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.


Sterling Miller Commentary: “The “Science Guy” on Fires and Storms”

Bill Nye, the “science guy” of public radio fame, weighed in on what is causing the increasing frequency of severe storms and fires in the US and around the world during a recent interview on CNN. Nye is well-known for his ability to make complicated science issues intelligible to everyone.
During his interview Nye pointed out that it wasn’t rocket science to read the graphs documenting that 16 of the hottest years on record occurred in the last 17 years. He also pointed out that the increasing frequency of severe storms during the last decade in the US and elsewhere are exactly what climate scientists have long been predicting would happen as the climate warms.
Just 2 weeks ago huge storms knocked out power to states from Illinois to the Atlantic coast causing the death of more than 2 dozen people. This storm-caused power outage happened at the same time temperatures soared into the high 90s for residents of these states who now had no air conditioning to provide relief. At the same time these storms and power outages were leaving people sweltering, the Waldo Canyon and other fires were raging uncontrolled in Colorado where a record number of homes were destroyed (420 and counting from 7 different fires). There were even more area burned in Montana (over 300,000 acres). The root causes of these severe storms and fires are all correlated with the warming of our climate caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels by humans. Past forest management practices also play a role in the severe fires.
We can’t see the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but this is well documented in graphs that anyone with a 5th grade education should be able to understand even if they aren’t “science people” like Bill Nye. One of the best documented records is from Mauna Loa in Hawaii where CO2 concentration has shot up 25% since 1960. As the CO2 in the atmosphere increases, it causes the well-known greenhouse effect that traps the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere. As the atmosphere gets warmer, the number of record setting extreme weather events increases just as scientists have been predicting for the last 20 years.
During the 20th century, there were about the same number of record-setting heat events as record-setting cold events. However, during the first decade of this century, record setting heat events outnumbered record cold events by 2:1. So far this year, the ratio is 10:1 and through June of this year is the hottest ever recorded for the US. During the first week in July, over 75% of the continental US was in drought conditions according to the US Department of Agriculture. The drought conditions were most extreme in and near central Colorado where the wild fires were raging. However, the drought conditions occurred almost everywhere and the only states without drought conditions were Vermont and Maine. Just today, the US Department of Agriculture declared the largest ever federal disaster area caused by drought in the US involving more than 1,000 counties in 26 states. About a third of all the Counties are part of this disaster area declaration which, so far at least, doesn’t include Montana.
In Wyoming, shortage of hay caused by drought is right now causing ranchers to sell of their cattle early this summer. You might be able to stock up on food to avoid inevitable higher food costs later this year but food shortages caused by the warming climate will become a pattern that nobody in the world will be able to avoid.
Climate scientists have always been leery to attribute any specific extreme weather event to climate change. What they can say with scientific certainty, however, is that the probability of extreme events has dramatically increased. A heat wave in Texas, for example, is now 20 times more likely to occur than it was 50 years ago. Last year England has the warmest year on record since 1659 and scientists have calculated that the likelihood of such extremes there now is 60 times higher than it was in 1960.
Probabilities like this are something we intuitively understand. We understand that if we use tobacco, the probability we will get cancer increases so many of us have quit smoking. We understand that if we drink and drive, the probability we will have an accident increases so most of us are careful not to mix alcohol and driving.
Humans are capable of responding to crises. President George W. Bush recognized the international AIDS crisis and convinced Congress to take action to address the growing threat of that epidemic. His action contributed significantly to the progress that has been made subsequently. AIDS moved from an issue too many people didn’t want to think about to being an issue where actions resulted in improvements. The same can and must happen for global warming. Global warming is similar to the AIDS crisis in the sense that it is a growing threat facing the whole planet that requires human intervention and changes in human behavior to address. It is dissimilar, however, in that there is no indication of a political willingness in either US political party or globally to address the problem at the scale required.
In this vacuum of political leadership, the people will need to educate both the politicians and their friends, neighbors and relatives that action is essential. We must all follow the model of Bill Nye the Science guy if our children and grandchildren are going to inherit a planet where they can live a quality life without the shortages of food and water, and without the extreme climatic events that we are increasingly experiencing. We all need to become like Bill Nye the Science Guy and spread the word that inaction in the face of what we see happening now can no longer be tolerated.
Sterling Miller writes on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.