When President Barack Obama arrived in Joplin, Missouri, on May 29th, the sun was shining. He toured one of the neighborhoods that the previous week's tornado had destroyed, then spoke at a memorial service for the dead. (By late last week, the official toll was a hundred and thirty-eight people.) At the service, the President's tone turned brooding. "The question that weighs on us at a time like this is: Why?" he said. "Why our town? Why our home? Why my son, or husband, or wife, or sister, or friend? Why?" Such questions, the President went on, cannot be answered, as "these things are beyond our power to control."
Obama's visit to Joplin was the third that he had made in a month to the site of a weather-related disaster. In mid-May, the President met with Memphis residents who had been left homeless by the flooding of the Mississippi River, and, not long before that, he toured sections of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that had also been flattened by a tornado. Meanwhile, even as the President was consoling the bereaved in Joplin, residents in Vermont were bailing out from record-high water levels around Lake Champlain; Texas was suffering from a near-record drought that could cost the state more than four billion dollars in agricultural losses; and officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were forecasting that the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, which formally began on June 1st, would once again be "above normal." (The 2010 season was tied for the third most active on record.) The news from abroad was, if anything, more worrisome. Last week, the Chinese government estimated that more than four million people were having trouble finding drinking water, owing to a drought along the Yangtze River. The French agricultural minister warned that an exceptionally hot, dry spring would reduce that country's wheat harvest. And in Colombia more than two million acres of land have been submerged after almost a year of nearly continuous rain. "Over the past ten months, we have registered five or six times more rainfall than usual," the director of Colombia's meteorological agency, Ricardo Lozano, said.
For decades, climate scientists have predicted that, as global temperatures rose, the side effects would include deeper droughts, more intense flooding, and more ferocious storms. The details of these forecasts are immensely complicated, but the underlying science is pretty simple. Warm air can hold more moisture. This means that there is greater evaporation. It also means that there is more water, and hence more energy, available to the system.
What we are seeing now is these predictions being borne out. If no particular flood or drought or storm can be directly attributed to climate change-there's always the possibility that any single event was just a random occurrence-the over-all trend toward more extreme weather follows from the heating of the earth. As the cover of Newsweek declared last week, "weather panic" is the "new normal." The larger problem is that this "new normal" won't last. Each additional ton of carbon dioxide that's spewed into the atmosphere contributes to further warming, thus increasing the risk of violent weather. The day after the President visited Joplin, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, in Paris, announced that, despite the economic slowdown, global CO2 emissions last year rose by a record amount, to almost thirty-one billion metric tons. "I am very worried," Birol said. "This is the worst news on emissions."
When Obama took office, he appointed some of the country's most knowledgeable climate scientists to his Administration, and it seemed for a time as if he might take his responsibility to lead on this issue seriously. That hope has faded. The President sat on the sidelines in 2009 and 2010 while congressional leaders tried to put together majorities in favor of climate legislation. Since the midterm elections, Obama has barely mentioned climate change, and just about every decision that his Administration has made on energy and the environment has been wrong. In March, the Administration announced that it would be opening up new public lands in Wyoming for coal mining. In April, the White House delayed plans to impose stricter controls on the mining technique known as mountaintop removal. In May, the Administration put on hold rules aimed at cutting pollution from power plants at places like paper mills and refineries. Also in May, the President announced plans to increase domestic oil production by speeding up permits to drill off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. "Is Obama's call for more drilling bad messaging masquerading as cynical policy-or vice versa?" the liberal blog Climate Progress asked.
Of course, it almost goes without saying at this point that the President's potential opponents next November are all worse on the issue. Tim Pawlenty, who, as governor of Minnesota, took some commendable actions on climate change, has now renounced them, saying that everyone "has got some clunkers in their record." Much the same holds for the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, minus the commendable actions.National Journal has summed up the situation this way: "The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe."
It would have been insensitive for the President when he visited Joplin, or Memphis before that, or Tuscaloosa before that, to have turned the conversation to climate change. Grieving relatives and displaced families aren't the right audience for a discussion of energy policy. It should be noted, too, that tornadoes are very tough to predict, and no one yet knows whether this year's unusually deadly season is the start of a new pattern, or just an aberration.
But, now that the immediate crisis has passed, the President needs to stop asking the kind of questions that can't be answered and start addressing those that can. Obama knows-and, indeed, has stated as much-that if we continue along our present path we'll guarantee our children a much more dangerous future. Taking the steps that would reduce the risks of climate change is not going to be politically popular, which is why it is the President's obligation to press for them. It may be beyond our power to control the climate, but we can determine it. This is precisely what we're doing right now, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.