A winter season that has thus far been defined by a record number of snowless days and unseasonably warm temperatures has experts, advocates and some of Illinois’ newly-elected congressional lawmakers raising concerns over the kind of impact such conditions will ultimately have on the environment.
At 320 days, Chicago broke a 72-year record last week for the consecutive number of days without an inch of snowfall, the impact of which has already resulted in record low water levels in Lake Michigan and parts of the Mississippi River, according to Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Josh Mogerman.
“There’s a new normal, and we have to start being cognizant of the change going on around us,” Mogerman said. “There are things going on around us right now in this moment that are really clear and clarion calls for paying attention and making clear that climate change has already begun and we need to address it.”
Mogerman said the unusual weather the area has experienced over the last two winters is part of a trend that has seen temperatures steadily rise over the past decade.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States with an average temperature of 55.3 degrees, a full degree higher than the previous record set in 1988.
In Illinois, the lack of snowfall is a continuation of the drought-like conditions experienced throughout much of last year, which caused a significant dip in the state’s corn crop. In its latest report released last week, the USDA’s Drought Monitor designated much of Illinois as being under “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought” conditions.
“I believe that global warming is dangerous and real, and that at least half of currently observed global warming trends can be attributed to human actions,” U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-11) said. “The details of exactly how the Earth’s convective currents and weather patterns respond to these warming trends are difficult to calculate.”
While some of these changes in weather can be attributed to natural occurrences, findings from the federal government’s recently released National Climate Assessment appear to validate Foster’s claim regarding the role human intervention has played in climate change.
“It’s kind of frustrating that we have this evidence or at least weather that is consistent with the predictions of global warming happening and people aren’t really making the link,” said Max Muller, program director for Environment Illinois. “Global warming doesn’t just mean rising average temperature, it also means greater variability and greater extreme type of weather.”
Muller said findings from an Environment Illinois report released last April projected the number of extreme weather events to increase if global warming continued at its current rate.
A similar conclusion was drawn in the government’s climate assessment, which found that some of the adverse effects of climate change were occurring now, and if continued, would be “disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future.”
“I think the extreme weather events we are seeing around the globe, with increasing frequency, and tragically increasing negative consequence, clearly demonstrate the real and present danger of climate change,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-10). “While the causes and effects of climate change are long-term in nature, we can, and should be taking current action to mediate these potentially harmful effects.”
The potential danger in delaying action to address climate change was the focus of a recent U.K. study, which found that by implementing strong policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, it would give the planet a 50 percent chance of staying below a two-degree temperature rise by 2100. Doing so would in turn lower the adverse effects of climate change – such as heat waves, floods and droughts – by 20 percent to 65 percent, according to the report.
Despite the warnings, lawmakers and the White House have yet to put forth a comprehensive plan that addresses the problem. Attempts thus far have been met with resistance by special interest groups and their congressional allies, who have argued that taking action now would be detrimental to an economy still in recovery.
“Action on this issue is imperative,” Foster said. “And since the emission of greenhouse gas is a worldwide problem, the most effective thing that we can do is to develop and deploy the technology to show the world that this problem can be solved in a cost-effective manner.”
The Obama administration has managed to make some strides toward implementing policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases. Last August, President Obama established new EPA rules for newly-built automobiles set to begin in 2017 that increases the average fuel economy rating for a fleet of cars to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
Even still, there have been setbacks, such as last summer when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would have required coal-fired power plants in 28 states to reduce their emissions.
Muller said recent weather patterns should serve as compelling proof for the need to make climate change a higher priority.
“One of the frustrating things is the lack of conversation we’ve been having about this in the national policy arena,” Muller said. “We really need leaders in Congress and President Obama to make climate change an issue and start making these policies happen.”
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh