In the June 6 issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes in her article “Are You Ready for More?” that we are not ready for the extreme-weather events that have happened and will continue to happen.
“Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year,” she writes. She recounts that evidence: nearly 1,000 tornadoes in the United States have killed more than 500 people and caused $9 billion in damage; the wettest April in the Midwest in 116 years; the driest month in a century in drought-plagued Texas. Meanwhile, the 2010 heat wave in Russia killed about 15,000 people, while floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000. A months-long drought in China devastated millions of acres of farmland, and 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.
“The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone,” she writes, and “we are not prepared.”
Although it’s beginning to dawn on civic leaders across the United States that they’ll need to help their communities face coming dangers, “from disappearing islands in Chesapeake Bay to dust bowls in the Plains and horrific hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico,” only 14 states are even planning climate-change adaptation.
They’ll have to work quickly because too much time was lost to inaction. “The Bush administration was a disaster, but the Obama administration has accomplished next to nothing either, in part because a significant part of the Democratic Party is inclined to balk on this issue as well,” says economist Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, says that the Bush administration did not want to talk about climate change, let alone adaptation to it. In fact, President Bush killed what author Mark Hertsgaard in the 2011 book Hot calls “a key adaptation tool,” the National Climate Assessment, an analysis of the vulnerabilities in U.S. regions and ideas for coping with them. “There are no adaptation experts in the federal government, let alone states or cities,” says Arroyo. “They’ve just been commandeered from other departments.”
Begley explains that the impacts of climate change are complex. “The burning of fossil fuels has raised atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide by 40 percent above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The added heat in the atmosphere retains more moisture, ratchets up the energy in the system and incites more violent and extreme weather.”
While scientists disagree about whether climate change will bring more intense or frequent tornadoes, Begley writes, “there is wide consensus that the 2 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming of the last century is behind the rise in sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more heat waves and more droughts and deluges.”
“You can no longer say that the climate of the future is going to be like the climate of today, let alone yesterday,” says Judi Greenwald, vice president of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
While other countries work to adapt to climate, America resists. Why? Sachs points to the lobbying power of industries that resist acknowledgment of climate change’s impact. “The airwaves are filled with corporate-financed climate misinformation,” Sachs says.
Time is getting short, and the stakes are high. Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University, says, “Not to adapt is to consign millions of people to death and disruption.”