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More Extreme Weather: Say Hello to Our Changing Climate

This post is part of WRI's "Extreme Weather Watch" series, which explores the link between climate change and extreme events. Read our other posts in this series.

This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Expert Blog. It was a response to the question "Is global warming causing wild weather?"

It’s the question on everyone’s minds these days: What’s up with the weather?

The answer is increasingly clear: It’s our changing climate.

The trends we are currently experiencing– a warmer world with more intense, extreme weather events– could not be clearer. It’s exactly what climate scientists and their models have, for many years now, forecast global warming will bring.

Evidence of a Changing Climate

July 2011 to June 2012 was the warmest 12-month period on record for the contiguous U.S. Globally, June 2011 was the 316th month in a row that posted a higher temperature than the 20th-century average. Spring 2012, not to be outdone, was the hottest on record in the U.S. And record drought in the Southwest has helped fuel the wildfires that have already consumed about two million acres this year. (See our recent post on forest fires and climate change.) For the impact such weather has on U.S. society and economy, look no further than the record-breaking heat wave that finally let up this week. The intense heat paired with the recent derecho storm left 35 people dead, 3.5 million people without power, two trains derailed, and Midwestern crops withered. As NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco vividly put it in a speech last week, climate change is now “playing out in real time.”

None of these events should come as a surprise. A small mountain of research not only corroborates what’s happening on the ground, but suggests that we are only getting a taste of what is to come. For the continental U.S., both the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the U.S. Academy of Sciences have shown that we will likely see warmer nights, more heat waves, and heavier downpours.

The Public Is Catching On

Not for the first time, the public is ahead of the politicians on an issue of increasing national importance. NOAA, says Lubchenco, is experiencing “skyrocketing demand” from individuals, businesses, communities, and planners, who are clamoring for climate change data and projections. “People's perceptions ... are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something firsthand that they, at least, think is directly attributable to climate change," she told an audience in Canberra, Australia.

A recent national poll from the Washington Post appears to support her statement, with 77 percent of respondents saying government should intervene to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

More Urgency Needed from Government

So, with its chief atmospheric advisor ringing the alarm bell and the citizens it serves wanting action, where are leaders in Washington? Where’s the sense of urgency from a capital city that on Sunday endured its 11th straight day of temperatures that reached 95 degrees or higher – the longest such streak in 141 years of record-keeping?

Congress may be loath to tackle an issue that has become a lightning rod for America’s red-blue divide, but this is a threat that should transcend politics and receive bipartisan action. What’s more, it is in our economic interest to transition to a low-carbon economy now, rather than let other countries capitalize on clean energy markets.

The extreme weather is providing clear evidence that politicians should take action to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. While good progress has been made on reducing emissions from vehicles, the U.S. needs to take strong action to decrease emissions across the economy, whether through use of existing authority under the Clean Air Act or through new measures, such as Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, introduced by Sen. Bingaman.

This election so far has been all about the economy, and for good reason. But if voters want to know what’s up with the weather, they require–and deserve–an honest answer. Nature may not have a vote, but it has a voice, and it’s speaking to us loud and clear. Climate change has already made our heat waves hotter and downpours more torrential, at great cost to American lives and livelihoods.

The question is: How much longer will the very real risks of a rapidly warming world continue to be trumped by perceived political risks that favor last century’s energy system?

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