In case you live under a well-air-conditioned rock, it's been hot lately. Three-digit temperatures have rocked the East Coast, leading to freak storms and long-term power loss for more than a million people nationwide. In Virginia the death toll from the heat and storms stood at 13 last week. Farther west, wildfires have devastated Colorado, although they're mostly under control.
All of this is somewhat bewildering, even for summer in the Southeast, and as a result something interesting is happening: News media acknowledge the role of climate change in the record temperatures.
The Associated Press' Seth Borenstein quoted the University of Arizona's Jonathan Overpeck as saying: "This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. … The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about." NBC Washington's chief meteorologist Doug Kammerer went further: "If we did not have global warming, we wouldn't see this." Even the Drudge Report, lately a haven for reactionary racial paranoia and not much else, linked to the AP's coverage.
It isn't just the media. Before the heat wave began, in February, the Brookings Institute's biannual National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change found that public belief in man-made climate change was increasing, at 62 percent, about 12 points up from 2010. A lot of this was likely related to the similarly brutal summer of 2011, followed by the mild 2011-'12 winter.
"People, for good or for bad, are making connections in what they see in terms of weather and what they believe in terms of climate change," explained Christopher Borick, co-author of the Brookins' survey. Make no mistake, it's a good thing that more people are taking notice of the climate situation. It is, however, somewhat troubling that it takes record heat to change people's minds.
The existence of climate change as a result of carbon emissions has been the scientific consensus for years. Despite this, for several consecutive years, whenever there has been heavy snowfall, with it comes a round of jokes implying that heavy snow disproves the existence of global warming. As Stephen Colbert phrased it, "Whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening. Just ask any peekaboo-ologist."
The flexibility of public opinion on the subject reared its ugly head most notably in late 2009 and early 2010. After a server at the University of East Anglia in England was hacked, multiple emails were leaked and taken out of context to create the impression that the scientists involved in such studies were actively falsifying data used to measure climate change (for instance, one email said that the researchers "can't account for the lack of warming at the moment," which was in fact a reference to the need for more sophisticated means of measuring short-term climate variability).
Despite that an investigation turned up no evidence of fraud or misconduct, the manufactured pseudo-scandal contributed in large part to the aforementioned 2010 increase in climate change skepticism. It also led to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's ill-fated witch hunt against the University of Virginia's Michael Mann, a crusade that was embarrassing even by Cuccinelli's standards (which is pretty embarrassing).
If the devastating heat is increasing public opinion that climate change is responsible, that may be a silver lining. It should, however, be cause for concern if all that sways people is what's right in front of their faces, be it a heat wave or a snow-pocalypse. The implication, then, is that those same people will change their minds again in response to another sudden change in weather.
In theory, the reason we conduct scientific research on these things is so that we don't have to wait until the heat is unbearable to know what's going on. As sea levels rise and island nations that don't have the luxury of responding to climate science by snarking on Al Gore feel its effects, we'll need to do more than collectively concur that, yes, global warming indeed is leading to climate change. At some point we'll have to actually do something about it. At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, solutions come not simply from looking at the current state of things, but from looking beyond it. S
Zack Budryk is a freelance writer living in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.