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Along Big Muddy, the Warning Signs of Climate Change Are Clear

By Rocky Kistner (NRDC) - January 10, 2013

When officials confirmed this week that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous U.S., it came as no surprise to anyone who walked through the cauterized corn fields of America’s breadbasket last summer, talking to farmer’s traumatized by the searing 100-degree heat that seemed to have no end.

But last year’s record heat continues to have repercussions. I witnessed that on a family trip last month to St. Louis, where the mighty Mississippi River is shrinking to record levels from the brutal drought that still plagues the nation’s midsection.

I took my kids down to the river and the storied cobblestones that line the city’s waterfront—once a thriving port for steamships laden with cotton and commodities of all kinds. But the river was different this time. Rocks and cobblestones normally covered by the muddy river poked up like skeletons unearthed from their watery graves. It was proof that something was seriously wrong under the shadow of the 630-foot St. Louis Arch that bends like an aluminum rainbow into the sky.

For kids walking along the river, it was a chance to look for new treasures, an old coin tossed overboard by a riverboat gambler, an antique bottle washed downstream from a century-old farm up north. But to me, the shriveling of Old Man River was a sign of dangerous times to come.

Barge captains report they have never seen the river this low, and already grain operators are cutting their loads so barges can scrape by the shallower depths of the river south of St. Louis. The Army Corps of Engineers are pulling out rock and dredging river bottoms in a desperate attempt to dig deeper channels to keep the critical waterborne commerce flowing to the Gulf. If water levels drop much further and barge traffic grinds to a halt, the economic toll would be devastating.

There have been floods and droughts before along the river. As a school kid, I sometimes would go on spring sandbagging trips to help farmers besieged by floods. And everyone there remembers the historic 1993 flood that caused $15 billion in damages, turning vast stretches of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers into inland oceans and lakes. Those were considered rare events, a “500-year flood.”

But in recent years it seems these rare events are becoming increasingly common. In 2011, the Army Corps had to blast through a levy to protect Cairo, IL, from being overwhelming by floodwaters south of St. Louis. These dangerous floods and droughts fit in with weather patterns we are witnessing across the country, increases in extreme weather events that scientists have linked to the world’s growing heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Experts say carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than any time in the past 600,000 years. And these emissions will stay there for centuries, guaranteeing that the planet will continue to heat up even if we stop burning fossil fuels today.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events are happening with greater force and devastation, and insurance industry experts warn it will only get worse. That means more deaths and illnesses, more allergies and infectious disease outbreaks, more pain for our children who will have to live in a world that will only get hotter and more dangerous.

Next week, the federal government releases a draft of its Third National Climate Assessment, a massive four-year study led by interagency science, business and health experts that will provide more up-to-date details about the impacts of climate change in the U.S. The report is expected to show that climate change impacts are worsening faster than expected—and with deadly consequences. It will be another wake-up call for politicians to act decisively to cut carbon pollution.

But will they? Or will members of Congress continue to cling to the worn-out denials of climate skeptics who use tobacco industry tactics to delay and deceive; “doubt is our product,” as one cigarette industry memo boasted decades ago. But climate change doubt is getting harder to sell these days. Just this week, severe drought prompted federal officials to declare a state of emergency in counties in 13 states, including the entire state of Oklahoma, home to Sen. James Inhofe, author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

But there is little doubt among experts studying the disastrous impacts of climate change. And there’s no doubt in the minds of ordinary Americans fighting climate and fossil fuel threats in America’s heartland; farmers battling drought and trying to coax corn out of the parched sun-baked soil; fishermen struggling to make a living along an oil-damaged Gulf coast that’s washing away with the rising tides; Texas ranchers fighting the Keystone XL pipeline threat of tar sands crude—the dirtiest oil on the planet. At what point do we say no to companies like Shell Oil risking environmental catastrophe by drilling in some of the most hazardous conditions on earth?

We know the climate is rapidly changing, and we know what to do; stop burning dirty fossil fuels and switch to clean energy sources. But as I watched my kids play along the drought-impacted banks of the Mississippi River, I wondered what this river will look like 20 years from now. What world will we leave for them if we don’t take climate change seriously and use all our might to fight carbon pollution, if we don’t create a Marshall plan to boost clean energy and efficiency programs?

The answer is something we should all think about. Because we the people—not politicians in the pockets of fossil fuel lobbyists—have the power to demand change. We see the need for change along thousands of miles of chemically treated agricultural fields, near carbon-spewing industrial plants and urban centers that belch pollution high into the atmosphere, places where a river runs through it.

It’s a river that’s telling us it’s time to act.