By Michelle Werts

The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana
The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana. Credit: Kevin Gould/NOAA

According to the National Climatic Data Center, June 2011-May 2012 was the warmest 12-month period in the U.S. since recordkeeping began more than a century ago. Heat waves across the U.S. over the last few weeks have helped fuel record-setting fires and major storms like the derecho that left millions of people without power across the East. But, yet, in a new poll released this week by The Washington Post-Stanford University, climate change is no longer Americans’ top environmental concern. Curious.

The poll, conducted just days prior to the onslaught of extreme heat and storms in late June, reveals that only 18 percent of Americans rate climate change as their primary environmental concern, compared to 33 percent in 2007. Today, the top concerns at 29 percent are water and air pollution. So why this shift despite the U.S. experiencing two of the warmest winters and springs on record this year?

According to some of the interviews in The Washington Post report, it might boil down to lip service. In 2007, the UN had just released a major climate report and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was making the rounds. In 2012, political headlines have been dominated by health care, the economy and elections. As the Post relates:

“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”

For those of us in the environmental community who think about climate change quite frequently, this disconnect between the reality of the climate-change situation and the perception of its importance is a bit alarming.

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012
A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012. Credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force

While scientists are loath to connect all extremes in heat and weather directly to climate change, they are willing to point to the recent, devastating weather events as prime examples of what’s to come with climate change. As University of Arizona’s Jonathan Overpeck tells the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

Borenstein’s story goes on to reveal some alarming data:

  • 40,000 hot temperature records have been set in the U.S. since January 1, 2012 — only 6,000 cold weather ones.
  • Throughout the 1900s, hot and cold temperature records fell evenly. In the 2000s, the ratio is 3:1 in favor of hot. In 2012, that has spiked to 7:1.
  • More than 2.1 million acres have burned in 2012 wildfires.
  • Two-thirds of the country is currently experiencing drought conditions.

It appears that even if we humans aren’t talking about climate change, Mother Nature is doing some speaking of her own. Let’s start talking back and taking action by encouraging legislation and funding for programs and initiatives that will aid the environment. Our fate and nature’s are intertwined, so we must look out for each other.