Extreme weather makes us pay attention to climate


This seems to be one of those times of the year when the weather forces us to pay it some special attention. It's hurricane season, for one, and as I wrote this Irene was threatening the Caribbean and the U.S. mid-Atlantic region. Here in the low desert of Arizona we're enduring what is likely to be the hottest August on record, which really means something to those of us accustomed to the normal late-summer fare of 105-ish degree readings. Still, 105 would be a welcome break from a month with temperatures mostly stuck above 110; the predictions have recently been for temperatures even above that. Yuck.

When it's this hot, you don't hear much from our local climate change deniers, who in the winter time are quick to make smug pronouncements such as "so much for global warming!" when temperatures dip below the 60s. It is impossible to convince them that climate change involves long-term world-wide shifts, such as, say, successive years of aggregate higher highs or lower lows or fiercer storms; all they seem to be interested in is the snap diagnosis, the superficial contradiction. 

Unfortunately, they would likely also scoff at last year's Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force: Recommended Actions In Support of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy [PDF] , which I came across while searching the Arizona Department of Health Services' website for regional extreme heat response plans (which, commendably, do exist [PDF]). You see, while deniers everywhere are busy dredging up old coverage of "climate-gate" and trying to censor public school science teachers, the government types who actually have to deal with the effects of radical weather are staking out a coordinated, nationwide plan to link together existing services and create others where there is need. 

I was pleased to find it, and wish I had earlier. True, lengthy documents from task forces, blue ribbon committees, etc., generally deserve to be taken with a grain of salt, but I find it encouraging that the progress report addresses both large-scale mitigation efforts (such as reducing overall emission of greenhouse gases) and human-scale adaptation scenarios. As with most environmental crises, climate change will likely have its most devastating effects among the young, old, disabled, and underprivileged citizens.  Among the top "guiding principles for adaptation" is this:

"Prioritize the Most Vulnerable: Adaptation plans should prioritize helping people, places and
infrastructure that are most vulnerable to climate impacts and be designed and implemented with meaningful involvement from all parts of society."

This touched a nerve for me, because the original intent of my search was to find out what plans were in place to help the homeless and others deal with our current searing, deadly heat.  According to Arizona DHS, locally "nearly 800 people are admitted to hospitals because of heat related illnesses" each year, many of whom cannot escape it due to poverty, illness, or other barriers. While local or private organizations and individuals do their part, these efforts are piecemeal at best. Climate change deniers and others can keep their heads in the sand about the causes of extreme weather or other natural disasters, or debate the abstract-seeming ramifications of future energy policy. But when it's 116 during the day and 95 at night and getting hotter almost every year, real people who can't get shelter are going to continue to sicken and die without better coordinated efforts across the entire spectrum of society. Kudos to the Obama administration for stepping up to this challenge.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

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