A summer's warming

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MOSCOW MAY NOT have seen so much smoke since the city burned to the ground around Napoleon. A record-shattering heat wave has choked Russia's core, igniting runaway wildfires around the capital and coating it with a thick, gray cloud that is finally beginning to clear. The daily death count doubled during the heat wave, filling up Moscow's morgues. Meanwhile, a monsoon system has deluged northern Pakistan; the torrential rains have caused floods that reportedly affected some 6 million people. And in America, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that, so far, 2010 is the hottest year on record.

Which makes us wonder: Where is that resolute climate-change skeptic Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.)? During this year's record snows in Washington, he posted pictures on his Facebook page of his family building an igloo in front of the Capitol building and attaching a sign that read, "AL GORE'S NEW HOME" and "HONK IF YOU {heart} GLOBAL WARMING." The Inhofes were hardly alone in mocking those concerned about climate change during the snowy winter. Conservative politicians and pundits gleefully attacked climate legislation, buried under "12 inches of global warming," as Virginia's GOP sarcastically put it.

Depressingly, they seemed to be right about one thing: The winter weather may have encouraged such know-nothingism, as polls showed increasing numbers of Americans doubting the scientific consensus on climate change. Demagoguery of this kind helped make it all but impossible to pass a sensible climate bill this year as key Republicans deserted the cause.

But now Washington is scorching and Moscow is choking. Of course, one cannot claim with certainty that the general warming of the planet is directly responsible for particular episodes of extreme weather. The proximate cause of both Moscow's heat and Pakistan's floods is a halted jet stream that parked undesirable weather systems over these areas, and it's not clear that climate change would increase the frequency of such "blocking events."

It is likely, however, that climate change will nevertheless result in more severe weather -- heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms and other dangerous weather events -- even if not by an identical mechanism. Higher temperatures may also make natural disasters with unrelated causes more destructive. At the least, the events in Moscow and Pakistan serve as examples of the sorts of thing that scientists predict will happen more often in regions unprepared to cope, underscoring why people must take seriously the risks associated with continuing to pump carbon into Earth's atmosphere.

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