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Wild Weather Creates Chances for Political Progress

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It's hard to keep up with the crazed weather. As I write, a heat wave has killed over 50 people in the Midwest and South, with temperatures reaching 112 degrees in Evening Shade, Arkansas. Torrential storms have flooded Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, and South Dakota. California has its second largest wildfire ever. Texas and Kansas are battening down for new storms, while still recovering from last month's floods, along with Oklahoma, which is now getting flooded again. A few weeks before, a massive rainstorm closed down the New York City subways. That doesn't count over 2,000 dead and millions displaced in India and Bangladesh floods, runaway forest fires in Greece, the hottest-ever temperature in Japan, or unprecedented melting of Arctic icecaps. Tomorrow the weather will ricochet off the charts someplace else.

This surge of weird weather offers a powerful warning. Placed in context, its lessons could also help us overcome the denial that's prevented the United States from taking action on global climate change. They could give courage to elected representatives who've wanted to act but have been hobbled by timidity. They could create a political opening to defeat prominent elected climate-change deniers whose seats used to seem unassailable and are running for reelection in hard-hit states. They could help the Democrats stand strong and call the Republican bluff when they threaten a filibuster or a Bush veto. As Samuel Johnson wrote, knowing you'll be hanged in two weeks concentrates one's mind wonderfully. What's happening to our weather just might foreshadow that hanging.

A few years ago, global warming felt remote to most Americans. Although they heard it debated, it didn't seem real. The media gave "equal time" to deniers and the most respected scientists. Now 84% of Americans view human activity as at least contributing to global climate change, and 70% demand greater government action. Responses have shifted in the wake of Katrina and the succession of local disasters; Gore's Inconvenient Truth; the international IPCC report and similar impeccably credentialed scientific studies; and the start of serious media coverage, from Parade and the AARP magazine to Vogue. Add the impact of so many ordinary citizens speaking out, and Americans are starting to link the disasters they're seeing around them with what's happening to the planet.

When people's communities are hit with exceptional floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, or runaway wildfires, or they see these events on TV, even conservatives who would have once treated them as random "acts of God" start recognizing their deeper roots. In a May 2006 poll of South Carolina hunters and fishermen, for instance, 68% agreed that global warming was an urgent problem requiring immediate action, and a similar number said they'd seen the immediate impact of climate change on local fish and wildlife. Even before this summer's parade of calamities, 75% of all Americans said recent weather had been stranger than usual

So our national frame on the weather is beginning to shift. Each new "natural disaster" now reinforces the sense that just maybe not all these disasters are so natural after all. And if we fail to seriously address their roots, similar ones or worse will dominate our future.

Of course global climate change doesn't cause every extreme weather event. And not all our fellow citizens are quite ready to act on the full enormity of the climate crisis, still resisting much of what needs to be done, such as increasing gas taxes. But most Americans want someone to do something, even if they're ambivalent about paying the costs. The more our warnings resonate with what people see around them, the more they can draw broader links, and the more the Exxon-funded denials ring hollow.

This situation expands political possibilities. While memory of this summer of disasters is still fresh, why not begin now to make a major issue of the rabid global climate change denial of Senators like Oklahoma's James Inhofe, Texas's John Cornyn, and Oregon's Gordon Smith. Inhofe, who's called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," has been considered to have a safe seat. But his approval rating, just after last November's election, was a lowly 46%, and Cornyn's 45%, both lower than just-defeated Virginia Senator George Allen. So they may already be more vulnerable than conventional wisdom suggests. Gordon Smith's race has long been forecast as tight. Instead of writing off the prime deniers as unbeatable, or dismissing global climate change as too complex to make an electoral difference, why not brand them with their stands, juxtaposing their dismissal of the crisis with images of flooded homes and farms?

If the opponents of these officials can really tie them to their words, and keep asking why they'd rather stick up for Exxon than act on this ultimate threat to our common security, who knows how the election could turn? That's particularly true given broader discontent over Iraq, health care, and Bush administration corruption. Defeating just one or two entrenched deniers will significantly strengthen the voices of those in both parties who genuinely want to take action. We might even begin approaching the European situation, where even conservative political leaders, like Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Tory David Cameron, view addressing global climate change as amont their highest priorities.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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