Washington’s Hell Week puts climate change back on the radar

Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 6, 2012

Wildfires? Record thunderstorms? Blast furnace heat? An earthquake, even?

Bring it on!

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

At least that’s what one group of folks is thinking, even if they don’t voice it quite so crassly.

“We don’t want to do it in an I-told-you-so kind of way,” demurs John Topping, who is the president of the Washington-based Climate Institute.

But see, people! This is what all the global-warming Paul Reveres have been shouting about.

Now some are finally paying attention, at least in the Washington region.

“Granted, we’ve only lived in the area for 25 years,” one reader wrote to me. “But the first 15 left an impression that this was not one of Dante’s circles. The last ten: approaching inner circle quickly.”

Apparently, a tree falling on a house hits much closer to home than a melting ice cap.

“The storms and the heat and the lack of AC, we can hope this will make people think again,” said Michael Oko, spokesman for the World Resources Institute. Oko happened to be on vacation in Delaware this week, “where it’s too hot to even go to the beach,” he added.

This is Washington’s Hell Week, and it’s a total PR score for the climate change community. Their Web sites have been getting clicks (by those who haven’t lost their Internet connections) and their officials besieged by reporters.

What’s sad is that this conversation was barely audible a few weeks ago.

When the weather wasn’t end-of-days level and the air-conditioning worked, just 18 percent of the people who were contacted in a Washington Post-Stanford University poll in mid-June named climate change as their top environmental concern, The Washington Post reported this week.

In 2007, when Al Gore walked the red carpet to meet his golden likeness in honor of “An Inconvenient Truth,” his documentary about global warming, 33 percent of the people polled said climate change was No. 1 on their environmental freak-out list.

Since then, the economy tanked, foreclosure rates soared and even those sad posters of polar bears swimming in search of some ice couldn’t budge the public opinion needle on global warming.

But a week that had many of Washington’s lobbyists, legislators and litigators stewing in their own saunas might buoy the cause, climate change advocates hope.

Pepco is doing its part, of course, to whip up concern for the record-breaking nature of events. Nearly every incident we see — from snowstorms to last week’s derecho — is a historic incident the utilities couldn’t possibly anticipate.

And a growing majority of American climate scientists agree; things aren’t like they used to be. Plenty of regular people are worried, too.

“If the ‘ruling class’ would do something about global warming/climate change we would not be having such extreme weather,” wrote one reader. “But no one in Washington (both parties) is doing the job. They are corrupted by the oil/gas/coal industries.”

Those who doubt that global temperatures are rising are quick to point to extreme weather of the past, including a devastating heat wave in 1930.

“The official temperature recorded on July 20 was 106°F, which holds the record as the highest temperature ever recorded in Washington. Unofficially, 110°F was recorded that same day on Pennsylvania Avenue and 108°F at the National Cathedral. The summer of 1930 also set the record for number of days where temperatures reached or exceeded 100°F at 11 days,” wrote the Capital Weather Gang’s Kevin Ambrose.

And that’s before we did fancy things like the “heat index” or had car thermometers to amplify our misery.

But climate change accelerates and compresses extreme weather cycles, Topping and others say. “The 100-year-storm will become the 10-year storm,” he said.

He worries that the impact of even a horrid week will quickly fade once the air-conditioning is back on, and there are ice cubes to put in the gin and tonic.

Most Americans are going to need more than data and a sweltering summer to care about the environment. They will need to see alternative energy as a key to lowering their energy bills.

Topping told me all this from New Hampshire, where it’s a crisp 79 degrees on a July afternoon.

Notice how many of the climate change folks were smart enough to be out of town during Hell Week?

Maybe they know something the rest of us don’t.

For past columns by Petula Dvorak, go to postlocal.com.

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