Effects of Climate Change Hit Home

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

More than 400,000 people are still without power in the Washington, D.C. area after one of the region’s most bizarre and damaging storms in history.

I am one of them.

The lights and air conditioning went out at my place around 10 p.m. three days ago, just as a half-dozen little girls were settling down in sleeping bags as part of my 7-year-old daughter’s sleepover birthday party. Cleanup from the storms that toppled 50-foot oak trees and ripped down power lines throughout my neighborhood will keep us without electricity perhaps for a week, we’re told, while the region continues to swelter in near 100-degree heat – about 10 degrees higher than average for this time of year and hovering around historical records.

Those of us in Washington, however, are lucky compared to the people of Colorado, where at least 350 families have lost their homes so far to the state’s worst wildfires on record. About 100,000 acres of some of our nation’s prettiest forests have already gone up in smoke, and the state is still on fire. 

The effects of climate change, once viewed as some far-off abstraction that could be denied or debated, are beginning to be felt here and now.

According to meteorologists, it is a historic record-setting heat wave in Washington that caused the powerful storm known as a “derecho” that left at least 18 people dead and our nation’s capital battered, bruised and sweltering in the dark.

Out in Colorado, climate change has led to drought, abnormally low snowfall and warmer winters. These events are far reaching: Warmer winters, for example, have resulted in an explosion in white pine bark beetles that kill trees and turn them in to ready-to-burn tinder.

There’s not always a direct link between weather disasters, a warming planet and the heat-trapping carbon emissions that have been rising since the advent of the Industrial Age and our dependence on burning fossil fuels.

But increasingly, there is a connection between climate change and extreme weather. Those who want to deny it – or irresponsibly try to convince the public that they too should deny it – should do some research and some reading before they turn their heads the other way.

As the Washington Post puts it in a piece about the Colorado fires:

Lightning and suspected arson ignited them four weeks ago, but scientists and federal officials say the table was set by a culprit that will probably contribute to bigger and more frequent wildfires for years to come: climate change.

And then there’s this from the Atlantic, which asks the prescient question, “Is the Colorado Wildfire the Future Norm?”

As UC-Berkeley fire ecologist Max Moritz puts it in the Atlantic piece, the Colorado fire features "a lot of the characteristics we would expect under climate change," including plentiful, dry fuel as a result of low precipitation.

Experts are still analyzing the storm that slammed into Washington. But just like the equally bizarre blizzards that greeted me with a record six feet of snow upon my arrival to Washington in 2010, it’s clear, as you can read in this piece, that global warming plays a role in severe weather.

Think the Washington storms and Colorado wildfires are isolated incidents? Talk to the people still recovering from tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. or Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf of Mexico or the 2011 Mississippi River floods that killed nearly 400 people.

Or look at your own area, on this extreme weather map produced by NRDC. In 2011, there were 3,251 monthly weather records shattered by extreme events across the United States.

Still, there are deniers.

One of them is my mother-in-law, who is stuck in a Lancaster, Penn. hotel with me right now while we’re waiting for the power and the air conditioning to come back on at my home outside Washington. She and my sister-in-law were in town to celebrate my daughter’s birthday when the big storm hit.

My mother-in-law doesn’t think that climate change has anything to do with the wildfires in the west or the storms in the east. The Colorado fires, she says, are “God’s way of clearing out the forests.”

Maybe so.

But other God-fearing folks, myself included, also believe what members of the Evangelical Environmental Network believe, which is that it’s not God, but a warming planet caused by what we have done to it, that is resulting in fires, floods and severe weather that is hurting all of us.

There will always be those who deny that climate change is happening. And, unfortunately, there will always be those who say we don’t need to do something about it, because it’s too hard, because it impacts profits or because it’s not politically advantageous.

But it looks like we can expect that there will always be those affected by climate change, too.

Whether they believe it or not.

(Photo courtesy NOAA)