The United States has just experienced one of the most costly weather events in our history, Hurricane Harvey. As I write this, Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic, has just laid waste to Florida, and two more hurricanes are lined up right behind Irma. The same weekend that Harvey was pounding the Gulf, a monsoon halfway around the globe killed 1,200 people and drove millions from their homes in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
Throughout the months of July and August, a deadly heat wave dubbed “Lucifer” descended on southern Europe, with heat and humidity indexes reaching the equivalent of 131 degrees Fahrenheit. Hundreds of wildfires in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France and Albania have been burning for weeks. Never-before-seen wildfires have broken out in Greenland, 80 percent of which is covered with ice, although that percentage is rapidly falling.
Record-breaking temperatures and drought have scorched the West. A few days ago the temperature in San Francisco was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, shattering the city’s all-time record. Salt Lake has had record-breaking heat all summer, and has been having the worst air pollution of the season, because our airshed has been overwhelmed by wildfires in California, Montana, Oregon and British Columbia, including the largest fire ever in the Los Angeles Basin, and a few in our own backyard. The wildfire season in the West is now 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s.
In North Dakota and Montana, the wheat belt of the country, farmers’ harvests are being decimated by a "flash drought," a term coined to describe extreme temperatures and evaporation combined with several weeks of no rain.
Worldwide, 16 of the 17 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000. Until recently it has been difficult to prove that global warming played a role in specific weather events. Not anymore. Using a variety of methodologies, more and more studies have confirmed that extreme weather is part of the overall picture of global warming. One new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that the human-caused climate crisis “substantially increases the likelihood of these record warm events occurring in the first place, and also made them more severe than they otherwise would have been, in more than 80 percent of the observed world.” The study also found that droughts and floods were similarly connected to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The Defense Department, under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, recognizes that the climate crisis will provoke unprecedented international conflict and refugee crises, representing a serious national security threat. The business community understands the issue as well. Schroders, a leading British global investment firm with total assets of over $542 billion, warned its clients that at current consumption rates of fossil fuels, the planet will warm nearly 14 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. That will be a world that is truly unlivable and an economy in complete free fall, even in Utah.
Climate change is provoking a precipitous decline in wildlife throughout the world. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that up to 50 percent of individual animals have been lost in just the last few decades. The authors of a recent landmark study also published in PNAS described wildlife losses this way: “It is a frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” They concluded, “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”
Last week, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that warning people about Hurricane Irma was all part of a liberal conspiracy. The current occupant of the White House, his Cabinet and much of Congress are either in denial or actively working to subvert previous government attempts to address the climate crisis. But with each passing year, if not each passing week, it is clear that a dangerous future is not an obscure, distant, theoretical problem that our children and grandchildren will be forced to deal with. It is already here and with a fury. We are staring into the “eye” of a frightening new world, and those who could actually protect us from ourselves have their own eyes tightly shut.
Dr. Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a member of the radiation and health committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The opinions expressed are his own and not an official position of UCS or PSR.