribution of extremes is hard — but it is not impossible”, Schmidt says.

These developments have led climate researchers in the United States and Britain to form a coalition called Attribution of Climate-related Events (ACE).  Over the last year, participants have begun a series of coordinated studies designed to lay the foundations for a systematic weather-attribution program with hopes of creating an international system to assess the changing climate’s influence on weather events as soon as they happen or as predictions, with results being announced on the daily.  The state goal of the ACE group is to observe and measure ‘fractional attribution’ of extreme events and calculate how much each event was influenced by anthropogenic greenhouse warming versus how much by natural cycles.  It is well understood that reliable, predictable attribution of extreme weather events is vital for public understanding of climate change and, perhaps more importantly, to their willingness to support measures to mitigating policies.

Written by Kellyn Eberhardt, Southeast Regional Coordinator

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“Small global average temperature rises lead to big changes in extreme weather. As a result, we’re now seeing extreme heat events that were once rare occurring more frequently. Continued emissions of heat-trapping gases will lead to even more frequent and intense heat extremes.”

– Jerry Meehl, Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.