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Political and Weather Climates are Changing, But at What Speed?

(Illustration credit: Jack Hornady)
(Illustration credit: Jack Hornady)

The weather in Washington, D.C. finally turned hot in September, just in time for Congress to resume. We enjoyed an unusually moderate summer this year, with many days topping out in the high seventies or low eighties. Plenty of sun. San Diego weather, you might say.

Before September, we were missing about two full weeks of temperature above 90 degrees. It seems that, before this month cut that number in half, all the extreme weather went elsewhere, to California perhaps, suffering from a prolonged drought that threatens one of the nation’s most productive agriculture regions. There has been so little precipitation for the Sierra Nevada mountains that the range has shifted about a centimeter and a half without the snow pack and groundwater weighing it down.

Stepping back a bit, it’s easy to say that global warming—or climate change, depending on your linguistic preferences—has been in the news for much of 2014. And skepticism seems to finally be declining, as more and more people accept the science behind the crazy weather patterns that we are experiencing. All you have to do is find the right euphemism.

January of this year, for example, seemed an unlikely time to talk about global warming in the U.S. Much of the country was in the throes of a cold wave with a catchy nickname, “the polar vortex.” Nine states experienced one of the top ten coldest Januaries on record.

Yet researchers chose that time to conduct a national survey on which term Americans used more: global warming or climate change. And they found that even as Americans put on their heaviest sweaters and zipped up their warmest jackets, they were more likely to hear and use global warming as the term describing how our planet’s climate is changing.

September marks the start of more intense policy discussions on climate change. Some of this is fueled by the U.S. mid-term elections, as President Obama’s proposed rule to cut power plant emissions gets tossed out to the political football field.

Much of the climate discussions will focus on the international climate negotiations in early December, and the U.N. Climate Summit this month that will highlight the December talks. The push for the Summit is to get governments, corporations, and as many international actors as possible to announce voluntary commitments to trimming—or better yet, slashing—greenhouse gas emissions.

While the U.S. made its big announcement on power plants this spring, a steady stream of commitments has come out of China all year, including the closing of more than 2,000 coal mines and converting coal-fired power plants in Beijing, cuts in hydrofluorocarbon emissions (a nasty air pollutant), increased enforcement and penalties for polluters, and plans to launch a national market for “trading” carbon emissions by 2016.

Having traveled through China this summer, I can say firsthand that the success we as a planet could have in limiting climate change does not lie only in the U.S.. After spending three weeks in five Chinese provinces, we could count the number of blue skies that we saw on one hand. The Chinese government’s efforts to scale back the pollution—a veritable “war”—need to work because its economy and pollution are expected to keep growing, which will only accelerate climate change.

Can the examples set by China and the U.S. help turn the tide? There needs to be a lot more action than what we’ve seen so far. One can only hope these commitments start an avalanche of action at the U.N. and elsewhere to choose public health and environmental conservation as priorities.

Clear blue sky peaks through in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China (Photo credit: Dan Klotz)
Clear blue sky peeks through in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China (Photo credit: Dan Klotz)