The debate over how to combat global warming has masked for many Americans the effects that become more apparent every season.
This fire season began with the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned down 346 homes in Colorado Springs. This week Americans saw the scorched earth path of a fire in Queens that burned 110 homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
I reported in 2008 that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were the signal fires of climate change. They were the fires in hindsight that showed conditions had shifted.
Next to them Hurricane Sandy is a satellite network.
The year 1988 was among the hottest on record at the time. The drought across North America was the worst since the 1930s.
In the former Dust Bowl states from Montana to Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, farmers reported dark clouds of dust again as their topsoil blew away. By June 1 alone, the Soil Conservation Service estimated 12 million acres were damaged by wind erosion.
Record temperatures hit cities across the country. American companies sold 4 million air conditioners and could not keep up with demand. Congress held hearings on the greenhouse effect and global warming. They were told by the nation’s top climatologists that it was likely that the climate was changing and that the burning of fossil fuels was the cause. But they weren’t ready to say they were confident it was happening.
A lot has happened since then. The Kyoto agreement called for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases, prompting a backlash for fears of its effects on a world economy dependent on fossil fuels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its 2,500 scientists from around the world concluded with a certainty of more than 90 percent that the earth was getting warmer because of the increased amount of greenhouse gases from decades of fossil fuel burning.
But Al Gore, a polarizing, partisan political figure, made it easy for critics to exploit the fears of the costs of taking action to reduce greenhouse gases. Republicans made global warming denial a part of conservative doctrine.
A Pew study released earlier this month showed views on climate change are increasingly partisan. But the issue doesn't always break the way people think.
Resources for the Future said in a report this month that even though Democratic cap and trade legislation died, the United States is on track to reduce emissions by 16.3% by 2020, nearly the targets mandated by the failed law. The reason is natural gas is replacing coal for electric generation.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney ignored the issue the entire campaign until last week when Obama got a question from MTV. Romney once supported a Republican cap and trade bill.
The same scientists who say that climate change is linked to fossil fuels stuck to their consensus to say that they could not tie the changing climate to individual storms or weather events.
This year the Arctic sea ice mass was the smallest in history, so small that nations are lining up to explore for minerals in areas what had been hidden by ice and snowpack.A view of the melted Arctic from September, left
So it came down to a herald of the American capitalist system to dismiss the scientists’ reticence to link individual storms to the new climate reality. “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” declared the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek.
The article said Hurricane Sandy should bring clarity to the climate change argument. It quotes Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who used a baseball analogy to tie the storm and the science together.
“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who owns the magazine, and is leading the cleanup effort in his city followed the article with an endorsement of Obama because of his views on climate change.
So if the 1988 fires were the signal fire of climate change, Hurricane Sandy may be the loudspeaker. But even if a consensus on what to do about it is not ripe, the nations leaders are going to have to help people adapt to it.