Sterling Miller Commentary: “National Climate Assessment “

New records for warm weather have become frighteningly common place. Watching this trend, no thinking person can fail to become alarmed by the record-setting heat we experienced last year. In 2012, we broke the previous hottest year on record not by increments of a tenth of a degree or so as is commonly the case for such records. Last year shattered the previous record high for the United States by a whole degree. The average US temperature in the US last year was 55.3 degrees. The head of the climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center called last year “off the chart” and he said 2012 will go down as “a huge exclamation point at the end of a couple decades of warming.”
The head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said that these records “do not occur in an unchanging climate” and pointed out that they “…are costing many billions of dollars already”. Last year was 3.2 degrees warmer than the average for the entire 20th century and last July was the hottest month on record with 19 states setting yearly heat records in 2012.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also reported that 2012 came in second in the record books for the most weather extremes, which includes not only temperature records, but also drought, downpours and hurricanes that reach land. The number of such extreme events last year was exceeded only by the number in 1998. Not coincidentally, 1998 was also the year that set the previous record for the hottest year in the US. This isn’t surprising given the relationship between a hotter climate and the number of these kinds of extreme weather events.
We all remember Hurricane Sandy, but we can’t afford to forget the incredible drought we experienced this summer. That drought was the worst since the 1950s and in the US record books was exceeded only by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The recent PBS special by Ken Burns on the Dust Bowl called the Dust Bowl the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history. If you haven’t seen this Ken Burns special, you should. It is available for purchase as a DVD from or you can wait for it to be re-broadcast. Like climate change, the Dust Bowl was a man-made disaster. We were fortunate in our political leadership during the Dust Bowl as Franklin Roosevelt didn’t ignore the problem and undertook the steps needed to address the land use practices that led to it. Climate change is a more difficult problem, as it is an international issue and requires us all to make the changes in our lifestyles to address it. It is also more difficult as political leadership of the caliber of Franklin Roosevelt is nowhere apparent.
A draft of the National Climate Assessment describing the changes that have occurred, and will occur, was issued this month and is now available for public comment. The executive summary of this report states:
“Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic seas ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity…..Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans…..U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2⁰F to 4⁰ F of warming in most areas.”
One of the most dramatic and well-documented changes that has occurred is in the extent of decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic. Satellite photos show that the amount of ice that has disappeared is equivalent to about half of the area of the Continental US. This loss dooms not only polar bears and other arctic animals, but results in changes in weather patterns right here in Montana.
Another dramatic change is the world-wide increase in sea level of about 8 inches over the last century. The National Climate Assessment projects that sea level will rise by another 1 to 6 feet during this century. This will affect us here in Montana in many ways, including the flooding of nearly 5 million Americans who now live within four feel of the local high-tide level. These people will need somewhere to escape to and Montana will look pretty secure to them.
It is frequently said that it is too expensive to address the root causes of climate change, which is the burning of fossil fuels. However, unless we address the problem of human-caused additions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, our burning of fossil fuels will become dwarfed by the magnitude of greenhouse gases added naturally to the atmosphere by the melting of the permafrost and loss of CO2-absorbing capacity by the world’s oceans. The costs of continuing to ignore the root causes of climate change now will seem like a bargain foregone to our children and grandchildren who will have to pay much higher costs in the future. We already saw this with the incredible damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last year where estimates of damage exceed $65 billion.
I urge you to read the National Climate Assessment, to comment on it, and to become political and personal activists to assure the future health of the planet on which human society depends.
Sterling Miller writes for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.


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