09/23/2011 02:36 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Connecting the Dots Between Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Like most kids, my nieces and nephew love to draw. The walls of my office are covered in their artistic interpretations of our last trip to the Zoo or me walking them to school.

One of their favorite ways to showcase their talent is connect-the-dot books. As an adult, it's pretty easy to see the patterns. Typically you can see the eyes of a puppy, the scales of a dragon, or fire from a lantern. But it's always fun to see the look on my nieces and nephew's face when they discover the pattern after connecting the dots.

As I look at the news and the weather, I see different patterns than I used to. I still see eyes of hurricanes, and large wildfires, and weather-related disasters at unheard of scales. But it seems recent weather has given us an impressive array of dots and patterns we haven't had to connect before. Let's see if we can trace some of them together.

This week marked the end of the hottest summer in America on record in 75 years. The Mississippi River had its second "500-year flood" since 1993, while nearby Texas and the rest of the South struggled under a drought that rivaled that of the Dust Bowl and led to some of the worst wildfires the Lone Star state has ever seen. Drought also caused the largest wildfire in Arizona's history, which burned more than half a million acres. This year has been the deadliest one for tornados since 1936, and new temperature records have been set repeatedly, for both cold and heat. And that's just this year in the U.S. Similar events are taking place all over the world.

Why is this happening? The answer is simple: Our planet is experiencing climate change that is causing a frightening "new normal" weather pattern.

No, it's not an unproven theory, as some oil lobbyists and politicians would like you to believe. Just as the tobacco industry hired doctors to "prove" that smoking wasn't actually harmful, these powerful oil-and-coal-backed officials are attempting to shroud confirmed science in a fog of uncertainty. But at least 97 percent of climate scientists agree it's a real phenomenon, and this summer, we've been privy to the direct impacts of it. The fact that there is drought in Texas or rain in Vermont is not new or surprising. But the duration of the heat and the extent of the flooding are both unprecedented and disturbing.

True, extreme weather would still occur if the climate weren't changing, but it would occur less frequently and with less ferocity. All weather now takes place in the context of our changed climate, so every weather event is affected by climate change. A recent report by Climate Communication, along with a team of experts from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Weather Underground and the University of California (San Diego), reveals a clear link between the two.

Aside from being incredibly harmful to our environment, the damage from these natural disasters is also extremely costly. According to the Climate Communication report, as of August 30, there have already been 10 extreme weather events this year that cost more than $1 billion each in the United States. From 1980 to 2010, there were 33 such events each decade.

The destructive weather seen across the U.S. this summer leaves no doubt in my mind that when we connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change, we'd see a picture of humanity. We are doing this to ourselves.

The climate of our planet naturally changes on its own, but human activity is speeding up the process and causing extremes the planet would likely not experience without our contribution. By burning fossil fuels, cutting down trees, and trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are contributing immensely to the destruction of our planet. Our actions are causing irreversible damage and leading to the depletion of our natural resources.

The picture is absolutely clear, as are its implications: Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. How we deal with this problem now will affect every generation that comes after ours. We need a massive effort, nationally and internationally, to limit the damage, and we need to start immediately.

Largely, politicians and the media have failed us. President Obama, who promised a "new chapter" on climate change when he was elected, has delivered precious little and did not even mention the issue in his 2011 State of the Union speech. Many other politicians, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, have done everything in their power to block modest carbon regulations; in April, the House even rejected an amendment simply saying that climate change is real. And the press has allowed politicians to abdicate their responsibility to protect their constituents by treating the threat of climate change as nothing more than another campaign issue.

These so-called "leaders" are making the important decision not to make connections. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, also the front-runner in the GOP race for 2012, calls global warming a "hoax," even as his state experiences the worst drought and wildfires in its history. But these connections lead to inconvenient conclusions. It is far easier to think of climate change as simply a political question, where the worst possible effect will be to harm Mitt Romney's poll numbers. It is time for our nation's leaders to pull their heads out of the sand, before rising seas overwhelm them.

Efficiency is the easiest and most effective way to quickly cut our reliance on carbon pollution-producing fossil fuels, so we should start with stringent new standards. But efficiency won't be enough on its own. We need to tap into financial incentives for industry to clean up its act, including enacting a carbon tax, ending subsidies for polluting industries, and promoting feed-in tariffs to ensure a swift transition to clean, renewable energy. We need to make stopping climate change a national priority.

I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but we're going to have to make sacrifices to ensure we are successful. Or else a lot more parades are going to get rained on, or ruined by tornadoes, or cancelled due to wildfires.

The dots are connecting, and the picture is pretty clear. Climate change is real. It's something human activity is causing, and, unlike many of the other problems we face these days, we can do something about it. Let's get to work.