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A Tale of Two Droughts: As in '88, Will 2012's Weather Extremes Push Climate Change Higher on the National Agenda?

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"Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the 'greenhouse effect' are forgetting about the 'White House effect.'''

Was that Barack Obama in 2008? Nope. Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush spoke those words 24 years ago this month, as he headed to victory that November.

But this year and 1988 have more in common than a presidential election. In 1988, America faced an extraordinary summer heat wave and an extensive drought, which helped to propel climate change into national politics. It was the hottest year then on record and it cost nearly $78 billion in 2012 dollars, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The 1988 drought remains the second-most expensive U.S. "natural" disaster -- exceeded only by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- since the tracking of such records began 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the drought of 2012, which last week extended across 64 percent of the contiguous U.S., likely will be among the most costly disasters on record.

The extreme weather events of 1988 helped draw the public's attention to the scientific evidence of climate change. Only 39 percent of Americans had heard of the greenhouse gas effect in 1986, but by September 1988, 58 percent had heard of it, making the connections between what scientists were saying about climate change, and what they were seeing and experiencing first hand, according to surveys at the time.

Similarly, with the backdrop of extreme drought and record-breaking wildfires, 2012 is also showing signs of increased public interest and support for action to fight climate change. A Washington Post/Stanford University poll in June found that 60 percent of Americans think the climate has become more unstable during the last three years, with majorities accepting that global warming is causing more droughts and more storms. A University of Texas poll taken on July 12-16 found that 70 percent of respondents agree that climate is changing -- up from 65 percent in March. At the same time there was a decline from 22 to 15 percent in those who do not believe the climate is changing; the downward shift was more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats.

Climate change made a big appearance on the national policy stage in 1988. In June of that year, NASA scientist James Hansen famously testified before Congress that the earth was warmer than it had ever been in the history of instrumental measurements. Hansen attributed the warming "with a high degree of confidence" to the greenhouse effect and he warned that it could increase the probability of heat waves and droughts in the Midwest and Southeast during the following decade. Responding to both the science and the public, Republican and Democratic leaders promised action. By the end of 1988, dozens of bills were introduced in Congress to address climate change. Unfortunately, no bills to reduce U.S. emissions became law.

In the quarter century since 1988, the enthusiasm of politicians and voters has ebbed and flowed, while carbon pollution and temperatures have continued to rise. Since 1988, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels have increased by more than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide grew from nearly 366 parts per million (ppm) in 1988 to more than 390 ppm in 2011. Global average surface temperatures have not dropped below 1988 levels since 1996. The ten warmest years on record have occurred since then and the last 12 months have been the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S.

But from Washington we still have no coherent national policy for reducing carbon pollution or preparing for the disruptive consequences of climate change that are emerging around us. And while some communities across America are beginning to prepare for these impacts, on the whole Washington inaction has left Americans dangerously unprepared.

In the closing days of 1988 as he was preparing to retire from the U.S. Senate, Robert Stafford, a Republican from Vermont, took to the Senate floor 17 times to make statements about the risks of atmospheric pollution. He concluded the series saying:

[A]s the danger we face from atmospheric contamination grows clearer each day -- as it did this summer, for instance - I am confident we will take the steps that are already available to us to rescue ourselves from the hazards of our creation. We can do no less if we are to meet our responsibility to future generations and to the survival of our planet.

The magnitude, urgency and scientific clarity of the climate threat only has grown since then. But Americans still are waiting for Congressional leaders to recognize that both the climate and public opinion are shifting, and to take the steps Senator Stafford thought the Senate would take more than two decades ago.

It's now 2012. Records are falling as the oppressive heat continues. Drought costs are increasing along with public concerns over climate change. Will the parallels with 1988 continue? Might we hear talk of the "White House effect" this August? If there is to be any chance for a meaningful national conversation about climate change after the election, we have to hope that the candidates candidly address the issue before the election.

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