Summer's Officially Over: What Did It Show Us About Climate Change?

After my recent column on how big business is coming together to defend global warming legislation in California, I was overwhelmed by the number of notes I received asking about the state of the global warming debate. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is in shambles, the U.S. Senate is stymied, and the public is losing confidence that climate change is real. But this past summer's crazy weather may be changing some minds.

With summer 2010 now in our rear-view mirror, it's worth considering: Did global warming cause the once-in-a-lifetime weather events? New Yorkers dealt with a sweltering heatwave and were unsurprised to learn that the period from June to August shattered previous temperature records. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that we've just lived through the hottest decade on record. And after this summer, with many countries, including Russia to Saudi Arabia, setting their all-time heat records, people all around the planet are asking whether carbon dioxide emissions could be to blame.

Here's a quick roundup of extreme weather events this summer:

Forest Fires in Russia

This summer was the hottest on record for Russia, and the resulting wildfires plagued the country with smoky skies. More than a thousand people were killed and 300,000 acres were burned. The fires destroyed a naval base, and there were widespread fears that the radiation-contaminated area surrounding Chernobyl would be ignited. President Vladimir Putin, after a slow initial reaction, stepped into high gear, with state media filming him co-piloting a fire plane. Putin declared global warming a threat to Russia, a remarkable statement from a leader whose country's economy is based on carbon dioxide intensive fossil fuels.


Pakistan set the record this summer for the hottest temperature in Asia when it reached 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, floods ravaged Pakistan, with some estimates reaching as high as one-fifth of the country inundated by floodwaters and more than 1,500 people killed.

Coral Bleaching

The New York Times recently featured a story suggesting that the warmer-than-usual oceans might cause a repeat of the 1998 coral bleaching event, when 16 percent of the world's shallow-water reefs died. The period from January to August of this year matched the temperatures for the same period in 1998, the hottest year in the historical record. Reefs are sensitive to heat changes and shed their color, as if they were bleached white, in a last-ditch effort to survive.


At Point Lay in Alaska, thousands of walruses are pulling themselves out of the water as the sea ice they depend on for foraging has disappeared. Estimates are that 10,000-20,000 walruses are hauling themselves out right now along the Chukchi coastline.

So, Now What?

Meteorologists are almost unanimous in emphasizing that, while these types of weather events are what we'd expect in a warming world, you just can't pinpoint any single event as caused by global warming. We do know that the planet as a whole has warmed and that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is a little north of 388 parts per million. Our best scientists tell us that the level of 350 parts per million is what we'll need for long term human survival, and we haven't been at that level since 1988. All of this additional carbon is changing the weather, even if we can't connect a particular storm to the phenomenon of climate change.

This winter may again bring unusual weather. And the debates will continue. The smart move is to move beyond the evidence and start getting our insurance policies in place, since there's little hope for a U.S. or global policy solution anytime soon. After every major earthquake, more people in California sign up for earthquake insurance, regardless of whether that particular earthquake signaled any increased vulnerability for them. In the case of climate change, we know that freak storms will increase, in our lifetimes, and the storms we're experiencing now may be a part of that change. We know that ocean surface temperatures in the waters where hurricanes form have risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century, and higher ocean surface temperatures are likely to lead to more powerful hurricanes. It's a good time to buy flood insurance, if you don't have it already.

Personal insurance might insulate you to some extent, if you're wealthy enough and can move easily. But societal solutions are the only choice that doesn't leave billions of people in the rain. This policy gap, for now, puts the ball in the hands of communities and corporations. The town of Lynchberg, Virginia helped Team Edison 2 win the Automotive X Prize, and in the process placed itself on the map as a beacon of engineering excellence. Nissan is launching a new all-electric car that's generating excitement for the company reminiscent of the release of the 280ZX. Toyota is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Prius on 10/10/10.

Even if you don't believe that changes in the weather signal global warming, or that global warming is a real threat, you should know that those who do believe that global warming is real threat -- along with those who just act on the assumption that global warming is a real threat -- are the ones setting the agenda for tomorrow's economy. And what they're doing is setting themselves up for a future full of change, because their one certainty, and the one thing that we can count on -- and that climate scientists agree on -- is that change will be our future's only constant.