Answer: 1,000,000,000,000 Tons of Carbon Pollution
Our weather has turned dangerous because our climate is breaking down. 40,000 heat records have already been broken this year across the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the planet heats, climatic patterns unravel, creating destructive weather. Warm air sucks more water from the ground and holds more water (about 4 percent more for every 1 degree F increase in temperature), creating droughts in many regions and severe flooding when larger amounts of water are unleashed elsewhere.
2011 wasn't pretty, with Texas and Western states sucked dry while states in the Midwest and elsewhere were dumped on with devastating downpours, causing severe flooding. But 2012 is shaping up to be even worse. With record heat, drought is already gripping half of the country. More than two million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires already this year. Global warming has created longer wildfire seasons in the West due to heat and drought. Warmer winters have also allowed pests to floursih, killing large numbers of pine trees that add fuel to the fires.
Here in Virginia, we have had to learn new weather terminology to explain hurricane-like storms that rushed from Indiana to the East Coast in 9 hours, with wind gusts topping 90 mph. Apparently, a hurricane that isn't really a hurricane is called a "derecho." Who knew? The winds snapped foot-thick trees in our backyard like toothpicks.
The first six months of this year have been the warmest first half ever in the United States, but the latest heat waves and climate disasters shouldn't be catching us by surprise. Since the year 2000, we have witnessed nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks global surface temperatures. Insurance companies, which have identified the damage we are doing to our climate as a growing cause of risk and losses, peg the damages from severe weather disasters in 2011 at three times as large as historic trends.
That's one of the reasons our warming planet has been creating historic droughts out West and dumping torrential rains in the Midwest.
The Media is Asleep at the Switch
For the moment, we are paying attention to the weatherman, and the weather is scary. But the media is still asleep at the switch when it comes to reporting the real story: What is causing this climate to unravel?
At the height of the heat wave in the Washington D.C. area that set a record for 11 consecutive days above 95 degrees, a local TV station asked me to come on the local news to talk. Then the kicker: It would be a debate with someone who believes climate change is a hoax. They hadn't figured out who that person would be yet, but they figured they would find someone. I declined. Pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is loading the dice and increasing the likelihood of more frequent and increasingly severe storms and heat waves. If we don't talk about the source of the problems, then we can't do anything about it.
Our scientific undersanding of global warming has come so far, but many in the media are pretending it is 1980 and that we are just getting started.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive review of scientific research and concluded more forcefully than ever in a landmark 2011 report that pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is destabilizing our climate. Here is how they put it, in scientific terms:
Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems... The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.
Clear enough? If not, here is a strong hint of what is going on: In the past 50 years, we have added one trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and natural gas (Source: U.S. Department of Energy). That's 1,000,000,000,000 tons. Each ton of pollution is roughly the size of a hot-air balloon. Think of a million hot air balloons. Now repeat one million times.
So What Can We Do?
We can't do anything about yesterday's weather, but we need to be responsible stewards of the world we shape for our kids and future generations. With sufficient determination, we have opportunity to rapidly accelerate the switch away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar -- energy sources that don't pollute and don't run out. These homegrown energy sources create jobs installing and maintaining the technologies. America already has 2.7 million clean economy jobs building a healthier environment, and clean energy is one of the fastest growing sources of good paying jobs in the nation. In addition, we depend on America's great outdoors for 6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation industries, contributing $730 billion to the U.S. economy.
Wishful thinking won't make this happen. America has vast wind, solar and geothermal resources, and the affordability and efficiency of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar have been improving by leaps and bounds. But solar, wind and geothermal still account for less than three percent of U.S. electricity. The growth of these industries is being held back by the entrenched fossil fuel energy companies who are quite happy selling us coal, oil and natural gas at a cost to American families and businesses of nearly $3 billion every single day.
It's up to each of us to do what we can, but we won't get the change we need unless we hold accountable the politicians we elect. Congress continues to dole out billions of dollars to oil companies while vital tax credits for renewable energy are set to expire at the end of this year. And some members of Congress have become a one-trick pony on energy, claiming that the Keystone XL pipepine is an energy solution. In reality, the pipeline merely deepens our addiction to oil for decades to come and taps the dirtiest, most toxic form of oil yet: Canadian tar sands.
But there is one bright spot that could mark a turning point in whether we are getting serious about carbon pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed clean air standards to limit industrial carbon pollution from new power plants. Polluters are launching a fierce counterattack and spending lavishly on lobbying and campaign contributions. One thing you can do right now is to join the more than two million Americans who have written the Environmental Protection Agency to support their new carbon standards. More Americans have supported this rule than any other federal rule in history.
It's only a start, but standing up now for a better future is the right thing to do. And who knows? Perhaps we can get some wind at our backs to take us where we need to go.