Climate Debate Stuck in a Washington Rut

May 29, 2013 | 3:45 pm
Alden Meyer

The climate debate in Washington is stuck in a rut. Last week, we saw politicians playing another round of the climate change blame game. This time the topic was tornadoes. But connections between extreme weather and climate change are a scientific question, not a political one.

This blog appeared as a guest post on the National Journal Energy Experts Blog.

For the record, scientists don’t have enough historical data about tornadoes to say whether or not climate change is influencing them. By contrast, scientists can say with a great degree of certainty that climate change is making some extreme weather worse, including coastal flooding and heat waves. It’s also shifting precipitation away from lighter and toward heavier downpours.

Regardless, the Oklahoma tornado response is still instructive. I’d wager very few folks in Moore are concerned about climate change and tornadoes. Those resilient Americans are quite rightly focused on picking up the pieces and talking about how to be better prepared in the future.  Right now, climate science doesn’t have much to tell them. By contrast, Americans who saw their homes and properties destroyed by Sandy can use science to better prepare for future storms. Scientists know sea levels in New Jersey and New York will be much higher in the future because of climate change. That information should absolutely inform decisions about how to rebuild and prepare.

What citizens expect from their government in dealing with disasters – whether entirely natural or made more extreme due to human-induced climate change – is to help them respond, prepare and rebuild. So while we’ve been dealing with coastal floods, heat waves and droughts for centuries, how we deal with them is changing because our climate is changing. We’re seeing more and more local officials – water engineers, coastal planners and wildfire first responders – grappling with human-induced climate change. As they look for more information and more cooperation from the federal government, it will become increasingly difficult to deny the reality of the science or favor inaction.

Further, we see a powerful new constituency arising in the climate debate: towns, cities and states that are adapting, whether it’s to longer wildfire seasons in Western forests or accelerating sea level rise on the East Coast. Talking about these visible impacts of our changing climate is not polarizing, because they are challenges we face together in places we know and love. Smart politicians understand they need to get out ahead of our changing climate and make sure their constituents know they are part of the solution.

In his first post-election press conference, President Obama called for convening local officials, scientists, and engineers to address this pressing issue. He should follow up on that publicly and tell us how the federal government can help the country prepare for more climate change. He could have done that earlier this week in Asbury Park, New Jersey, as he was looking at the rising sea and discussing the state’s recovery efforts. He talked about the boardwalk and Bruce Springsteen and reminded the country that the iconic Jersey Shore is open for business. We need to hear more. We need to hear that there’s a plan to make sure the Jersey Shore will remain open for business not just this summer, but 40 summers from now, when Rutgers University scientists estimate local sea levels will be more than a foot higher than they are today. Given the stark realities of a changing climate, politicians can’t be afraid to discuss climate change. They should be comfortable with it because it is increasingly becoming a fact of life, just like changes in the economy and foreign policy.

Finally, we need to hear more about pending Environmental Protection Agency rules that could dramatically reduce coal-fired power plant carbon pollution, along with other steps the administration can take to help cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. After all, it’s the human-induced build-up of these gases in the atmosphere that is helping drive these local changes in the first place.  And as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.