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What’s going down? Not temperatures, or AC bills

By Editorial (USA Today) - August 11, 2011

This summer’s record-shattering heat wave brings to mind the lyrics of an old Buffalo Springfield song: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

What’s happening is extraordinarily hot weather, centered in the Southern Plains. Oklahoma’s average temperature in July (88.9 degrees) was the hottest for any state for any month on record. Dallas is closing in on its record of 42 consecutive days of 100-plus degree weather. Newark set an all-time high of 108 on July 22. Washington, D.C., has had 24 days at 95 degrees or above, approaching the record of 28. Nationally, last month was the fourth hottest July on record, with communities in all 50 states setting high temperature records.

What’s not exactly clear is why this is happening. Is it just a freakishly hot summer resulting from an unusual, Dust Bowl-type weather pattern? Or, more ominously, does it reflect the impact of heat-trapping gases being pumped into the world’s atmosphere at a rate of tens of millions of tons a day?

While scientists caution that no individual extreme weather event can be conclusively linked to global warming, this summer is consistent with computer-model predictions of hotter days, warmer nights and more severe droughts.

Here’s one way to think of it: The atmosphere is juiced like athletes on performance-enhancing drugs. During baseball’s steroid era, steroids didn’t turn singles into home runs. But what used to be fly balls to the warning track ended up over the fence.

Similarly, climate change and urbanization don’t cause heat waves and droughts so much as intensify them. So what used to be a 95-degree day can become a 100-degree day. Or what once was a 75-degree nighttime low can turn into an 80-degree night.

Opponents of efforts to combat global warming talk about the price of putting a tax on carbon or creating a market-based system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The leading “cap and trade” bill in the Senate, for example, would cost an estimated $350 in 2025 per four-person household.

But the climate change skeptics and deniers — many of whom hail from Texas and Oklahoma, the epicenter of this summer’s misery — rarely discuss the price of inaction. If you accept that climate change is occurring, such costs are reflected in higher air conditioning bills and wilted crops.

According to a study by Tufts University researchers for the Natural Resources Defense Council, climate change will cost the average four-person household an additional $340 in energy costs in 2025, plus $2,950 for hurricane damages, real estate losses and water-supply costs.

Given the threats from global warming, a prudent society would begin moving aggressively to reduce carbon emissions and to develop cleaner energy sources. It would lead a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases because unilateral U.S. action won’t accomplish much unless it’s accompanied by reductions in developing nations such as China and India.

Some 98% of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and is very likely caused primarily by human activity. The evidence continues to mount: Nine of history’s 10 hottest years have occurred in the past 13 years. In the USA, new high temperature records outnumbered low temperature records by more than 2-to-1 over the past decade. And the volume of Arctic sea ice reached record lows for July.

Too often, climate change is discussed as something to be worried about far off into the future, so far that it dims in importance compared with more pressing concerns. Both the latest global data and the USA’s sweltering summer suggest, however, that the future might be now.