The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ignoring climate change hasn’t made it go away

Debris from damaged homes floats in floodwater after Hurricane Delta landed in Creole, La., in October.
Debris from damaged homes floats in floodwater after Hurricane Delta landed in Creole, La., in October. (Callaghan O'Hare/For The Washington Post)
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We now know the answer to the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, the crash does make a sound.

 For four long years, the federal government tried to pretend that climate change was either an illusion, a “natural” process or a hoax concocted for political reasons. The White House effectively ordered scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and other departments to cover their ears and hum “na-na-na-na-na” to cover up the planet’s escalating distress.

But now, in the reality-based Biden era, our government is once again in the business of honest — and honestly reported — climate research. The result is new EPA data and analyses showing that the massive impacts of human-induced warming of the atmosphere and the oceans are happening faster, and in more extreme ways, than when the agency was last permitted to publish “Climate Indicators” data in 2016.

The United States experienced an average of six heat waves — “extreme heat events” — per year during the decade that began in 2010, the EPA recently reported, using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That compares with an average of about 4.5 such heat waves per year in the decade that began in 2000 and fewer than four each year in the 1990s. Today’s heat waves last longer and are more intense than they used to be.

For those who suffer from seasonal allergies — like me — it will come as no surprise that pollen season is also lasting longer and getting worse.

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The ice sheets covering much of Antarctica and Greenland were shrinking only slowly until the 2000s, when rapid melting began, the EPA reported. This melting accelerated sharply in the 2010s. While that may seem a distant phenomenon, it has measurably raised sea levels — which makes our coastal cities increasingly vulnerable to storm surge from hurricanes.

The oceans are warmer now than at any time since systematic measurement began, and because warmer water occupies more volume than cooler water, this also raises sea levels. “Every site measured has experienced an increase in coastal flooding since the 1950s,” the EPA says, with the effect being most pronounced on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. And while it is difficult to attribute any specific weather event to climate change, scientists say that ocean warming has made hurricanes generally bigger and wetter. Last year, there were so many Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes that meteorologists ran out of names for them and had to resort to the Greek alphabet for the first time since 2005.

Perhaps the most important sign that the White House has taken a new approach to these worrisome indicators is that the EPA is able to make this simple declarative statement:

“The Earth’s climate is changing. Temperatures are rising, snow and rainfall patterns are shifting, and more extreme climate events — like heavy rainstorms and record high temperatures — are already happening. Many of these observed changes are linked to the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, caused by human activities.”

It’s those last four words — “caused by human activities” — that the previous administration tried its best to squelch, pretending there was some sort of “debate” about what almost all climate scientists regard as a long-settled question.

As the EPA climate website notes, for the past 800,000 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere oscillated between roughly 180 and 280 parts per million — until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Over the past 250 years, a blink of an eye in the history of the planet, the carbon dioxide concentration leapt to 411 parts per million in 2019, an incredible increase. Atmospheric carbon traps heat (as do methane and several other industrial gases). We are baking ourselves.

Before you can even begin to solve a problem, you have to acknowledge its existence and its cause. The United States government is no longer enforcing a policy of willful ignorance, and that is a beginning.

It will not be easy to persuade China, by far the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, to cut back its use of coal and other fossil fuels quickly enough. It will not be easy to persuade India to follow a clean-energy path to development, rather than use the perhaps quicker and definitely dirtier route taken by rich countries. And it will not be easy to wean the U.S. economy from coal, oil and natural gas — even though the potential economic benefits of the change are becoming increasingly clear.

But under President Biden, we will try. And we will proceed with our eyes and ears open, for a change.

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