This editorial appeared in the Nov. 26, 2018, edition of the Chicago Tribune:
Did the autumn blizzard that snarled Monday's commute send a message on climate change? Deniers likely took comfort. As President Donald Trump smugly tweeted last week when he saw a wintery forecast: "Whatever happened to Global Warming?"
For the rest of us, though, who accept the science, this storm — one of the worst November storms to hit the Chicago area — was a reminder: Weather extremes are costly and dangerous. Prepare for more.
Certainly one snowfall was neither proof of climate change nor a rebuttal; it was an individual event and not unprecedented. But look at Monday's damage from downed power lines and trees — the lost productivity and general inconvenience. Think about how unusual it was to contend with as much as a foot of snow on Nov. 26. Then imagine the worldwide impacts of such intensified weather phenomena as melting snow caps, pelting rains, catastrophic heat waves. That's the troubling future, unless humans take aggressive action to clean the atmosphere of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
On Friday, the federal government released a devastating scientific report anticipating the long-term effects of global warming to the United States. It makes for frightening reading by seeming to turn the world upside-down. Rising seas could drive millions of Americans inland. Decreases in oxygen levels in the oceans will kill coral reefs and deplete fishing catches. But warmer winters will expand the territory of bark beetles, which will harm trees. Severe weather will cause bridges, roads and rails to crumble. Forests will burn. Water shortages in the West will intensify. Phoenix could suffer through 90 days a year of 110-degree heat (versus 10 such days a year of extreme heat recently).
For the Midwest, the report warns that sopping rains will damage crops, then heat waves will fry them. Humid conditions will spur the growth of pests and pathogens that will degrade the quality of stored corn or soybeans. Before mid-century, the report says, Midwest agricultural productivity will slip back to levels of the 1980s.
The authors pull no punches on the existence of climate change. The global average temperature increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit from 1901 to 2016. There is no credible natural explanation.
"The evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause," the report says.
With the science settled, this report — required by Congress — focused on the long-term impacts, including the economic toll. Unless steps are taken to mitigate warming, climate change could cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year: losses from the agricultural sector, tourism, the reduced efficiency of power generation, damage to infrastructure and more.
It's a travesty — as well as an oddity — that Trump aligns himself with the minority of doubters on climate change. His interest in downplaying the risks no doubt relates to his commitment to freeing energy and manufacturing companies of tough environmental regulations in order to encourage job growth. Yet the report argues persuasively that Trump would get burned by his own thinking in the long run: The economy will decline if temperatures continue to rise.
Maybe the president will wake up to the threat. Otherwise, members of Congress can take the lead to re-establish priorities that include reducing carbon emissions from coal plants and vehicles. The public also has an important say — as voters, yes, but also as consumers who can choose environmentally friendly products and therefore push companies to act.
As Gary Yohe, an economics and environment expert at Wesleyan University, told the Washington Post, "We have wasted 15 years of response time. If we waste another five years of response time, the story gets worse."
Or, to think more positively: It's not too late to act.