Bonnie Erbe - Sandy drives home climate-change concerns

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Having just survived Frankenstorm Sandy and watched its phenomenal, record-breaking destruction, I had one recurring thought: How can so many Americans still refuse to believe in manmade climate change?

Have we ever witnessed a storm of this magnitude, depth or breadth, one that has left behind such a huge swatch of devastation? No.

So, you'd think that, at some point, ideology would give way to rationality and reality, right? Not really. The Internet abounds with blogs and reports debunking the so-called myth of climate change.

Part of the problem is that even scientists who believe fully in climate change tend to pussyfoot around stating categorically that it exists. They almost never attribute one weather event to climate change, although they will cite rising sea temperatures as a contributing factor.

A paper by Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "Framing the Way to Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change," helps bridge the communication gap between climatologists and mere mortals such as me.

In the paper, published online in March, he wrote: "... (N)o events are 'caused by climate change' or global warming, but all events have a contribution. In reality, the wrong question is being asked: The question is poorly posed and has no satisfactory answer. The answer is that all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be."

Aha! So there we have it. A solid statement issued by a renowned scientist should confirm, even to the skeptics among us, that Sandy was at least intensified by rising sea temperatures.

The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media notes that much of the media interest in connecting severe weather events with climate change first surfaced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That created another storm within the scientific community as to whether climatologists should start trying to connect the two.

Since then, other bizarre and precedent-setting weather patterns have stoked similar interest in making the connection.

They include the 2010 Russian heat wave, the spate of deadly tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest in 2011, and the unseasonably warm weather that blanketed large portions of the U.S. last March. To those, I would add the scalding summer that East Coast and mid-Atlantic residents suffered through this year.

Still, our skeptics labor on. Scientific American reports: "Upwards of 800 skeptics (most of whom are not scientists) took part in the second annual International Conference on Climate Change -- sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank -- in March 2009. ... Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist Richard Lindzen told the gathering that 'there is no substantive basis for predictions of sizeable global warming due to observed increases in minor greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons.'"

That thinking continues in a variety of outlets.

The question of why so many Americans continue to deny a link between human activity, the creation of massive pollution and climate change is an important one. It's central to American politics, yet it was barely mentioned during this political season.

Democrats, who have remained fairly silent on the issue for fear of alienating conservatives (whom they have already alienated, so why bother?), need to start speaking.

President Barack Obama has supported funding for renewable energy sources, and we need more of that. He temporarily stopped construction on the northern leg of the Keystone pipeline, but he needs to halt it permanently. And he needs to figure out how to get climate-change naysayers on board.

After all, how many more repeats of Sandy, Katrina and Snowmageddon can we take?

(Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS' "To the Contrary," writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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