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Climate Science Makes an 11th-Hour Comeback in 2012

Climate change was a politically taboo subject during nearly all of 2012. What a difference a superstorm makes.

Dec 28, 2012
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Bloomberg Businessweek's magazine cover on Nov. 1, following superstorm Sandy

This was the year climate change vanished from the political agendaand then suddenly reappeared, after Hurricane Sandy shook the country.

It was just a few years ago that Pres. Obama flew to Copenhagen to rescue faltering climate treaty talks amid bipartisan calls for global warming action. But in 2012, there wasn't a single Congressional proposal or hearing on climate legislation. Neither was there mention of climate change on the presidential campaign trail, or in the debates for the first time in decades.

In the rare instances that climate change surfaced in national discussions, politicians were fixated on the one aspect of warming scientists aren't debating: whether it's occurring. 

Republican-affiliated climate researchers told InsideClimate News that attempts to educate their party leaders on the science were rebuffed. Meanwhile, many U.S. scientists fended off attacks of global warming skeptics, while Canadian scientists had to deal with budget cuts and muzzling by the government.

Amid the silence and skepticism, the Earth sent its own message.

Month after month, heat records fell, with 2012 expected to be the the hottest on record for the contiguous 48 states. Nearly half the nation was in extreme drought for much of this year. Wildfires consumed more than 9 million acres across the nation, devouring 50 percent more land than the 10-year average. Summer sea ice extent and volume in the Arctic reached record lows, and glacial melt in Greenland was reported to have increased five-fold since the mid-1990s.

Then Hurricane Sandy hit, one week before Election Day.

A 9-foot storm surge fueled by 70-mile-per-hour winds engulfed the East Coast. Sections of New York City, the epicenter of the nation's financial industry, disappeared underwater, creating a picture that looked eerily similar to predictions made five years ago of future global warming. The total price tag for Sandy could be $50 billion.

Climate scientists and environmental groups moved quickly to link warming ocean temperatures and rising seas with extreme storms like Sandy.

While most media reports hedged on whether climate change was to blame, Bloomberg Businessweek brazenly announced on a bright red cover, "It's Global Warming, Stupid."

At the same time, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a surprise announcement and endorsed Obama for president, citing the storm and climate change. "The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast—in lost lives, lost homes and lost business—brought the stakes of next Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief," he wrote in an editorial.

In his comments thanking Mayor Bloomberg, Obama broke his campaign silence on the issue. "Climate change is a threat to our children's future, and we owe it to them to do something about it," he said.

Now, after his victory and the defeat of several climate skeptics in Congressand amid growing public awareness of climate scienceenvironmentalists say Obama has an opening to transform the debate on global warming in his second term. 

In his Time magazine "Person of the Year" interview, Obama said climate change would be one of three major priorities. But the interview took place two days before the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The president is now believed to be undecided over what to prioritize among gun control, the economy, immigration, energy and climate change.

Some Congressional leaders are already acting on calls for action. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, announced earlier this month that Senate Democrats, along with any interested Republicans, would convene weekly to discuss federal climate legislation when Congress returns in January.

"People are coming up to me, they really want to get into [climate action]," Boxer told reporters. "I think Sandy changed a lot of minds."

Participants will also receive weekly briefings on the latest climate science, Boxer said.

Scientific research dating back to 2007 is now being synthesized by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and will be released as a mega-report next September. 

According to a draft of the report leaked online earlier this month, the IPCCwhich is known to be conservative in its conclusionswill use stronger language to convey the rising human influence on climate. The draft said it's "extremely likely" (95 percent certain) that human activities caused more than half of the increase in global average temperatures since the 1950s. The report also predicted sea ice-free summers in the Arctic by 2100, greater sea level rise than previous estimates and an increase in the intensity of tropical storms like Sandy.

"Many aspects of climate change will persist for centuries even if concentrations of greenhouse gases are stabilized," the report said. "This represents a substantial multi-century commitment created by human activities today."

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