A year of extreme weather — and little climate change talk

October 30, 2012

So far this year we've seen:


Probably nothing to worry about. (AP)

— The first nine months of 2012 have been the hottest in the United States on record. (Globally, this has been the eighth-warmest year on record.)

— The U.S. wildfire season this year was the second-largest by area since records began in the 1960s, topped only by 2006. In Colorado, 600 homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire.

— The biggest drought in half a century parched the Midwestern United States, sent food prices climbing and knocked 0.4 percentage points off third quarter GDP growth.

— The Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest extent on record over the summer.

— A massive hurricane, fueled in part by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures, just put large swaths of New York City and New Jersey underwater.

The record temperatures and melting Arctic have been linked to the fact that humans are warming the planet. By contrast, it's harder for scientists to say anything definitive about a single drought or wildfire or hurricane. But climatologists can say a few things with a fair bit of confidence. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases at our current rate, droughts will likely become more severe and longer-lasting. Wildfires in the Western United States will flare up more frequently. Sea levels will rise, making storm surges more devastating in places like New York City.

Or, as Jonathan Overpeck put it this summer: "This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. ... This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about."

So all these extreme events would seem like good opportunities for the two presidential candidates to talk about climate change, right? At least mention that maybe we should think about the issue? Nope. Instead we've seen:

— The subject didn't come up once in the three presidential debates. President Obama later said he was "surprised" by the omission, though we're not aware of any rules that prevented him from bringing up the topic himself.

— In a major shift from 2008, the Republican party platform no longer even mentions climate change — expect to criticize the Pentagon for "elevat[ing] ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.”

— Even the Democratic party platform is quieter about global warming than it was last time around, although there's at least some discussion.

Now, there's plenty of disagreement about how best to deal with rising carbon emissions. But the two parties aren't even at that stage. They're not talking about the climate at all, even as nature keeps dishing out reminder after costly reminder.

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Sarah Kliff | October 30, 2012