Sterling Miller - November 02, 2012
National Wildlife Federation
Who Are You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Lying Eyes?
Recent polling data indicate that an increasing proportion of Americans believe that the climate is warming and that humans are the cause. This reminds me of an old joke, which I’ll repeat here in a somewhat sanitized version.
A man decides to pay an unexpected visit on his girlfriend, but when he arrives at her apartment, he finds her being embraced by his best friend. Shocked to the core, the man demands that his friend explain himself and his friend says, “I’d never put any moves on your girlfriend because I value our friendship too much.” The man replies, “but I saw you embracing my girlfriend when I walked in.” His friend replies, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Unfortunately, the evidence that the climate is warming is now too obvious to ignore and the costs involved in our having ignored it for so long are now becoming obvious as the bills are starting to become due.
This week a record-breaking massive hurricane hit our east coast. The initial cost estimates for the damage range from 20 to 50 billion dollars, that’s Billion with a “B”. More than 70 people died. Many millions had their lives seriously or irreparably disrupted, and saw their life savings evaporate in a windy and watery instant. It is impossible to attribute any individual storm to global warming, but it is equally impossible to not recognize that the pattern of extreme weather events and the frequency of them is exactly what climate scientists have been predicting for decades would be the consequence of global warming.
According to NOAA, the most recent January-September period was the warmest first nine months of any year on record for the contiguous US. The national temperature was 3.8 degrees F above the 20th Century Average and 1.2 degrees F above the previous record for this period that was set in 2006. In the US, 46 states had temperatures among their 10 warmest with 25 states setting records. In terms of drought, this 9-month period was the 11th driest such period on record with a percipitation total almost 2 inches below the average of 22.7 inches. The entire central portion of the US, from the Ohio Valley to the Rocky Mountains, was drier than average.
We saw it here in Montana during the last decade of drought that included a record-setting 41 days without precipitation here in Missoula this summer. Although drought in the western US seems far away from the polar ice cap, in our increasingly small world, the relationship exists. The inescapable trend is for less and less arctic ice that reflects the sun’s heat and more open dark water that absorbs the sun’s heat. This is tragic for polar bears and other creatures that depend on the ice, but studies show that these conditions in the remote Arctic also increase the likelihood of drought in the western US. Similarly, a blocking high pressure system off Greenland deflected the northerly direction of Hurricane Sandy and directed it right toward New York and our whole eastern seaboard. As the northerly oceans warm, these kinds of blocking weather systems will become larger and stronger, and influence our US weather patterns even more.
There is no place left to hide from the impacts of climate change, although some places will be affected more than others. Coastal areas are in particular danger. Water levels around New York are already about a foot higher than they were 100 years ago; this is a consequence of the existing sea water expanding as it warms and the addition of more water from the melting of glaciers and ice caps. The Atlantic Ocean is now about 2 degrees warmer on average than it was a century ago according to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University.
These facts are beginning to sink in to the American people as a growing number of Americans believe that global warming is real. The number of people that believe in global warming has increased by 13% during the last 2.5 years, from 57% in January 2010 to 70% in September 2012. There has been a corresponding drop of 8 percentage points in the number of Americans who say global warming is not happening during the same period; this number is now down to 12%. There has been a parallel increase in the number of Americans who believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, although this number now is only up to 54%. This gap is perhaps understandable in the context of the joke I started this commentary with; it is easier for the man who finds his girlfriend in the arms of another to believe what he sees than to understand why it happened.
Polls last September indicated that only 40% of Americans believe that global warming is already harming people both at home and abroad. However, 57% of Americans perceive global warming as a growing threat to people in the US. This number is up 11 points since last March, probably because of the droughts and fires this year. After Hurricane Sandy, look for this number to jump dramatically the next time this poll is taken as the news media has done better than it has heretofore at making the link between extreme weather events like Sandy and global warming.
Just before the elections next week, it is pertinent to report that more and more people say that the record heat waves last summer strengthened their beliefs that global warming is occurring. This suggests that people are starting to believe evidence they are seeing with their own eyes. Let’s hope that our politicians can, and will, respond to this shift in the public perception and start to ignore the big money interests trying to convince them that the science can’t be trusted. People seem to be waking up to what can, and can’t, be trusted.
Don’t forget to vote next Tuesday or, better yet, vote early by absentee ballot; there are probably lots of people in the path of Hurricane Sandy who now wish they’d voted earlier.
You can see this commentary and access the supporting data on the Montana Public Radio website, www.mtpr.org. This is Sterling Miller for the National Wildlife Federation.
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