The New York Times‘s Justin Gillis reported over the weekend on the extreme weather conditions seen in the United States in 2011. Whereas a typical year features three or four weather disasters with costs exceeding $1 billion each, this year has seen 12 — and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “has not finished counting.”
Many thought 2010 was unusually brutal, and might prove to be an aberration, but 2011 turned out to be worse.
Weather Underground co-founder Jeffrey Masters said, “I’ve been a meteorologist 30 years and never seen a year that comes close to matching 2011 for the number of astounding, extreme weather events. Looking back in the historical record, which goes back to the late 1800s, I can’t find anything that compares, either.”
Not surprisingly, a growing number of Americans want to get a better sense of why and how this is happening, and the extent to which climate change and human activity are playing a role. For many this is not simply a matter of idle curiosity — as the Washington Post reported last month, “Farmers are wondering when to plant. Urban planners want to know whether groundwater will stop flowing under subdivisions. Insurance companies need climate data to help them set rates.”
The technology and research tools exist to help answer many of the lingering questions, including those surrounding the possible relationship between a warming planet and tornadoes and hurricanes. Congressional Republicans, however, are standing in the way.
[D]oing this on a regular basis would probably require new personnel spread across several research teams, along with a strong push by the federal government, which tends to be the major source of financing and direction for climate and weather research. Yet Washington is essentially frozen on the subject of climate change.
This year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it. The idea had originated in the Bush administration, was strongly endorsed by an outside review panel and would have cost no extra money. But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a “propaganda” arm on climate.
In an interview, Jane Lubchenco, the director of NOAA, rejected that claim and said her agency had been deluged with information requests regarding future climate risks. “It’s truly unfortunate that we are not allowed to become more effective and efficient in delivering that information,” she said.
NOAA does finance research to understand the causes of weather extremes, as do the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. But with the strains on the federal budget, Dr. Lubchenco said, “it’s going to be more and more challenging to devote resources to many of our research programs.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that Republicans are not only blocking investments in the research; they’re also blocking access to the research. NOAA wanted to create a National Climate Service along the lines of the National Weather Service. The price tag for taxpayers? Literally nothing.
Republicans still refused, prohibiting NOAA from acting.
History, like our environmental conditions, will not be kind.