03/04/2009 12:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Change You Can Believe In

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Brad Johnson

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This past weekend, 12,000 activists from across the nation and around the world came to Washington D.C. for the "largest youth summit on climate change in history." From mountain-top removal to toxic waste dumps, from green building to bike shares, the participants at Power Shift '09 taught each other about environmental injustice and the solutions they're finding. Progressive leaders including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Green For All's Van Jones rallied the students. On Monday, thousands of activists descended on the U.S. Capitol to demand Congress take action to fight climate change. While students from South Dakota to North Carolina lobbied their elected officials, others engaged in mass civil disobedience to protest the United States' continued use of coal. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and even long-time coal advocate Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) had agreed last week to stop using coal at the Capitol Power Plant. However, conservatives led by Sen. James Inhofe's (R-OK) environmental communications director Marc Morano mocked the students for protesting on the same day a snowstorm hit Washington, D.C. "Big DC Snowstorm to Greet 'Largest public protest of global warming ever in U.S.!'" wrote Morano. After his message was copied on the Drudge Report, Fox News anchors ran with the story. "Now, maybe it's just a coincidence that nearly every global warming protest occurs on the exact same day that we have a major snowstorm," claimed Fox News's Sean Hannity. Neil Cavuto asked, "As a massive snowstorm wreaks havoc up and down the East Coast, what better time to hold a global warming protest?"

THE ANTHROPOCENE: Of course, extreme weather is no coincidence. "Like it or not," says scientist Daniel Richter, "we live in the Anthropocene age" -- a new era in which humanity has become "the preeminent force changing Earth's surface" through agriculture, development, and pollution. "In land, water, air, ice, and ecosystems, the human impact is clear, large, and growing," describes geologist Richard Alley. In particular, man's burning of fossil fuels has altered the climate, reshaping the weather and the seasons -- despite the protestations of Rush Limbaugh and George Will. The changes in regional weather fueled by global warming of the atmosphere are complex but understandable. Snow in the Great Lakes has increased as lake temperatures have risen. As predicted by models of climate change, the South and West are increasingly gripped by extreme storms and extreme drought. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program reported last year that "droughts, heavy downpours, excessive heat, and intense hurricanes are likely to become more commonplace as humans continue to increase the atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases." "The climate instability factor right now is a big issue," Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told "Weather's unpredictable in Montana anyway but it's really unpredictable now."

The winter storm that swept up the East Coast with rain, snow, and ice caused 350 car crashes in New Jersey, a 15-mile-long traffic jam in North Carolina, and four deaths from car accidents in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island. Hundreds of thousands of households lost power from Georgia to Maine. This extreme storm is only part of the destructive weather gripping the nation. California is in a state of emergency due to a "third consecutive year of drought conditions." Drought conditions in Oklahoma are "terrible." "Despite hurricanes Dolly, Gustav and Ike soaking Texas in 2008," nearly 97 percent of Texas is in drought -- already this year, "about 3,400 wildfires have been reported across the state, scorching nearly 105,000 acres." Globally, "there have been more than four times as many weather-related disasters in the last 30 years than in the previous 75 years." Australia's drought -- which helped spark its inferno of wildfires -- is the worst in perhaps 1000 years. China's food supply is "seriously threatened" by extreme drought. Floods are wracking Indonesia to South Africa.

MEDIA MISUNDERSTANDING: Unfortunately, it is not just right-wing conspiracy theorists who found the protesters ripe for mockery. Headlines in major newspapers followed the Fox News model over and over again. The Hill wrote: "Anti-coal protesters march through snow over global warming." USA Today: "Thousands gather in D.C. cold for rally about global warming." CBS: "Snowy backdrop for global warming protest." Time Magazine: "Despite snow -- and irony -- a climate protest persists." They are focusing on a false irony -- that a deadly snowstorm seems dissonant with the threat of global warming. Where does the blame lie? Scientists could do more to explain to the public how weather and climate work. Journalists, however, have a greater responsibility. Instead of explaining that the protest was part of a massive, diverse youth movement for clean energy, economic justice, and global prosperity, they fell in line with right-wing talking points. This failure is part of a continued inability of the press to responsibly cover climate change. Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney writes, "makes one wonder if we aren't seeing a kind of turning-point moment in the transition -- for better or worse -- away from newspapers as the dominant source of opinion, commentary, and thoughtful analysis in our society."