Extreme Weather and Climate Change

March 25th, 2013

The Hottest Year on Record

Two major reports on climate change were issued in January 2013. The State of the Climate Report from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, indicated that 2012 was the hottest year in the contiguous United States since recordkeeping began in 1895. Weather stations across the country reported 34,008 new record daily highs.

The average temperature in 2012 was 55.3 degrees, 3.2 degrees higher than the 20th-century average, according to the report. Temperatures were above normal for all 16 months from June 2011 to September 2012. NOAA’s data indicated a long-term trend of hotter, drier, and more extreme weather and provided increased evidence that human activity (especially burning fossil fuels) is contributing to climate change.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” according to the draft of the National Climate Assessment, also released in January. The assessment said, “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer.” Written by 240 scientists and business leaders, the assessment called the use of fossil fuels by humans the main driver of climate change.

Weather and Climate Change

The average surface temperature worldwide has risen almost one degree Fahrenheit in the past 40 years. As oceans warm, they increase water vapor in the atmosphere; and increased water vapor increases the potential for intense rainfalls. With a predicted increase of up to eight degrees by 2100, weather patterns will change significantly, with the rain belt getting wider and subtropical dry zones moving toward the poles—toward the American Southwest, southern Australia, and southern Europe.

Global warming has resulted in a 20 percent increase in the intensity of downpours during the last century, explains Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist and vice-chair at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in an interview with National Geographic. He says that global warming has increased the odds for extreme weather.

“Picture a baseball player on steroids,” says Meehl. “This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run. It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of the steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway. The drugs just made it more likely.”

Meehl explains that greenhouse gases are the steroids of the climate system. “By adding just a little bit more carbon dioxide to the climate, it makes things a little bit warmer and shifts the odds toward these more extreme events.”

As hurricanes become more intense, coasts are more vulnerable to erosion and flooding because of rising sea levels and storm surges. In turn, these adversely affect energy and transportation infrastructure. Examples are the massive destruction from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Droughts and Floods

More rain results in more frequent flash flooding. Flooding in 2008 in the Midwest was considered a 500-year flood, a flood so rare that it has a 0.2 percent chance of happening each year. In May 2010, Nashville, Tennessee, suffered the worst flooding in its history.

While some areas are affected by too much water, others have too little. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change (now the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, or C2ES) offers this explanation: “As the atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more water, increasing the length of time between rain events and the amount of rainfall in an individual event. As a result, areas where the average annual rainfall increases may also experience more frequent and longer droughts.”

Texas had less rain from October 2010 to September 2011 than during any 12-month period since recordkeeping started in 1895. Wells went dry, and drought forced some ranchers to send their livestock north. “This has been the most severe one-year drought we’ve ever had,” says state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. While he attributes the heat wave in part to La Niña, he explains that climate change aggravated the situation. Nielsen-Gammon says that even a small increase in heat made Texas forests even drier, precipitating the worst wildfire season on record. The wildfires, all together, blackened an area bigger than Connecticut.

Warmer temperatures also threaten water supplies, especially those dependent on seasonal melting of ice and snow. In the short term, this melting can cause flooding; but in the long term, the reduction in snow and ice water reserves can reduce water for agriculture, human consumption, and energy production. In the western United States, earlier snowmelts have made summers longer and drier, thus creating the conditions for wildfires. Climate change also affects the quality and quantity of drinking water. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change says, “Flooding and heavy rainfall may overwhelm local water infrastructure and increase the level of sediment and contaminants in the water supply.”

Other Impacts

Climate change also affects human health and survival, both directly in the form of heat waves, floods, and storms and indirectly in the form of increased smog and ozone in cities around the world. A consequence is the spread of infectious diseases. Children, the elderly, and the poor are at the greatest risk of climate-related and weather-related illness.

Other impacts of climate change are threats to ecosystems (for example, species extinction, bird migration, destruction of coral reefs and rainforests). Scientists are recording dramatic declines in Arctic ice, which in itself intensifies climate change. The ice that has kept the earth cooler by reflecting heat away from the earth disappears. The darker ocean water absorbs more heat. In addition, the loss of glaciers, ice sheets, and snow packs are associated with rising sea levels.

Extreme weather meeting with population density creates natural disasters with huge economic ramifications. In Texas, Arizona, and California, housing development in woodlands has put more properties in danger of wildfires. Coastal development in Florida, North Carolina, and Maryland has meant that expensive beach homes and hotels are at risk of destruction by hurricanes and severe storms. In 2011, insured losses from natural disasters amounted to almost $36 billion. In Florida, several national companies have stopped writing new policies because of the risk posed by drought, wildfires, and hurricanes.

What Can We Do?

What can we do about global warming? The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says, “As individuals, we can help by being mindful of our electricity use, driving more efficient cars, reducing the number of miles we drive, and taking other steps to reduce our own consumption of fossil fuels.”

However, significant reduction of fossil fuel use requires the efforts of government and corporations. UCS explains that we can advocate for putting limits on the amount of carbon that polluters can emit, expanding the use of renewable energy, and reducing tropical deforestation and wildfire risks. In short, governments and corporations need to change our energy system to one that is less dependent on oil, coal, and other fossil fuels.

Faith and Creation Care

How can our faith guide us as we seek ways to make a difference? At the root of this enormous problem are the attitudes that the earth is ours to use as we please and that exploiting its resources will not have consequences. At the core of Christian faith is the command to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Several years ago, the Council of Bishops wrote God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action in which they reflected on what this dual commandment means in terms of addressing climate change.

They named four ways we can live out that commandment. First, they said, “We love God by paying attention to God’s creation.” Are we attentive to the world that God loves? Do we see its beauty and wonder, and do we see its wounds?

Second, the bishops said, “We love God and neighbor by practicing compassionate respect.” We understand that the earth is not ours to plunder and that its resources are not ours to exploit. We take seriously the statement found in Psalm 24:1-2 that “the earth is the LORD’s.”

Third, they said, “We love God and neighbor by changing our behavior.” We ask ourselves how our lifestyles increase our carbon footprint (the amount of carbon our actions put into the atmosphere). Answering that question requires examining our consumption of material goods. Do we buy more than we need? Are we wasteful? Answering that question also involves examining the sources of our food. Do we try to eat locally grown foods that are in season? Or does most food come from thousands of miles away by transportation that burns huge amounts of fossil fuel?

Fourth, the bishops said, “We love God and neighbor by challenging those who do harm.” We must challenge people, companies, and governments whose practices are destroying the earth.

Dr. Norman Wirzba says, “The depth and range of our care is a reflection of the depth and range of our affection. Viewed practically, we tend to care for what we care about.” The question for Christians is whether we love the world that God loves enough to protect it from the crisis of climate change.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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