Environmentalists have been very critical of the president for his approach to talking about climate change.
During the election, President Obama made almost no mention of climate—only making one or two references after getting mocked by his opponent, Mitt Romney.
After the election, Obama said he wanted to make climate change a top priority in his second term. That was welcome news to climate advocates. Unfortunately, at the same time, his administration dismissed any discussion of a carbon tax, erroneously tried to separate economic issues from environmental issues, and talked about the need for big technological breakthroughs to deal with the problem.
One of Obama’s biggest messaging problems has been talking about climate change as if it’s a future problem, not something that is here and now. But if his State of the Union speech is any indication, he’s starting to take a more active approach:
“Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods —all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it’s too late.”
This is a welcome shift in the president’s rhetoric. And although Obama didn’t lay out many specifics about his second-term plan in this week’s State of the Union address, he did call on Congress to put a price on carbon—or else, he threatened, he’d find a way to do it himself.
The imperative couldn’t be more clear. The last two years have featured record-shattering extreme weather events that climate scientists said were made more intense because the planet is warming. Searing heatwaves, crippling drought, above-average wildfires, and multiple freak storms were defining events of 2011 and 2012.
The Center for American Progress just put out a new analysis of those events. The toll is stunning:
67 percent of U.S. counties and 43 states were affected by “billion-dollar damage” extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. 1,107 fatalities resulted from these 25 extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. Up to $188 billion in damage was caused by these severe weather events in 2011 and 2012. $50,346.58 was the average household income in counties declared a disaster due to these weather events—three percent below the U.S. median household income of $51,914. 356 all-time high temperature records were broken in 2012. 34,008 daily high temperature records were set or tied throughout 2012, compared to just 6,664 daily record lows—a ratio of five-to-one. 19 states had their warmest year ever in 2012.
Indeed, 2012 was the most extreme year for weather ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“You look out your window and you can see climate change in action,” said Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research last summer.
And Mother Nature is just getting warmed up. In December the World Bank conducted a review of the latest climate science. It warned that the world is “on track for a 4°C (7.2°F) warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”
Just to put that into context: NASA climatologist James Hansen explained that a 2°C temperature rise would be a “prescription for disaster.”
This should be a major wake-up call. Climate change is here, it is making weather more extreme and costly and it is going to get worse. The president needs to continue talking about the crisis in this context.
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Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he reports on the business of cleantech. He was formerly Deputy Editor of Climate Progress, a leading climate and energy blog run by the Center for American Progress. He writes daily on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University.