06/14/2010 11:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Record Flooding is Pearl Harbor Moment for Climate Change

It's been said it will take a Pearl Harbor-type event for America to get serious about addressing climate change. Well, the bombs are falling, but Congress hasn't declared war on carbon-dioxide.

I'm not talking about the uncontrolled gusher in the Gulf of Mexico that has many people re-evaluating our dependence on fossil fuels. I'm referring to extreme weather events happening throughout the nation involving record rainfall that causes devastating floods. These incidents come as no surprise to climate scientists, who say that warming global temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold and discharge greater amounts of water.

In the pre-dawn hours on Friday, approximately 300 campers in a remote Arkansas valley awoke when water began lapping at their tents. The Little Missouri River, normally 3 feet high, rose to 23 feet in a matter of hours, the result of torrential rainfall. At least 19 people were killed, two dozen were hospitalized, 60 were rescued and about 70 were reported missing. The New York Times reported that "state officials said they could not recall so destructive a flash flood in recent Arkansas history."

The tragedy at the campground is far from a freak event. It follows a pattern of similar never-seen-before downpours that have wreaked havoc from North Dakota to Rhode Island.

In case you missed the catastrophes that should be mobilizing our nation for an all-out assault on climate change, let me recap:

  • In late March of 2009, the Red River crested above 40 feet at Fargo, N.D., where flood stage is 18 feet. The flooding there prompted President Obama to issue this warning: "If you look at the flooding that's going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, 'If you see an increase of 2 degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?' that indicates the degree to which we have to take this seriously."
  • In late September of 2009, 20 inches of rain fell in a day and a half in the Atlanta area, resulting in flooding that killed nine people. About 2,000 people in Austell, Ga., lost their homes or sustained major damage. Water there reached the second floor of many houses, but flooding in Austell is so rare that only 60 flood insurance policies were in force on properties there.
  • In early spring, the Pawtuxet River crested at historic levels, 13 feet above flood stage. More than 2,500 businesses and homes had to be evacuated. As USAToday reported, "Flood levels not seen in Rhode Island since record-keeping began in the 1870s have damaged sewage treatment plants, flooded industrial parks and created an environmental catastrophe."
  • In Nashville, residents are still recovering from flooding caused by 13 inches of rain that fell on May 1st and 2nd. The stage of the Grand Ole Opry was under water. Damage estimates now exceed $2 billion.
  • Just days before the Arkansas flood, 12 inches of rain inundated parts of central Texas causing flash floods that wrapped school buses -- thankfully empty -- around trees. Authorities were called for 89 high-water rescues.

I asked leading climate scientist Dr. James Hansen if the increasing frequency of severe weather events can be attributed to climate change.

"We know with certainty that the extremes of the hydrologic cycle increase as the planet becomes warmer," Hansen responded. "When we say 'you cannot blame an individual event on global warming,' that should not be taken as a lack of confidence in our understanding about the effect of warming on extremes. The increased water vapor in the air (and it increases rapidly with increased temperature) not only yields heavier rainfall events -- it also provides fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat, including thunderstorms, tornadoes and tropical storms -- so the strongest storms will be stronger. Again, don't blame a single storm on global warming, but look at the statistics -- 100-year floods will occur more often than one per century, 500-year storms will become more frequent, etc."

Hansen, author of the prophetic Storms of My Grandchildren, is unimpressed with the measures currently under discussion in Congress to curtail climate change. At an Earth Day rally in Washington, he unveiled his own proposal, "The People's Climate Stewardship Act." It would impose a steadily-increasing fee on carbon at the source -well, mine, port of entry - so that clean energy becomes competitive with fossil fuels within a decade. Revenue from those fees would be returned to all Americans to offset higher energy costs.

Political leaders must start to connect the dots between these catastrophic floods and our failure to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The longer we wait to address the problem, the more frequent these horrific disasters will become.

We have two choices: Move away from fossil fuels, or move to higher ground.